Though requiring only four words, Audrey still thought there might be a way to describe herself more succinctly. She worked at it as she would a crossword, and liked the challenge of using the fewest possible, even though the ten-dollar cost of the ad included up to fifty words, with the first line BOLD at no extra charge. Were she still in Kansas City, still trying to salvage a life for herself and her son from the ruin of her marriage and the rank recriminations of a well- known husband who couldn’t stay faithful yet wouldn’t accept the blame, she might have done it to conceal her identity. But she was in O’Farrell now, a town she had picked as much for its mild climate and moderate cost of living as for its location near the California coast, as far west as she could drive on her dwindling reserves of cash and courage.
The O’Farrell Times assigned, for the purposes of discretion, a unique drawer number to all lonely-hearts ads, and for that same ten dollars would forward, via US Post, up to five responses to the address she supplied—the duplex down on Johnson Avenue where she and five-year-old Larry had been living since she unpacked the car. Her drawer number, when she saw the ad appear in Tuesday’s paper, was sixty-three. She searched her memory for a connection that might make it seem like a lucky number but couldn’t come up with one.
The following Monday she received her first responses, sent together in a manila envelope that bore the O’Farrell Times return address. There were three unopened envelopes inside, each addressed to Drawer 63. She laid them, unopened, on the small dinette table she used for an office desk between meals. One was from a fancy letter-writing set, like those she had seen for sale at Ott’s Stationery down on Main Street. The second was greeting card size, and would, she thought, almost certainly have something from Hallmark inside. The third was a plain white business envelope, the exact size she used for sending invoices to the few customers she had taken on since arriving in town.
She opened it first.
Single, no children, plumber.
That was all it said, carefully handwritten in fountain pen on a sheet of plain white, though slightly dirt-smudged, typing paper.
And below that, a phone number.
She tossed the other two, unopened, into the trash and picked up the phone.
Arthur Abrahams had not written a letter to a woman since his first hitch in the navy, when the war in the Pacific was still a toss-up, and the undisputed prettiest girl in O’Farrell was still his sweetheart. He knew that this didn’t count as a letter. Just four words. And he hadn’t written to a woman, but to a drawer. Drawer 63.
He was so rusty that he’d forgotten to add a return address.
Forgotten…right, he said to himself, knowing full well that it wasn’t forgetfulness, but not sure what it was. Shyness? There was no room for that in a plumber’s toolkit or his life. In the ten years since he mustered out and opened up shop, he had come to understand that plumbers were like priests, accorded respectful detachment in public, but called upon to absolve all manner of transgressions whether behind the confessional screen or the bathroom door. When it came to secret sins, unspeakable or unflushable, they all eventually stopped up the pipes. It often took a strong stomach, not to mention considerable discretion, to get everything flowing as it should, and keep customers or parishioners coming back when they needed help again.
No, it wasn’t shyness. It was fear. Fear that he wouldn’t get an answer. Fear that he would. He knew—because he’d watched others do it—that most people find a way to bounce back from a broken heart. He hadn’t. It started when he came home to find his girl and a friend he’d left behind had found each other while he was gone.
He didn’t rebound, he re-upped.
When he finally did return, he dated occasionally—girls he had known in high school who hadn’t yet found husbands—but their numbers were few and growing fewer. The time they spent together, though not without its benefits, was odd. While young enough to yearn for what could have been, they were old enough to realize what was, and probably would be. He knew how familiarity could breed contempt because he’d occasionally been stuck with shipmates he couldn’t stand. It could also, he now understood, leach the mystery out of romance.
He had known these girls most of his life.
They had known him.
Would one of them have placed a lonely-hearts ad?
He hoped not. Divorced, One Child, Bookkeeper didn’t sound like any of the girls in town. But whether he knew her or not, he understood only too well that loneliness was no picnic, and he didn’t wish it on anyone, particularly someone he’d grown up with.
There weren’t many single, childless plumbers in O’Farrell either. None, in fact, but him. Leaving his return address off of his reply, when he thought about it, would not hide his identity from anyone who knew him, and would probably just perplex anyone who didn’t.
But he had included his phone number.
Maybe Drawer 63 would call.
“Abrahams Plumbing…how can I help you?” Arthur was not averse to conversation, but the telephone was his least favorite place to have one. And answering the phone, though his business depended on it, was always a mixed blessing, short on blessing. What started with How can I help you? would, as often as not, end with him elbow-deep in some indescribable guck, but with his checking account a little fuller.
“So…you are a plumber.” No introduction, though he detected a clear note of relief in the woman’s voice on the other end of the line, as if he had given the right answer to a question she hadn’t yet asked.
“Guilty as charged.” Clichés were as vital to a plumber as pipe wrenches, and his toolbox contained a wide selection of both. “How can I help you?”
“I understand you might be looking for a…bookkeeper?”
“Actually, I’m…wait.” He was not looking for a bookkeeper; old Mrs. Younger did just enough to keep him out of trouble with the IRS. “Are you…Drawer Sixty-three?”
“Guilty, Your Honor. I guess that makes two of us.”
They arranged to meet at The Pine Cone Restaurant the next day.
“How about coffee?” she offered, before he had a chance to suggest something more serious.
Larry was in kindergarten at O’Farrell Elementary, so the middle of the day was all hers. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the time.
Lunch was too much a ritual, too well-defined. There would be the greeting, probably awkward no matter what. Then the looking at menus, and the ordering, and the waiting for food. Then actually eating the food, probably without tasting it. And whether or not to have dessert, and deciding who would pay the check. And then, after all that time and bother, the real question. Would they see each other again? She could choke down a cup of coffee with anyone, but was not yet ready to face the eternity of a lunch date if Arthur Abrahams—they had exchanged names and the briefest of personal histories—turned out to be a homicidal maniac.
They set the meeting for 2 p.m.
“Lunch crowd will be cleared out by then,” he said, “so we won’t have to wait for a booth.”
She’d been in O’Farrell long enough to get the impression that no one ever waited for a booth at The Pine Cone, yet agreed without question.
This was his town. “Been here since I wasn’t much older than your boy,” he’d told her.
People knew who he was.
If he wanted fewer witnesses to whatever was about to happen, that was fine with her.
Khristos Pagonis was behind the Pine Cone’s long Formica counter by himself, his high school helper not due for an hour yet, when he saw the unfamiliar woman push through his heavy chrome and glass front door and plant her feet. He watched as she surveyed the place, deciding whether to stay or turn around and leave. Not bad, he thought, and glanced in the mirror behind his milkshake machines to make sure his chef’s hat was at exactly the proper angle, his apron straight, his mustache flat. The woman was raven-haired, just the way he liked them, medium height, shapely in her simple blouse and skirt. Not ridiculous like those blonde bimbos in the pictures. His mother told Khris that he could be in the pictures, another Gilbert Roland, she said.
But the closest he got was the O’Farrell theatre for an occasional matinee, if he had a part-time soda jerk he could trust not to burn the place down or give fountain drinks to all his freeloader friends.
“Kalispera…good afternoon.” He slipped into Greek, something he did when he was nervous, as he suddenly was. In spite of his mother’s confidence in him, his efforts with the ladies never ended well. “Please…sit anywhere.” He gestured toward the waiting restaurant, empty except for the two of them. Could this woman I have never seen before be here right now because it is empty, he considered, becoming more anxious. Is she here because she knows I’ll be alone? “May I start you with something to drink? Coffee perhaps? Or maybe I can tempt you,” in spite of his nerves he tried to look rakish, like Gilbert Roland, “with a surprising creation from my soda fountain?”
“Coffee, thanks.” When her eyes swung toward him—nice brown eyes, he thought—it was as though she was noticing him for the first time. Disappointed, but also relieved, he fetched a heavy cream-colored mug and saucer from the rack under the counter. He turned to the coffee urn and listened behind him as her muffled footfalls moved confidently across his black-and-white checkered linoleum floor.
“Hey, Khris…” He heard the door open, and a familiar voice this time. “I’ll take one of those too.”
“Arthur, my friend…did I call you?” He didn’t remember calling. Maybe his mother had, and she’d forgotten to tell him? “All the drains are draining, and the pipes are piping, so unless…” He turned to find his old schoolmate and plumber of choice standing across the counter from him, gesturing as discreetly as he could manage toward the woman who had now seated herself in a booth. “Oh…two cups. Got it. I’ll bring them right over.” He reached for a second mug and saucer.
“No…let me.” Though Khris did not know Arthur well—they were more acquaintances than friends, their interactions more professional than personal—he did know the look he saw on the plumber’s face. Terror, masquerading as confidence. Us bachelors got to help each other out, he thought. Who else is gonna?
“Of course, my friend.” He gave Arthur a knowing nod, and slid the coffee forward. If letting this poor fellow deliver it to the lovely, unidentified lady would make the next few minutes easier for him, he was glad to oblige.
Khris watched as the plumber, not a bad-looking guy even when dressed in his usual khakis, ferried the sloshing cups and saucers across the quiet restaurant. Too quiet, he thought, and switched on the radio perched on his back shelf. He tuned it to the big band station out of San Francisco. When the afterschool crowd came in, he’d let his helper switch it to rock and roll. Right now, Glenn Miller seemed better suited to the scene unfolding in his one occupied booth.
The plumber and the mystery woman did not know each other. That was obvious from the way they both sat, nearly motionless, as if any move might be the wrong one. Though he could not hear their words over “Tuxedo Junction,” and was glad he couldn’t, he could hear the tone of their voices. Arthur’s was tentative, hers deliberate, like her stance when she walked through the restaurant door. Khris was sure she was surveying the situation, making up her mind whether to stay or go.
He tried not to watch.
If it went the wrong way for Arthur, he did not want to be a witness.
There was plenty to busy himself with, straightening the salt and pepper shakers, filling the sugar dispensers, reloading the napkin holders. The song on the radio changed, “Moonglow,” from that movie Picnic. Khris had liked the movie. And Kim Novak, she was something. Not like those blonde bimbos. If that Kim Novak walked through my restaurant door right now, he daydreamed, like Arthur’s mystery lady…I wouldn’t just give her coffee. I’d give her my heart, right here on the spot.
And she’d probably turn up her nose.
But it is such a delightful nose!
When the song ended, he looked up to find that his restaurant was empty again, a dollar bill slid under each of the mostly full coffee cups.
And he saw, as the heavy glass and chrome door swung closed, the two of them walking out together.
She had her hand on his arm.
“How did you pick O’Farrell?” he asked. Not on that first date, when they left The Pine Cone and window-shopped on Main Street. Not on the second, when he drove her and her little boy, Larry, out to Occidental and they ate Italian, family style, at The Union Hotel. Larry slept in the car on the way back. Not on the third date, when she cooked him meat loaf in her little duplex down on Johnson Avenue, and the three of them played Go Fish after they cleared away the dishes. At bedtime she asked Larry if he’d like Arthur to read him Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Larry said thank you, he was a polite kid, but he wanted his mom to read to him instead.
It was on their fourth date, when—in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week while Larry was in school —they checked into a room at The El Rancho Hotel in Santa Rosa, her idea.
And after they made love for the first time.
“Do people actually pick the places they wind up?” She turned to face him on the bed and shifted the sheet higher on her chest, in spite of the intimacy they just shared. “I don’t think I’ve picked anything in my life. Have you?”
“I’ve made choices, sure, but…” He caught himself and laid his head on the pillow next to hers. “Wait a minute. You don’t strike me as somebody who doesn’t know exactly what she wants.”
“Made an impression, have I?”
“Then, take it from me…knowing and getting aren’t the same.”
“Were they…” he couldn’t believe he was asking, but also knew he would do anything not to disappoint this woman, “…just now…the same?”
“Oh…yeah.” No modesty in her voice, or her eyes.
“Then…” he was savoring a blush he made no attempt to hide, “…maybe this is your time to pick. Maybe O’Farrell is where you are supposed to be.”
“Do you believe in supposed to?” She was searching his face, and he could see that she wasn’t probing for the answer she wanted to hear, but for one that would tell her an essential truth about who he was.
“Destiny, you mean?” He sat up. Not to pull away from her—right then, he could not imagine ever wanting to be away from her—but to clear his head. Her question was serious, and it was hard to concentrate with her body so close. “I think maybe destiny has it backwards.” He was forming the thoughts as he spoke them. “It says that our lives are like a road trip, like the one you and Larry took getting here…and the route is all mapped out for us ahead of time.”
“Sure. Only…I don’t think we even open the glovebox or glance at that map until we arrive. If we like where we ended up, okay. We look back at all the roads we took and call it destiny. If we don’t like it, does that mean that we don’t havea destiny? Or did we just take a couple of wrong turns…and haven’t taken the right ones yet?”
She sat up next to him, the sheet still covering her breasts as if she also understood that they were traveling in important new territory, and the distraction of her skin risked pulling them back to where they had so recently been.
“Are we taking the right turn…you and me…right now?” From another woman, he knew this would have sounded like a plea for reassurance. From this one, it was her cutting to the heart of whatever might come next.
“It feels right.” He put his arm around her. “I don’t know if that’s enough, but I hope it is. Maybe you and Larry ending up in O’Farrell is fate. Maybe there’s no such thing. I don’t care what we call it. I just don’t want it to stop.”
“So…you’re saying that I should cancel that lonely-hearts ad?”
“You don’t, and I’ll burn the place down before they can run it again.”
She let the sheet fall.
They surrendered to their road.
One they would no longer be navigating alone.
Ed Davis is the author of the novella In All Things, which Kirkus Reviews called “…powerful; beautifully written, well-observed and effective.” He produced and directed the documentary Faces of Chidamoyo. His work is published in Gris-Gris, New English Review, The Penmen Review, and Rougarou. His novel, The Last Professional will be released by Artemesia Publishing in January of 2022, and his travel collection, Road Stories, has recently been an Amazon top ten best seller.