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Book 1 – Chapter 1 – With Your Monkey Wrench – Part 2

I counted myself lucky that I only had to walk uphill on the way home from Davis Square. A few cars blinded me while they drove slow, cruising to late-night parties with their speakers cranked. They wouldn’t find any street parking. I quickened my steps once I was off the main road. Most of the houses had lights on their first floor and music on the second. The lamp in front of my complex hadn’t been busted again, so I was fairly safe.

I unwound the tail onto my kitchen counter as soon as I had locked my apartment door. It was long enough to stretch from my hips to my ankles. I took out batteries from under the peas and chicken in my freezer and rubbed them warm between my palms. I popped them into the little pack one at a time. I had to know.

The family above me was watching an action show. Their speakers growled from an explosion while the tail convulsed like a fish tossed in a bucket. A few of the center joints were livelier than others. I grasped them, but they didn’t calm down. I doubt I would have acted differently if robot hands grabbed me during a panic attack. I detached the battery pack and the tail was still.

My shades were open in the living room, on the other side of the counter. I shut them before anyone passed in the street. The VCR clock reminded me that I should head to bed soon if I wanted to be at all conscious the next day. The tail was mine and I could unlock its secrets another night.

I had to tell someone, though. Della was my lover and my best friend. To keep her that way, I had promised never to discuss anything anthropomorphic with her. I had tried when we first dated. She understood people needed more words to explore themselves than male, female, black, white, rich or middle-class. But the moment I brought up coyotes, dragons and tigers, her brain seized up. Her tone switched to that soft pandering style kids learn from their Moms down south.

I wanted to tell Simon and even Trisha, but even more, I wanted to see their faces. That would have to wait until the weekend. I stared at my phone and the unblinking light of my answering machine, and ran down my list of whom else to call. I had made so many close friends in college, but the city was too expensive and the dating pool was too small. I had helped them load their moving vans and we promised to keep in touch. Only a quarter of their numbers still worked.

I remembered Jennifer’s was one of them. She had moved in with what’s-his-name in Chicago and I hadn’t had any news for her in months. She didn’t call me anymore but she always meant to. I dialed her number and spread myself out on the futon. We used to go on for hours.

“Hello? Oh, Cheryl. Hi.”

I swear her voice had dropped an octave. Nothing I did excited her anymore.

“Hey. I didn’t interrupt you from anything, did I?”

Her breath bounced off the mouthpiece as she hustled about her room. “No. I’m getting some paperwork ready for the lawyer. How are you doing?”

“What lawyer?”

“We might get kicked out of our condo. I didn’t tell you?”

“No, you didn’t. Wow. I’m so sorry.”

“I thought I told everyone. Yeah, Kevin’s already with him now. We’re meeting the head of the condo association tomorrow. The old fart’s retired and got nothing better to do than keep his place ‘clean.’”

I looked at my floor, which desperately needed vacuuming. “What does that mean?”

“It’s the same crap from the time the police stopped Kevin a few months ago. Remember that?”

“No.”

“I could have sworn I told you. He was in a pack of cars doing ninety, and the cops picked him out. You remember that frankincense mix we used to buy in the South End? We found a supplier who carries it here. Kevin worried the cops would think it was pot, so he tried to cover it. He must have freaked out the cop because they confiscated the whole batch and took him to the station. They let him go after he made a bunch of calls to his folks.”

“But he wasn’t charged?”

“No, but it was in the police log in the newspaper that he was stopped for drug possession. Not our newspaper; the one a couple counties over. The Herald something. Anyway, we got a package a couple days ago but the morons put the wrong address on it, so the bitch with the bandana downstairs got it. She looked up Kevin on the internet and found our apartment number in the police log. Then she told the head dick on us.”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah. Damn, I have to move. This isn’t a good time.”

“I can tell. I’ll call later.”

“Terrific. I never hear from you anymore.”

Click.

I had kept planning to fly out to see her someday, until that moment. I put the phone on the receiver and felt the air for drafts. I made myself some mac-and-cheese and I ate it off a plate. I listened to an old Go-Go’s mix while flipping through a New Yorker for the cartoons. I laid a spare towel under the tail. That night, it was enough to have it.


I spent three days meaning to get back to the tail. I came home, cooked, did some stretches, turned on the computer and suddenly it was bedtime. The tail stayed on its towel and I hadn’t bought any saline gel for its electrical connectors yet. I hadn’t picked up a harness to keep it on my waist. I wasn’t sure Allyson wouldn’t come busting down my door.

I had some fake fur from a sale at JoAnn’s Fabrics, which I moved out of my closet and into my living room. I waited until Thursday to summon the strength to sew a quick slip for the tail. I made a long red piece with a white tip at the end. I did not switch on the computer, which was just as well since Della called me in the early evening. She had to cancel our Friday night plans. She had been doing that more often. Her landlady needed her to baby-sit again, and with the deal she was getting on her room, she couldn’t say no. I couldn’t come over. Her landlady didn’t like strangers with her kids, and the kids had big mouths, eager to please their mom. Saturday was still on, though. I would come to see her around lunch.

It was our six month anniversary that Friday, and I had planned to do something special for her. I didn’t know what, but Harvard Square always had inspiration tucked away somewhere. Half a year ago, I had stopped by Olympus Bakery for my ritual weekend cookies and found a note in the bag asking what I was doing that weekend. She had seen me enough times and we had chatted before. I didn’t care that she was on the rebound.

Six months don’t seem like much, but when I’m first dating someone, seen them with bed hair and eye bags, and spent evenings snuggling without any urge for nookie, we deserve a medal for admitting we’re a couple. Her bakery shift didn’t let her off until six and so I planned to stop by before then. I’d give her something to remember me.

It had been winter for so long, when I took the escalator up from the station into Harvard Square I couldn’t recall the place in daylight. I was early and had time for the long route through the shops.

I funneled into the pack of office workers circling the block. The shadow of the Red Line’s entrance covered the girls and boys smoking behind it. They tossed “Lizard Lounge,” “The Machine” and other club names around, and I had half a mind to drag Della out kicking and screaming. She needed a dance more than a little rent.

Instead, I squinted at the snow-crusted stores for ideas for presents. I spotted some beautiful scarves which probably were priced a year’s salary above their maker’s. Wordsworth Books was close by and “The Da Vinci Code” had hooked Della on thrillers, but I had no sense of time in a bookstore and they didn’t have clocks up. If we had a Shoney’s near there, I could have picked her up a gift certificate. She would have liked that.

I pulled my gloves tighter to keep the wind from sneaking into my coat. It shook the scaffold over my head and I quickened my pace before it collapsed. I passed stores for electronics, music and Bahamas vacations. There was nothing she would love that she hadn’t seen on her way to work every day.

I stepped on the shoe of the man in front of me. I froze up, but he kept walking. I couldn’t tell when things would turn ugly.

I noticed a bucket in the window of a florist’s shop. It held a single lily tucked behind a chrysanthemum arrangement. With all the snowy brick and glass around me, it was neat to see something white indoors. I pressed my glove against the window and strained to read the price tag. No one buys lilies as gifts. They are so beautiful, and you can inhale their fragrance with a stuffed nose.

I decompressed inside and joined the line to the counter. The refrigerators hummed, and the colors were a little trippy. I swiped my lips with the awful cherry-flavored lipstick Della liked and winced on the first lick.

The bell rang behind me and more people came in. I ran my fingers through my hair and shook off the excess black strands. The floor was muddy enough; I doubted they’d mind.

“Next,” the florist called. “What can I help you find?” She was a local girl, about my size but thinner. She was haggard but she had all the cute parts of an Asian and European body mixed in. She leaned over a pad on a sheet of wrapping paper.

I was ready. “The one lily, please.”

She shook her head. “We’re out. Come back tomorrow.”

I swallowed. “There’s one in the window, behind the chrysanthemums.”

She held up her pencil, exasperated. “I already checked for a woman earlier. Ask if you want something else, or come tomorrow.”

I edged to the side of the little counter. “If you let me back there fast, I can get it for you.”

“No, I can’t help you. Next, please.”

Behind me, a clean-cut older man strode to her and gave me a wink. “I’ll take care of this,” he said and rested his massive hand on the register between her face and mine. My forehead reached his shoulder. His voice rode the edge of a shout. “Look, Cochise, don’t give this girl any more lip. If she says it’s back there, you go look.”

The florist’s lip quivered and she gripped her pencil. “I’m sorry, sir.”

His thin mouth slid out the words too eagerly. “Don’t you interrupt me,” he said, “Or her. Stop harassing the customers and turn your tail around. Check the window and bring her the flower. Is there a manager here?”

Pins and needles burrowed up my gut. The florist blinked at me but I couldn’t stop him. He would turn on me next, and tell me not to worry my pretty little cheeks now that he was in control.

“Didn’t used to sass like that,” he said, “Good service died in the sixties.”

The florist carried the lily in two hands and walked with such care, I wanted to run. The man let her wrap it in baby’s breath and tape the plant food to its base. She glared at me and flared her nostrils. I looked away and pretended to read the testimonials on the wall until she finished. She rang my purchase one button at a time. “They were on the ‘out of stock’ list,” she whispered to the cash register. The old man lumbered behind me.

I signed my name on the receipt when she put it down. “I should have asked for roses,” I said. “I bet they’re never on the list.” I tried to smile at her.

“Sometimes they are. Everybody wants roses,” she said and ripped off her copy. She cradled my lily in its cellophane. “Have a nice day.”

I accepted my flower and turned slowly for the door. A college boy with sunken eyes lowered his head and didn’t move forward in line with the old man. His face was red, and it wasn’t from the cold. I left as the man demanded the centerpiece he had ordered.

I thought I should have laughed, batted my eyes and explained how it wasn’t a bother. Maybe I should have called Simon, Trisha and everyone I knew to stand around the shop when he came out to stare at him.

Instead, I walked across the street and kept going.

The steam outside the bakery was so pungent with warm bread, I must have been starving. The sidewalks were clear, so I did not have to press myself against the window to watch the bakers pull the last cookie batch from the oven.

The front door swung out and Della gaped at me. She already had changed to her tan leather jacket and jeans. Her messy hair stuck up and she frowned as if I had a tarantula on my head. “What are you doing here?” she said.

I presented her my bundle of joy. “I picked this for you, hon. It’s okay, I’m not staying. Happy half-niversary.”

She closed the door behind her and shivered. With a tentative sniff of the lily, she stuffed it under her armpit. “Thanks,” she said, “You didn’t have to. You could have called. I’m leaving in a few.”

The ratty end of her scarf dropped off her shoulder but I reached over to toss it back. She kept her hands in her coat.

“You sure you don’t have time for a quick bite?” I said.

She shook her head. “I already ate and the landlady lets me raid her fridge.”

“Can I walk you to the train?”

“No, I’m hitching a ride with one of the guys.”

My jaw dropped. “They like you enough to let you in their cars? Oh my God.”

Della peered behind me down the street. “Yeah. First time, so we’ll see. I don’t know when he’s coming, though, and they don’t like me rubbing it in who I’m dating.”

The cold flowed down my chest. “Why didn’t you tell me before? They’ve seen us kiss.”

She shrugged and reached for the door handle. “This is new. Long story. I’m sure they’ll be over it next week. Anyway, I’m freezing my butt off. I’ll see you tomorrow, ‘kay?”

I blinked at her. “Sure. Take care,” I said and sealed it on her cheek.

She slumped her head to the side in her embarrassed puppy way. “You too, hon.”

She shut herself indoors and massaged her bare hands. The other bakers didn’t take any notice of her while they scrubbed the store down. My belly gurgled. The Finagle-a-Bagel near the train station had a decent selection. I hoped Della would make it home safe.

I passed a chubby girl with a heavy Seattle hat over her dreadlocks who stared angrily at me. Somehow, I had ruined her day. I watched the cars ahead of me until she was gone.


I rented “My Own Private Idaho” again on the way home because I needed a good healthy cry after the long work week. The Pogues’ song, “The Old Main Drag,” didn’t set me off like it used to, but so few movies really wrenched my gut, I was afraid to lose this one too. I was nestled under my comforter following the credits on that flat blue screen when the buzzer sounded from the downstairs door. I put on my slippers and took my keys out to the foyer on my complex’s first floor. Della was huddled in the glass entryway in her tan leather coat. She had an empty bottle of Sam Adams in her glove.

I pulled the door open for her. “Are you all right?”

Her cheeks were frost-bitten and the edges of her lips had melted into her skin. Her grin was fused on her. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just had to come.”

I pulled her close and pressed my warm hands into her face until it flushed alive again. She fell against me and her fingers worked down to my hips. I kissed her face, and pulled her upstairs before any neighbors wandered out.

On the way up, she lifted a CVS bag from her pocket. “I got you some of those peanut butter balls.”

They were the expensive kind, each wrapped in foil. “You didn’t have to,” I said, and my eyes shook with that cry I had been waiting for.

I swept her inside my apartment and hoped she didn’t notice the fruit fly hovering around my banana cupboard. It was a miracle the sink was empty.

Della wrapped her arms around my shoulders. I reached for them as she slid her cool fingers against my collarbone. I pressed into her and let her chest rock me with every breath. She brushed my hair aside and nibbled the back of my neck. I drooped my head and stroked her wrists to tell her, don’t stop.

I lifted her hands away and turned within her embrace to face her. I kissed her soft with my lips limp and my jaw stroked her tired mouth. She had the flavor of cinnamon buns and beer. Her tongue tasted my teeth and I sucked on it while I pushed her against the refrigerator. I grabbed her hair, she took mine and we fed each other air. I stroked her ears and she held my butt. We touched until we were light-headed and had to rest.

She limped away and backed into my living room. “Cheryl,” she said, “I can’t do this anymore.” She was flushed, but she had her palms out to block me. Her eyes were two shades darker.

I had barely turned. My arm was still raised from stroking her scalp. I waited for her to laugh, but she didn’t. “What’s going on?” I said.

She swallowed whatever saliva of mine was in her throat. She looked up at my ceiling and studied the plaster. Her eyes dropped as she spotted my kitchen counter. “What’s that?”

“It’s just a tail,” I said. “You know, the one I’ve been keeping in my blog.”

She was faster than I was. She ran her palm up it, against the grain of the fur. She settled on the metal pins sticking from the top. “You didn’t tell me you had this.”

I took her wrist to lift her hand away. “You get mad when I talk about it,” I said.

“Are you going to wear it outside?” she said. “Are people going to see you with it? They’re going to ask me about it?”

I pointed my finger at her before she got any closer. “And if I do, what are you going to tell them?” I said.

I didn’t want to fight with Della. Whenever she was mad, she thought about her father. They clashed in her home over which plates to use, how long she spent in the shower and the sanctity of running Store 24s. When she was challenged, her voice quivered and she stopped listening to anything I said. She always held her position like a mast in a storm and expected me to do the same, but I would have been wrong for her, gladly. If I had changed, she would have to show me and be done with it.

I squeezed my face tight and wrung out every muscle as best I could. She wanted to be all confused and wounded so she wouldn’t see her lips bullying me into a pulp. She turned toward me as if we were circling in a cage match.

I watched her pity me until she lost her focus and forgot why. I took her hand and ran my thumb over her knuckles. She didn’t wince as I inched closer. She hadn’t visited me in forever. I had been spending weekends at her apartment, eating her food, and now I wondered why she had forgotten how much of me existed outside her home.

She pressed her forehead into my neck and embraced me as if she had made her decision before she came. A twinge in my head wanted to kick her out until I had a say, too. My arms seized up and kept her close. I put my palm on her breasts to catch her heartbeat. I whispered into her shoulder, “Why do you have to be such a bitch to me?”

She hiccupped into my neck. “Screw you.”

We hung in place without struggling. The heating vent belched and the room settled down. She rubbed her nose against mine. Any second, she would fall away. We rolled in a slow dance across my rug into my bedroom. She breathed down my sweater and slid her hands underneath.

“No,” I said. I eased her off me and sat on my bed.

She wiped off her mouth and chin. “Right,” she said. She looked down at her legs touching mine and waited. I did want her, so I kept my hands on the comforter. She stood when it was clear that neither of us was going to make a move.

She blinked at White-Star. “You be good to her.”

One of my favorite sweaters had fallen on the floor beside my old bureau. “He will,” I said. I went to pick it up, but she was already out. She left footsteps in the kitchen. I folded the sweater away in time to catch the click of my door.

I threw away the CVS bag. I peeled open a peanut butter ball and bit through the chocolate. Tiny crystals dissolved into a sea of bittersweet goo.

It couldn’t end like this.

When my grandmother died, I rescued her ceramic foxes from my grandfather’s housecleaning. From my bureau, I picked one that stared into an invisible pool with a paw raised to ripple its reflection. eBay didn’t even sell those. I grabbed my keys and ran down the stairs.

I pushed open the glass door and hurried onto the sidewalk. I was too late.

She was somewhere in the dark, down the street on tiptoes or perhaps she could sprint a quarter mile in the span of half a piece of candy. I wanted to call, “Stop, thief.” I had her cell number. I knew which people in her building would let me in. Somewhere in Jamaica Plain is a stretch of road where I wasn’t welcome anymore.

I swung my fist against the lamp post. It rang like a baby gong learning how to cry. I hit it again so she would hear it. Sound travels at three hundred miles an second. I struck the pole one last time to hear it dissipate.

I decided that if she was gone, I would wear the tail. People would talk, but if I was going to stay in the city without her, it would be on my terms. Screw her. It was mine to wear.

Categories: Book 1 - How Cheryl Got Her Tail, Chapter 1 - With Your Monkey Wrench.

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