Irving reached Cincinnati in the middle of January and rented a little blue car with manual transmission for $22 a day. He also rented a studio apartment in an old building downtown, one level above Sycamore Street. The place smelled fusty but the walls were periwinkle and, best of all, its tall windows looked out to a cathedral across the street: a perfect place from which to shoot people.
Irving rented a gym too; not all to himself of course but a weekly membership which lined up with the apartment (also weekly). Twenty years of workouts had done little to thicken his spindly body, but at least had banished the abject clumsiness of his teen years.
He sat by his wintry Cincinnati windows day after day, observed the tops of heads passing below, zoomed his camera lens to study the people entering the cathedral, and examined their faces as they came out. Sometimes he shot photos of the people. Sometimes he descended to street level and followed them.
No one noticed Irving and he didn’t have to interact with anyone.
On Friday evening of his second week, Irving sat and waited for Capac to emerge from a prayer meeting. ‘Capac’ was the name he’d assigned to the Andean-looking gentleman he’d followed the previous night, who’d gone from prayers to a porn shop, where he purchased fuchsia-hued lingerie and then boarded a Number 37 bus to Oakley. Irving was determined to follow him onto that bus tonight.
Capac came through the cathedral double doors, pulling his green Fedora over his brow. He proceeded to strut in his usual pompous manner across the courtyard and down the front steps. Irving trained his camera and shot the man’s scowling face as he passed beneath an entryway lamp: a face filled with perfidy, a person with secrets.
Everyone has secrets.
Irving jumped up and ran out the door, snatching his coat from its hook along the way. He took stairs two at a time and felt into his pocket for his precisely-counted bus fare.
When Irving reached the street, Capac had turned not right toward the adult shop and bus stop, but left. Irving followed to a corner minimarket, where Capac bought chewing gum (Wrigley’s Spearmint) and cigarettes (Pall Mall) and scrutinized plastic-encased covers of porn publications (Penthouse and Hustler) while Irving hid behind cup canisters. Capac moved on to dine at a döner-kebab restaurant, and then he entered a tavern: a dingy-looking establishment called The Rear Inn. Irving loitered outside beneath illuminated beer signs for three and a half minutes before he pulled open the heavy wooden door enough to slide through.
“Well hello there HONEY!”
Crap. Blocking his path, inches away, stood a short round woman with straight blonde hair. She held a microphone. He’d almost walked into her. Her ample form, encased in a flowing purple zebra blouse, shimmered in the bar light. Before he could freak out about her proximity and the fact that she was speaking to him, he noticed her face was very pretty. Wide and beaming, it belonged on a magazine cover, or in an ad for cosmetics or plus-sized fashions. He tried to avert his eyes and back out of her space but failed since she was so lovely and he was already pressed against the door. She moved in closer, and her sweet floral scent washed over him.
He pried his eyes away and affixed them to the floor. Where have I seen her before?
“Come on IN, cutie-pie!” she boomed into the mic. “You’re just in time for my next round.”
Crap. He regained full discomfiture as she thrust something at him with her free hand: two quadrilateral gaming boards. He had no choice but to accept them as he felt for the door handle to make his escape.
“Don’t be shy, cutie-pie. It’s free-Bingo Friday. Doesn’t cost a thing and I got prizes up my yin-yang. I was just now bringing these boards over to my former cutie-pie.” She rolled her eyes at a table in the corner, where Capac sat glowering. “Tico here stood me up last night, so I’ve decided he can come up and get his own goddamn Bingo boards. No more concierge service for you, Tico-baby!”
Irving slid his eyes to examine Capac, now Tico, who was in turn examining Irving. Crap. His subject had seen him, more than seen him, and now Irving also knew his real name. Two rules broken.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever met. I’m Veronica.” Her voice sounded like a harmonica. “Newly-single Veronica, that is. And you are?”
To his horror she moved the microphone to his face.
“Er, er, erving, welcome to the Rear Inn! Now sit your rear ‘enn’ down and let’s play us some Bingo. Hey Barb, bring Irving here a beer. Use one of my free drink coupons.” She squeezed his arm. “You see, honey? You’ve already won something and you didn’t have to do anything. And dang it, you’re handsome. Got the most beautiful bedroom eyes. Hey folks, ain’t Irving here a cutie-pie?”
Irving re-averted said eyes to the floor. Crap. And she’s making fun of me to boot.
As he went to an empty table, a grin spread across his cheeks. His arm tingled where she’d squeezed him, a strange and wonderful sensation. No one had touched him in years.
Where do I know her from?
“B-15,” Veronica called into the mic from where she sat on a stool behind her prize table. “Oh yes, to be fifteen again. I was so young, so innocent.”
Irving didn’t inspect his boards since he’d memorized their contents. Instead he kept his eyes on Veronica.
“Oh yes, I was innocent!” she said in response to a jeer from the audience. “It wasn’t until two years later that I cashed in the old ‘V’-card.”
Eighties music played from a speaker behind her as she reached into her ball dispenser.
“That’s right folks. Retained my virginity until I was seventeen. It was a warm spring night. It was band camp. What else can I tell ya? Who needs an O? You do? Here it is: O-sixty-six, kinky tricks!”
Irving reached to his right board without looking and slid a red plastic cover over a square.
“Isn’t it exciting when you get a number?” she called. “Oooh, I wanna excite somebody.”
The scintilla of recognition he’d felt on meeting her grew in magnitude. Where, where, how do I know this woman?
“Hey everyone I have circus penis,” she said, waving a clear plastic bag of orange candies. “If you get a Bingo don’t forget it’s up here. You can have some. Also I have car visor tissues. Do you cry when you drive? I do.”
Circus peanuts. They’d been his favorite confection back in elementary school. The memory of the aroma and flavor of the chewy orange oblongs flooded him, along with the beginnings of another recollection.
“Oh my goodness, here it comes!” she called. “It’s the master! B-eight! Master-b-ate!”
The audience ‘ooo’-ed and hooted.
“Are you having fun? I am as well.”
Irving flicked slides over squares on both boards, closed his eyes, and became transported to Walnut Creek, California, where he walked his elementary school hallway. It was 1990, fifth grade, a year before diagnosis. No one knew he might have Asperger’s and he was simply a weirdo.
Lucy Rogers sat on the floor next to Mrs. Marsh’s door. Lucy never minded that Irving was such an oddity. She didn’t give a rooster’s behind about his peculiar body movements, his strange vocabulary, his inability to maintain eye contact. She treated him as if he were a normal person. Lucy was bold and beautiful, loud and loquacious, fun and nice, and Irving’s heart throbbed for her day and night all through fifth grade. Now, inexplicably, she’d turned up three decades later, calling Bingo in a dive bar in Cincinnati.
“I-thirty. Dirty thirty. Mark that one down on your boards, folks.”
“I swear it’s her,” he whispered as he gazed across the room to her cheery wide face, ski-jump nose, and straight blonde bangs dancing in her eyes. Except now her name was Veronica, and she looked like she was about ten years older than him.
“I said I-thirty, not I-flirty. Well, that’s not true. Don’t confuse me people, I haven’t had enough to drink yet! Yes I am flirty, y’all knew that. But I’m not thirty, I’m forty-something in case you hadn’t noticed. That’s all I’m gonna say about that.”
Irving closed his eyes. There Lucy sat, by Mrs. Marsh’s door, reading a book, her blonde bangs in her eyes. She looked up at him as he approached. And he didn’t look away this time. Instead he held her gaze and his whole being flooded with love.
So he kicked her.
“OW!” Lucy yelled, her eyes filling with tears more out of surprise than pain. And her look, her face in that moment, became forever etched in Irving’s brain. A look of, “Why?” shifting to, “Oh.”
Now here in the bar, Veronica-Lucy said, “I’m gonna shuffle my balls for a moment, folks. While I do so, please enjoy the musical stylings of Dennis DeYoung.” She turned the crank on her ball dispenser as Styx’s “Come Sail Away” flowed through the speaker.
Lucy Rogers told on Irving to Mrs. Marsh, and he had to go and apologize. But Lucy remained nice to him all through the rest of fifth grade. In her own way she let him know that she understood, and that his immutable problems were not much of a problem for her, even if they were for the rest of the universe.
Lucy disappeared after fifth grade and Irving never saw her again.
“Anyone got an N-thirty-one? No? Jeez, I feel like I’m playing ‘Go Fish.’ How about B-nine? Don’t be afraid folks, it’s be-nign.”
Irving shook off his reverie and flicked a cover over a square. As he did this his eyes traveled to the corner, where Tico’s spot sat evacuated with beer glass drained.
“Here’s another B. B number two. That’s right folks, I said ‘number two’ in public.”
It didn’t matter to Irving that Tico had departed. The night’s surveillance was already an aggregate loss. He’d have to begin anew with someone different in the morning.
“No Bingos yet?” Veronica sang as she reached for another ball. “I’m trying to call numbers nobody has, can you tell? I’m excelling at that. Oh wait!”
She lifted a noisemaker from her table and twirled it in the air to emit a loud raspy sound.
“Oh! Oh! OH!” she moaned into the mic.
“OH! OH! OH!” chanted the audience.
“SIXTY-NINE!” Veronica yelled. “Dinner for two with a beautiful view!”
“Bingo!” shouted someone to Irving’s right.
“Bingo!” called someone else behind him.
Two middle-aged women ran forward with their boards, bosoms and tummies bouncing beneath blouses. When they reached Veronica’s table they jumped up and down and pumped their arms in the air.
“Those are both good Bingos,” Veronica announced a few moments later. “It’s a tie. And you both used your free spots, ooh, I like that.”
The audience applauded.
“What do we do now? Have an inappropriate pants-off-dance-off? No? Okay, we’ll save that for later. For now you both get to pick a prize.”
Irving bit into a circus peanut and studied Veronica’s amazing face as she sat across the table and sipped vodka cranberry from a pint glass through a straw. Steady. Stead-EEE. Make eye contact. No nettlesome body movements.
She was in the middle of explaining about her two ex-husbands and the sizes of their penises. “The first’s was fine, though I didn’t have a lot to compare it to at the time. The second’s? Pathetic.” She held up a pinky finger. “I named it String Cheese.”
Irving swallowed his candy. “Didn’t you, um, investigate this prior to the nuptials?”
“Yes, but by then I was in love. My second husband could play the sweetheart, you have to understand. And he was cute! He had the most beautiful bedroom eyes, like yours. And that same sexy dent in his upper lip like you have.” She touched her finger to her own upper lip and gazed at him. “Except yours is even sexier.”
Irving’s cheeks burned and he looked away. Yeah, right. Why did women always have to make fun of him?
Chewing another circus peanut, he recalled instructions from long ago speech therapists and social skills trainers. Steady. No odd vocal inflections. Maintain eye contact. Show your empathy. He sucked in his lips and looked at her...