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Carrie Bartsch

Locals

I work the Watertower Mall parking ramp, Michigan Avenue. Itís my territory and I see all kinds: cell phone divas, business guys who meet in the food court for a quick potato, Northern debutantes out for a new gown. Iím hip, I roll with the styles. People stop and talk to me, not because Iím a lonely ticket taker, but because Iím one of those guys that reminds everyone of someone else.

I used to wear my blue one-piece mechanic suit, but that was all for show, and now I stick to oxfords and grey slacks, a Jerry Garcia tie if the mood hits me.

For kicks, I flirt with Rani, the lane two girl. She works the ticket booth to the left of me. If I quit my job, sheíd get lane one, but Iím not about to start over again. Iíve brought class to this place. And that goes for Rani, too. She says her parents live in Calcutta and want her back, but she refuses. "And leave this place?" she says. Iíve tried to flirt with her, throw ink pens at her window, but one afternoon she laid it down straight. "Weíd have ugly kids, Laszlo, you know it."

That crushed me, I couldnít look at her for at least an hour, and even though Rani is exotic, she isnít a Lladro. When I was ten years old, my father bought my mother a Lladro for her birthday, the one she had been admiring on the Magnificent Mile. She was making her birthday cake when he came home. "I hope you didnít," she said, holding a spoonful of vanilla frosting. He opened the box, took out the sculpture and put it on the kitchen table. Mother dropped the spoon onto the wood floor and kissed him on the mouth.

My father wouldnít let me touch it, like it had a halo around it. It was a white porcelain woman laying down on her back in a loose nightgown and she held a tiny alabaster baby above her chest. Even though the sculpture was bare, unpainted, I imagined her hair a chestnut brown, her eyes green, and her arms reaching out not to the baby, but to me.

She became the focus of my fantasies and instead of sitting in a dark room looking at nudie mags, I would set her on my pillow and stare at her for hours. After a few months, Mother lost interest in the Lladro and gave it to me. She was a softy because I was her only kid.

I tried to sketch pictures of the woman, first without the baby, then without the nightgown. When I touched her, it left a grease mark on her body and when I didnít, she gathered dust.

Rani asked me last week why Iím single, and I told her: "Thereís a woman out there and she going to buy a new nightgown, maybe at Saks Fifth Avenue and God help it, sheíll come in this ramp and Iíll be here waiting." I had been saving this line for years.

Today is Sunday, the day I usually buy a new pair of socks at the mall. When I am locking up my booth, Rani comes out of hers.

"Hey, go back," I say to her. "Only one person at a time."

Her eyes glow in the dim ramp. "Rani, have you put on some weight? I think you look better this way."

She glares at me, then pulls a pack of cigarettes from her bucket purse. "Need one?" she said.

I notice the parking lot is fairly empty for a Sunday afternoon, probably because theyíre all using the cheap outdoor lot. My bosses kid likes to skateboard on the B floor, but he didnít come today and it is quiet, except for the occasional slam of the car door, voom, and then the click clack click clack.

"Let me go with you. I can call in a replacement," she says. She flicks her blue jean lighter and sucks on the Camel. "So do you think youíd recognize your dream lady if you saw her?"

She exhales and blows the smoke into the humid air. "Because I donít have a dream guy, Laz. But if I did, Iíd sure as hell know him if he drove by."

I back out of her way as she loads up with more smoke. "All right, but donít let this be a habit," I say. When I get into my booth, I open the window and stick out my head. "Do you want tomorrow off, too?" I say to Rani.

She puts the cigarette in her mouth and jumps up and down.

I pick up the phone and watch Rani as I dial. Before I get Ruthie, our back-up girl, on the line, Rani makes an air kiss and blows it my way. I put my hand over the phone. "Want to give me a real one?"

She smiles, her teeth almost iridescent.

"Ruthie, itís an emergency . . . " and I speak the yadda yadda bullshit sheís used to when I want her to cover. After listening to her talk about her new house and her pet Spaniel who bit the Welcome Wagon lady, I say, "Ruthie, youíre only twenty eight, and, for Godís sake, Iíll take you out to lunch tomorrow. No, make it next week." I hang up and look at Rani, who has put out her cigarette.

She comes to the window, sticks in her head and smiles. This is the closest I have been to her. I put down the phone and am captivated by the color of her gums. I want to touch them, make a dent in them with my fingernails. She holds out her hands, palm up. I place mine on top.

"Well," I say and look at the wall clock, "sheíll be here in ten minutes."

Rani pulls her hand from under mine and we play the hand tower game, stacking and pulling away our hands until we are slapping each other.

"Thumb war," she says.

The ramp light shines on her bare shoulders. "Maybe youíd like to wear my coat. Itís getting drafty." I take a peek at her skin again and close my eyes.

"Iíll show you that game some other time," she says.

A white Oldsmobile stationwagon pulls into the ramp and honks three times. The horn echoes like a Lincoln zoo seal and I cover my ears. Ruthie cranks down her window and gives me the desperate smile, making the mole above her lip rise and tilt. "I really could use something in return," she says. She rolls up the window and drives around the corner to park.

Rani runs to her booth and grabs her jacket while I shut my window and total the ticket sales. I lock the door and walk over lane two and sit on the curb. The November wind snakes through the ramp entrance and catches my bare neck.

Ruthie walks up to me with her mouth open. "And I thought I was just covering for you." She points to Rani, who is zipping up her coat.

I hand Ruthie a twenty from my back pocket. "Consider us even," I say. "Page me if you have any problems."

Rani takes off her watch and waves it in the air. "Weíve got to hurry, Laszlo. Theyíre having the live mannequins in the Macyís window. Iíve always wanted to see them."

I put my hands on top of her shoulders and look into her eyes. "I canít imagine something more important, I really canít."

We walk to the glass elevator and take it to the top floor. I hold onto the chrome railing as we soar over crowds of children, white Christmas lights, and a fifty-foot blow-up santa. When we reach the top, the elevator opens to blaring Muzak and screaming kids. I peek my head out of the elevator and am accosted by smells of nacho cheese and flavored coffee. "I donít know," I say and stay in my corner. "Ruthieís kind of a fuck-up. Maybe I should check on her."

Rani pries my fingers from the railing and pulls me out of the elevator. The door shuts on my heel and leaves a shallow knick. "Remind me to stop at the shoe repair place," I say.

We are walking at Raniís pace against the flow of traffic. She has me by the shirt sleeve and is dragging me along. Her arm is sleek and toned. Under the mall lights, she could pass for twenty.

"Ran, how old are you?" I say, almost tripping over my wingtips.

She gives me the finger with the other hand and yanks me along harder. We pass the pay phones and I break from Raniís grasp. A woman squats on the floor crying, the phone cable dangling above her. Her eyes are swollen and she is scratching at her face.

I pull a hanky out of my pocket and walk toward her. Rani pulls me back by the belt loop. "What do you know about women?" she says.

She lets go of me and we start tunneling through the crowd again. When we get to Macyís, she runs up ahead and disappears into the mass. In a few minutes, she emerges with a brochure. "Look," she says and opens up the beige pamphlet. "They brought them all the way from Amsterdam. Imported."

I take the brochure from her and close it. "You could be a model."

A manís voice booms over the Macyís loudspeaker. "Modeling our winter Donna Karan line, we bring the Netherlands to you." His voice fades and we wait in silence. I scuttle to find a crack in the crowd.

"Do you have to take classes for this?" I say to Rani.

She smiles and then hits me in the stomach. "Be quiet, would you. No one else is talking."

The red velvet curtain rises, exposing a sliver of the display window. People around us start fighting to see an inch of a beautiful model, maybe a slip of fabric. A bearded guy with a baseball cap leans over and shouts into my ear. "A fucking mime from New Orleans would suffice, donít you think?" he says.

Before he can introduce himself, I take Raniís hand and lead her toward the front of the crowd.

She looks at me and squeezes my hand. "I didnít know you got excited about this kind of thing, Laz. Iím impressed."

I take a deep breath and stare at the curtain, which has lifted two inches in the last minute. My heart beats faster as it opens and then I see it: the foot. It is wearing a black leather pump. Then come the ankle and the leg.

Rani digs in her purse and pulls out a silver lipstick tube. "They only show one model at a time," she says. While the velvet rises, she fiddles with the cap.

A solid black cocktail dress unveils itself in front of us, followed by the modelís face. Her arms are positioned so she looks like she is holding an invisible beach ball.

"Would you look at that?" I say to Rani.

"Are people born like that?" she says, and lets go of my hand.

The Macyís crowd is dead silent as if pulled in by some immortal force. We watch the woman and her exquisite long fingers; we wait for her to bend, move her arms, blink.

After twenty minutes, the crowd thins and it is just us, the mime guy, and a few seniors in wheelchairs. Rani and I are still standing, our eyes on the womanís face.

The mime guy walks in front of us and waves his hands in our faces. When we donít respond, he says, "Fuck it," and takes off.

I leave Rani and go closer to the window. Not a visible blemish on the womanís body and I imagine the rest of her as flawless. I kiss my hand and put it on the window. Something about the model makes me want to kiss the glass itself. When I do this, she looks straight at me and blinks.

Rani has lost interest and is sitting on a bench near the espresso bar. I put both my hands to the window and kiss it again. Before I can catch the modelís expression, a security guard comes from behind and pulls me off the window.

"You can look, buddy, but donít touch the glass," he says.

I stay back an inch from the window and wait for her to blink again. Moments later, a chime sounds from the loudspeaker. She opens her eyes wide and yawns. While the curtain lowers, I see her bend down and slip off her shoes.

The security guard is drinking coffee with Rani on the bench. I walk in back of them and when Iím clear, I run into Macyís. As I approach the information desk, a older black woman with tortoise-shell glasses gets off the phone. She motions for me to come.

"Can you tell me how long those models are staying in the United States?" I say.

She takes off her glasses and lays them on the table. "How long you want them to stay?" she says and smiles.

"Well, itís just . . ."

"Hold on a second," she says and grabs the ringing line. She sets down the phone and shakes her head. "Wrong number . . .but let me tell you something." She leans close to me and bites her bottom lip. "Whatís it to you?"

I look at her and then reach for my wallet.

"The Hilton," she says and puts on her glasses. "Hyde Park, I think."

I slip her a ten and head out the Macyís entrance to find Rani laying on the bench. Sheís massaging her temples and staring at the ceiling.

"They have more models in twenty minutes, if you want to wait," she says to me.

I move her legs and sit down.

"When you went into the store, I saw her come out the employee entrance. She was holding hands with a woman who weighed about eighty pounds." Rani sits up and stretches her arms. "If you look at her close-up, sheís not all that."

A santaís elf midget comes up the central escalator and heads for the coffee stand. His forehead sweats under his green felt hat as he orders latte.

Rani puts her hand on my knee. "She wasnít wearing makeup and she had freckles. The big splotchy kind that almost connect."

The dwarf walks past us, his boots jingling with sewed-on bells. He takes a sip of the latte and he burns his tongue. "Mother fucking . . ." he says, then stops when he sees a kid and his mother coming toward him.

"Iím sorry, what?" I say to Rani.

"Itís like theyíre trying to trick us when they wear makeup. Listen, are you hungry? I know of a Greek place off of Lake Shore."

I pull her up off the bench. "You paying?"

She ignores me as we walk toward the elevator. When we get in, she turns around. "What kind of name is Laszlo? Does it mean anything?" She pushes the first floor button and the doors close.

We take the train and get off near the University of Chicago. "How far a walk is this?" I say.

She picks up the pace. "Getting old on me? No, itís only a mile or so. I can almost taste the baklava."

Half an hour later, we get to the restaurant. Itís a corner joint with pastel gyros painted on the windows. When we walk in the doors, we are greeted by a tall dark Latino wearing a madras shirt. "Hola," he says, "Smoking or non?"

Rani takes out her cigarettes and flashes them in his face. The maitre de motions to our waiter, who then ushers us to a table. We sit down and peruse the menus.

The waiter pulls out an order pad. "Can I get you some drinks?" he says.

I look at Rani. "Dos Equis, tequila poppers?" I say. "Or maybe we should start out with quesadillas and skip the drinks."

Rani peers over her placemat menu and then clears her throat. "We would like two gyros platters, extra sauce, and two Bud Lights."

He takes the order and heads into the kitchen.

We sit at the table reading our zodiac signs on the menus. "It says here Iím horny when it comes to Capricorns," I say.

She takes my menu, crumples it up and throws it on the floor. "Even if you did find her in the Hilton lobby, do you think sheíd be interested in you? I mean, come on. Youíre twenty years older than her and worse than that, youíre a ramp attendant. Sheís probably got Fabio with her right now. Heís got his shirt off and heís pulling off her nylons with his teeth."

I look down at my hands, the coal gray hair over the knuckles. Our waiter comes by with the drinks and sets them on bright orange coasters. "Did the security guy tell you anything else?" I say to Rani.

We take two sips and the waiter comes by again. He sets down two red plastic baskets, our dinner. "Will that be all?" he says.

Rani and I look at each other and shake our heads. I lay my credit card on the table as he walks away and then I take a french fry from her basket. "What will it take for you to tell me her room number?"

She opens the plastic cup and pours the cucumber dressing over her gyro. "Sheís staying on the tenth floor."

I grab the waiter as he passes by. "Check, please." He takes my credit card and disappears. I turn to Rani. "The curiosity is eating you, too, isnít it?"

We eat our food in silence, stopping every now and then to pass the salt or pepper.

I notice a greasy man with pork-chop sideburns staring at Rani from the booth across the way. Heís chewing on a toothpick and watching her as she puts a french fry in her mouth. I look around and get the feeling that every slimy guy in Cristophís has put down his gyro to watch Rani lay the fry on her tongue before it rolls between her teeth and melts into her throat.

The waiter comes back and hands me my Visa. Iím done eating, but he takes Raniís food before she can finish dipping her french fry in the dressing. As he walks away, she throws the fry at him and just misses his neck.

"Get me out of here before I do something," she says.

We stand up and move out of the restaurant. When we get to the cashier, I dump off the credit card copy and grab a handful of mint patties.

Rani follows me to the street and before I can unwrap a mint, sheís got a taxi pulling up next to us. She opens the front passenger door, gets in and starts talking with the driver in Hindi. "Hurry, get in the back," she says to me and then slams her door.

I reach to get inside and feel a sharp pain in my knees. The cabby leans back and gives me the "close the door, you wasted old man" look. He adjusts his turban over his young face. He eyes Rani, then he gives me "the look" again. "Three dollars for the first mile," he says.

Itís a short ride, expensive, but Rani takes the fare, pays for it with her laundry quarters. The guy wants to show us the city, but we tell him forget it, weíre from around here. He speaks to Rani in Hindi again and she shakes her head. He holds onto her arm and then she says something very fast, backs out of the car, and slams the door.

I get out after her and look up at the hotel sign. I knock on the cabbyís window until he rolls it down. "This is the Ramada," I say. "Are you blind?"

He stares at the steering wheel, silent. Then he steps on the gas and speeds away toward Lake Shore Drive.

"Fine," I say. I adjust the fanny pack around my waist and join Rani on the curb.

"Did you think he was handsome?" I say to her.

"Yeah," she says, "and he spoke my language. That makes us a pair."

I look up at the sign. "The Ramada. Can you believe it?"

A guy my age clad in brown polyester pants, a stained white postman shirt, and tennis shoes, comes out of the glass doors and holds out his arm to Rani. "May I help you with your luggage?" he says.

She takes his arm and follows him inside. I walk with them to the front desk, where he takes his leave to smoke a cigarette.

Rani turns around, her eyes wide open, her pupils like queen olives. She puts her hands together and holds them to her chest. "Letís stay here. Iíve never stayed in a fancy hotel. What do you think?"

She kisses me on the cheek before I can answer and then puts her purse on the counter. "We would like a room with two single beds," she says to the slicked back blonde. "Put us on the tenth floor."

The woman rolls her eyes and starts typing. I stand next to Rani and watch the blondeís claw-nails tap the keys. I leave the two women and walk toward the lavender couch. The bellhop sits down across from me. "Hey man," I say to him, "Whereís the Hilton?"

He takes a drag and exhales, his lips a perfect O. "Ainít no Hilton in Hyde Park. This is it, baby. You want something pretty, you go downtown."

I push myself up from the couch and he closes his eyes to sleep, cigarette still in hand. The elevator doors open in back of us and he bolts to his feet and straightens his back.

A tall woman in baggy gray sweats walks out and zips up her jacket. Itís her. Sheís got her hair stuffed into a Bulls cap, loose tendrils framing her oval face. I glance over at Rani, who seems to be in deep conversation with the front desk lady.

The bellhop makes a thumbs down sign as I walk toward the woman. He mouths the words "Careful, she bites." Besides Rani and the other two, the model and I are the only ones in the room. I straighten my collar and walk toward her. The closer I get, the sicker I feel. I try to focus on her face, her body, but my dizziness takes hold and all I see is a tall blur with legs. When Iím a few feet away, my knees lock.

She looks down at me and raises her perfectly tweezed eyebrow. "Excuse me," she says and pushes to get past me.

I grab her upper arm and squeeze hard. "We need to have dinner together," I say.

She breaks free. "Are you another one of those damn mall freaks?" she says. "God, if I could get a dollar for every one of you, I could stay at the Ritz."

"OK then," I say. "If youíre from Amsterdam, why the Jersey accent?"

She leans down to tighten her shoe laces and stands up straight, a virtual giant. "Iíd like you to try and pose under hot lights day after day and have to stare at slobbering perverts who donít care a damn what your name is." She flips her ponytail and signals the bellhop.

He puts out his cigarette and rushes to her side. As they head for the door, she turns around. "Dinner at Le Bistro tomorrow night at eight oíclock." She smiles at me and the bellhop escorts her outside to a waiting taxi.

Raniís walking toward me with the room key in her hand. "I was watching," she says and starts rubbing my back. "Just donít get your hopes up."

I wriggle away from her. "Letís go watch cable and relax."

She continues to touch my back as we walk up the stairs.

We get to the tenth floor and she opens the door. Stained gold carpet with mahogany fleur de lis decorates the one-lightbulb hallway.

"Last door on the left," Rani says, and leads me down the buckled carpet.

She fumbles with the key and pushes open the door. I peer into the room. A brightness hits me. The place is a Victorian dream, a Saks Fifth showcase. Matted ivory drapes dust the white carpet. A pilled bedspread covers each single sleigh-bed frame, and on the right wall hangs a large brass-framed mirror.

Rani runs to the bed closest to the TV. She stretches out on her back and puts a pillow under her head. She looks at me out the corner of her eye. "If I was a Lladro, Iíd want a room like this."

I walk to the bed and sit down next to her. I arrange her black hair it so it fans over the white bedspread.

She sits up and takes off her shirt. "Can you help me with this?" she says. Once her bra is off, she tries to unbutton my oxford.

I move away from her. I imagine her taking off my shirt and finding the random patches of body hair.

She stands up and unzips her pants, then lets them fall to the floor. "Suit yourself," she says.

I lay back on the bed, my body still sore from walking. I reach for the remote control and turn on the TV. The Red Sox game fills the room. Rani has now made herself naked, her hair surrounding her body like a shawl. She walks in front of the TV and stops.

"Your blocking the game," I say. I try not to get aroused, but I find myself staring at her legs, the long keloid scar that wormholes from her left knee to the inside of her thigh.

She turns around so I am now looking at her backside. I notice where the scar stops and I close my eyes.

"Is this better?" she says.

I run my fingers through my hair and flip off the remote. "Why donít we fall asleep together," I say.

She looks down at her body and then covers her breasts with her hands.

"Well, are you coming?" I say. I pull back the covers and make room for her small body.

She sighs and turns off the TV, then all the lights, and after sheís brushed her teeth, she slips under the covers. Before I can say anything to her, sheís got her eyes closed.

I listen to her breathing and stare out the window. Yellow neon lights spelling out "Nickís Hair Tonic" illuminate half the room, the empty bed side. Every few seconds they blink off and keep me suspended until they flicker on again in full brightness.

I look over at Rani and touch her cheek. "Lie still," I whisper, and I pull the white bedspread over her face. Her breathing gets faster and I rub her stomach until she calms.

She tries to lift up her head but I put my hand on her blanketed forehead. "This will help you relax," I say. I smooth my hands over her ivory draped body and tuck and fit each curve.

She stirs under the blanket. "This isnít turning me on," she says.

"Be patient, Iím almost finished." I grab my fanny pack from the bedside table and pull out a Swiss Army knife.

"What are you doing?" she says.

I flip out the buck knife and polish it on my pillow case. "Donít move," I say to her. Her body freezes and I bring the knife to her shoulder. I lift up the fabric and puncture a small hole. Next, I take out the mini scissors.

"Really, donít hurt me," she says.

I cut a grapefruit size hole in the bedspread and then repeat the motion over her other shoulder.

"Weíre doing fine," I say and ease her arms out of the holes. I position them above her chest. When I let go of them, they fall limp to her sides. "Please. Youíre almost finished," I say.

She lays still. I try her arms again, but she will not cooperate.

"Thatís it," Rani says. She sits up and throws off the blanket. "This is not going to work." Beads of sweat line her forehead and upper lip. "Laszlo, whatís the matter with you?"

My heartbeat goes manic. I stare at her, unable to speak.

"Forget it," she says and takes me into her arms. She puts my head on her chest. I nestle into her warm skin and listen to her breathing develop into a gentle snore.

While she sleeps, I lay back and watch the neon lights, how they will keep on blinking, day and night.

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