Glen Pourciau ~ Stretcher

Early evening on a Friday, wine and cheese time at the inn where we checked in only an hour ago, and we’re seat­ed just out­side the door to the serv­ing area, wrought-iron table and chairs on the edge of a court­yard, a foun­tain bab­bling with­in earshot.  We’re armed with glass­es of local wine, mine a red blend called Raving Lunatic and Lionel’s a Syrah called Intimate Betrayer, well into our sec­ond pours thanks to the gen­eros­i­ty of the inn’s pour­er, Legend, a young man with a shad­ow beard and an advanced wine vocab­u­lary.  We’re mind­ing our own busi­ness, as Lionel likes to say, when a tall woman, mid-for­ties, I esti­mate, swings the door open.  She steps out­side and sets her glass of white wine down on our table.  She’s shiv­er­ing.

That air con­di­tion­ing went all the way through me in there,” she says, rub­bing her bare arms vig­or­ous­ly with her large hands.  “My boyfriend’s inside talk­ing wine with Legend, and I think he’s for­got­ten I’m with him.”  She waits for us to say some­thing, and after a few sec­onds she takes the ini­tia­tive her­self.  “Where are you folks from?”

Lionel is big on bound­aries and has a hard time acti­vat­ing his throat when a stranger asks where he’s from, so I answer for us.  I notice his eyes shift­ing from her wine glass to her.  She seems self-con­scious about her hair, long and light brown, her hand slid­ing down the side of her face to keep it away from her eye.

My name is Cynthia,” she says.  “We come here every cou­ple of months for a get­away.  Is this your first time here?”

I tell her our names and that we’ve stayed at the inn once before and enjoyed it, and I ask her where she’s from.  She replies that she lives an hour north of the inn though she’s orig­i­nal­ly from out of state, and as soon as I ask what brought her here she grabs the chair near­est to her, yanks it back with a scrape, and sits.  She puts an elbow on the table, picks up her wine, and tells us the sto­ry of her career as a sales­per­son for chem­i­cal prod­ucts.  She knew noth­ing about chem­istry or her company’s line of mer­chan­dise, but her train­ing taught her the answer to every ques­tion any cus­tomer would ask.

Lionel leans back, try­ing to tune her out.  He has an aver­sion to sales­peo­ple and fears being rude to them.  He some­times says he feels their voic­es roil­ing his intestines.  He already wants to get well clear of Cynthia, and it will be up to me, I know, to extri­cate us.

Cynthia reach­es the end of her pro­fes­sion­al biog­ra­phy with­out draw­ing a response from us, oth­er than an occa­sion­al nod from me.  Again she paus­es, I sup­pose expect­ing us to rec­i­p­ro­cate with tales of what we’ve done to make a liv­ing.  We say noth­ing, and Cynthia takes a look through the win­dow at her boyfriend, who’s still con­vers­ing with Legend.  In a way I wish he’d stop so that Legend could refill our glass­es, which we’d like even more since Cynthia arrived, but if he does stop talk­ing he’s liable to join us.  Cynthia con­fides that she and her boyfriend have been togeth­er nine years.  She lets slip an eye roll, and I decide not to men­tion that Lionel and I were togeth­er eight years before we got mar­ried.  She tells us where they’re hav­ing din­ner and asks where we’re going.  I say we have a table reserved at a place on Victoria Street.  She’s nev­er eat­en there, she says, and a silence hangs in the air, per­haps because she hopes I’ll sug­gest they come with us.  She then says she co-chairs a char­i­ta­ble fundrais­er that’s com­ing up in the fall, and she invites us to attend.  Lionel glances through the win­dow to see if the boyfriend is on his way to us.  Cynthia reach­es toward me and grips my wrist.  Her hand is strong and it hurts.

I’d be hap­py for you two to come vis­it me,” she says.  “I’ve got a big house.  It’s a won­der­ful event, din­ner and danc­ing, and there’d be no oblig­a­tion to con­tribute. We keep it very low key.”

I imag­ine us in our room, con­duct­ing what Lionel refers to as the post­mortem.  We’ll dis­sect Cynthia for the rest of the evening, dis­cussing the wrist grab and the impli­ca­tions of every­thing she’s said.  Lionel makes a dis­tinc­tion between push­ers and stretch­ers, and I can guess how he’ll cat­e­go­rize Cynthia.

It’s sound like a good cause,” I reply as she releas­es me.

Cynthia may have expect­ed us to show more inter­est or to sug­gest she come vis­it us, and Lionel will express relief lat­er that I didn’t.  He checks the win­dow again and stirs.  He’s giv­ing me a cue.

We’d bet­ter get going, Lionel.”

He nods, putting his nap­kin on the table just a lit­tle too eager­ly.

Cynthia seems sur­prised to be los­ing us.  She thumbs her hair from her eye and offers us both a hand­shake as we all rise.

We’re head­ed home tomor­row.  I’ll leave my busi­ness card at the front desk for you.  I hope you’ll stay in touch.”

We smile and then walk across the court­yard toward our room.  Lionel has trou­ble get­ting the elec­tron­ic eye to read the key­card, but even­tu­al­ly we get inside and close the door.

We sigh and groan, espe­cial­ly Lionel, before start­ing the post­mortem.  Lionel says that when we’re ready to leave he’ll take a peek out to see if she’s gone, though, he adds, we could run into her in the ele­va­tor down or in the park­ing garage.

She seemed lone­ly,” I say.  “Do you think we’re being unfair to her?  She could be a good per­son.  Why else would she do the fundrais­er?”

She’s a sales­per­son.”

They can be decent peo­ple.”

They have mixed motives.”

Doesn’t every­one?  You don’t know her, so you can’t know her true inten­tions.”

Do you want to go out there and invite her to vis­it us or take a trip to her fundrais­er?”

No, but she might still be sit­ting there, her nine-year boyfriend talk­ing to Legend, who may wish he could get free of him.”

Maybe the boyfriend will invite Legend over for a vis­it.  Stretchers won’t let peo­ple go.”

We hear a knock on our door.  Our room has a slid­ing glass door open­ing onto a patio that leads to a back way out of the inn.  Lionel wants to use it, and I say we can’t be sure it’s her.  We’re both whis­per­ing.  I start toward the front door to look out the peep­hole, point­ing at my eyes so Lionel will know what I’m doing.  He waves me away from it, as if pulling me toward him, but I keep going, imag­in­ing Cynthia’s eye­ball star­ing back at me.  Lionel hides his face in his hands.

~

Glen Pourciau’s first col­lec­tion of sto­ries won the 2008 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His sec­ond sto­ry col­lec­tion is forth­com­ing from Four Way Books in ear­ly 2017. His sto­ries have been pub­lished in New World Writing, AGNI Online, Antioch Review, Epoch, Little Star, New England Review, Paris Review, and oth­ers.