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Spark

by Karen Hertzberg



We were pulling into adjacent spaces in the parking lot at Foodmart, and he misjudged and plowed head on into my old Pontiac. Though we didn't bother to exchange insurance information, the next morning I woke up with him in my bed.

"Good morning." He sat up and grinned at me, like he knew something I didn't. His red hair stood up on top of his head like flames off the tip of a match. Freckles spattered his cheeks. I shook off the startled sensation of waking with a new man and barely remembering what he looked like from the night before.

"Hey," I answered. As he glided out from between the sheets with easy confidence, the evening started coming back; the stirring of muscles under the pale skin of his solid thighs, like the flanks of a horse in full gallop. Something sparked inside me and I swallowed fire. I stared as he pulled on paisley boxer shorts. Cotton, thank God.

The next thing I knew the man was in my kitchen. "Where do you keep your coffee filters?" he asked. I watched his shoulders surge as he reached up to explore the top shelf of my cupboard. I always view a half-naked man standing in my kitchen scrounging for coffee filters as a fortunate turn of events.

I stumbled over and stood next to him, arms crossed over the front of my satin robe, staring into the same cupboard he was staring into. "I'm probably out," I said. "Use a paper towel."

He made coffee, this guy, good, strong coffee that eroded the cotton batting in my head. And he made scrambled eggs and bacon. I was afraid to tell him how long the eggs had probably been in the old Kenmore. I never cook. Still, they tasted better than restaurant eggs. The guy watched me fork food into my mouth like a starving child and winked at me. Winked!

"I add a dash of cinnamon," he told me. Somehow he'd managed harvest cinnamon from my barren cupboards. He gestured a lot as he spoke, and I watched his hair tumble around his head with every twitch and nod. "Cinnamon gives it a special sort of flavor. Makes it taste less... eggy. Gives it class, I think."

After we finished breakfast, I told him he'd better go. He looked at me like he was a frail old woman and I was the evil landlord booting him out onto the streets so the building could go condo. "But, can I see you again?" he asked.

I shrugged.

"Jane, if I'd known you wouldn't want--"

I leaned against the door frame and nodded for him to step out into the hall, which he obediently did. "It's not like we're soul mates," I said. "We met over a dented fender. We found an interesting way to kill an evening. It's biology."

"I thought--" he stopped and turned away. "Never mind what I thought. It doesn't matter. Take it easy, okay?"

"Yeah, you too."

I watched him for a moment as he walked away, my eyes locked on the wave of hair at the nape of his neck. There's something vulnerable about the back of a man's neck. I closed the door behind him and listened to the sound of his footfalls trailing off down the apartment hallway. I imagined a horse's flanks under his faded Levis, and I may have listened to him trotting away a little longer than I usually do.

Three weeks later I saw him in Foodmart. It was about the same time of day, and on a Wednesday, the same day of the week as when I'd met him the first time. It wasn't like I'd planned it. The guy must have shopped on a predictable schedule.

I walked up beside him in the produce section and picked up a head of lettuce, hoisting it in my hand and squeezing it to see if it had some bulk. My mother always warned me if you buy light, squishy lettuce you get fewer greens because it's filled with air. I noticed the guy fondling lettuce, too.

"Hey, it's you," I said to him.

He turned, and his face cracked into a wide grin. "Hi, Jane."

He was a little more handsome than I remembered. His red hair was tamer today. His skin glowed with the honey-colored tan fair skinned people get, which made his green eyes emerald.

"You squeeze lettuce," I said.

"They all cost the same, but the lighter ones have less greens inside, even when they're the same size."

I smiled. "Yeah, I know."

"I guess we could be soul mates after all," he said. I laughed at that. I gave him a real, genuine laugh to keep, and I knew he started thinking he might actually have a chance with me. He cocked one red, caterpillar eyebrow and smiled.

"Well, see you later," I said, and turned away in pursuit of pasta.

A few hours later, we were back at my apartment. It seemed our meeting at the store was some sort of karma, because we were both shopping for the ingredients for spaghetti dinner. It seemed a waste, us preparing the same meals at different apartments, so he offered to cook for me. I accepted, because I never pass up the opportunity to lay back while somebody else cooks.

After dinner, I waited for us to tumble into my bed. It wasn't as if the scenario should have been awkward for him. My apartment was a studio, so the living room and the bedroom were one in the same. He sauntered over to the couch, instead, and I thought, Okay, different venue tonight. I sat down next to him, and he leaned his head back against the cushions and smiled like a large, contented animal, reclining and gazing up at the ceiling as though he saw a field of stars.

I glanced at the ceiling myself, and saw nothing but a long, jagged fault line zig-zagging through the plaster. "Dinner was great," I said.

He focused his eyes on me, now, still leaning back. I wondered if he expected me to do something to him. It would figure that he was one of those guys who likes aggressive women.

"You know," I said, the words stumbling out of my mouth, "I'm really not the type to make the first move, and I didn't think you were the sort of guy who just lays around and waits for it, either."

"What?"

I tucked my hands between my thighs, a trick I'd learned to warm my always-frigid fingers. "I like things to be sort of mutual," I continued. "You know. I attack you, you attack me. Mutual lust. I'm not really up to a passive guy."

"I was just thinking we'd sit here and talk. I didn't think anybody would be attacking anybody." There was a seductive curl to his pale pink lips.

"You didn't?"

"No."

"Talk?"

"Yeah. It's this concept where I say something, and then you respond to what I said, and vice versa. Once you get the hang of it, it's easy."

I plucked my icy hands out from between my legs and planted my chin between them to cool the embarrassment painting my cheeks. My own fidgeting made me nervous--foolish and awkward. The guys I'd known rarely wanted to talk about much of anything. Even so, we ended up draped across my couch, talking.

He told me as a teenager he lived on the south side of Milwaukee, next to a black family, and the little black kids called him Spark, because of the red hair. He said their mother was a single parent, and there were six children, and this poor woman would walk to work each morning hunched against the damp Milwaukee cold, looking like the shadows of each building she passed would swoop down and smother her any minute. Her kids would trail behind her like obedient ducklings, four of them off to school, the other two to day care.

One bitterly cold February morning, he hadn't seen them heading off down the street as he waited for his friend to pick him up for school. It worried him, because every weekday they marched, no matter what the weather. He went over to the house and knocked on the door, and when nobody answered he just walked in. He found the kids huddled around a still form on the floor, sniffling and clinging to each other. The woman was near death. He called 911, and the kids ended up in foster care for months until their mother was well enough to care for them again.

Somehow, I found myself leaning in closer as he told his story, listening with every cell of my body. He mesmerized me with his tale that sounded like a CBS Movie of the Week. It seemed foreign to me, listening to somebody talk instead of the steady spanking of skin on skin punctuated by sighs and grunts. That sort of thing I knew. This talking and dining together made me strange and twitchy.

"Now, you tell me something," he said.

I blinked at him and stared, but he held his silence.

"There's nothing to tell," I finally said. I leaned back and away, crossing my arms over my chest and fixing my eyes on the street light outside the window. I'd found myself doing this from time to time, staring into the amber light and letting my eyes unfocus, and that fuzzy glow would look like a halo, or a light at the end of the tunnel.

"Well, how about telling me where you grew up, or something like that. What was it like being you, as a kid?"

"Dull," I answered. I had no harrowing story.

"One-word answers don't make for very interesting conversation."

"Okay," I sighed. "Dull, and stupid"

"What was your family like?"

"White trash, I suppose. Middle class pretending to be something special." I snapped my gaze back toward him. "You want to play twenty questions, or what?"

"There must've been something you liked," he said.

"My horse. Nothing else. Just my horse." This was ridiculous.

"Your horse," he said. "So you had a horse. That's cool. Kind of rich-kid, isn't it? I mean, not too many people I know could afford to own a horse."

"Neither could we," I said. "My parents ended up selling him."

He didn't miss a beat. "So, what was his name?"

I turned my head away from him and rolled my eyes. "His name was Yeats, except my mom either pronounced it 'yeets' or spelled it 'Y-a-t-e-s'."

"So, I take it your mom didn't name your horse, then?"

"No." I started staring at the fissure in the plaster now, wishing for a quilt of stars instead. "I did."

He stared up again, too, and said softly, "Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths, enwrought with gold and silver light, the blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet ..."

I turned my head away and waved a hand in the air, "Yeah, that."

Later, as I watched him walk down the hall, staring at the hole in his jeans just below his back pocket, I called after him, "Hey, Spark!"

He turned and shot me that sexy smile again.

"Wait a second," I said. "Let me give you my phone number."

I darted into the house and scratched my number onto a piece of paper towel with a dried-up pen. I thrust it out the door at him. "Thanks," he said. "I'll call you."

I never give men my phone number, because they never call, but I was certain this guy would. He had that sort of trustworthy steadiness, like a horse.

"You don't remember my name," he said out of the blue.

He was right. I didn't.

"Actually, I kinda like Spark," I said. Seemed like a good answer.

"I'll call you," he promised, "But when you answer the phone, you have to say my name or I'm hanging up. Deal?"

"That's so stupid."

He was slowly vanishing into the dimness of the hallway as he sauntered off.

"It's not stupid at all," he said. "Goodnight... Jane."

I closed my eyes before closing the door and remembered the rest of the poem:

"But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

The phone rang at 11:30 that night. I picked it up and said, "Dave?"

"Nope," a voice answered. "Talk to you tomorrow, Jane."

Click.

Then the phone jangled me awake at 6 a.m.

"Brian?"

"Two strikes."

"Three and I'm out?"

"Nah. You get unlimited strikes in this game."

Click.

At 7 p.m. that night: "Kevin?"

"Nice try."

Click.

Midnight. "Rumplestilskin?"

"Aw, so close!"

"Is it an R name, then?"

"Maybe."

"Ryan?"

"You only get one guess per phone call, Jane." He seemed to say my name a lot, with emphasis.

"Give me a hint. Is it an weird name, or a normal one?"

"I'll give you one hint. It is a popular name, and it's not Rumplestilskin."

"That's two hints."

"Consider it a bonus."

Click.

4 a.m., waking me from a sound sleep. I literally screamed into the phone, "Ron, Randy, Robert, Raymond, Rick!"

Static silence. I heard life on the other end of the line, soft breathing.

"Mom?" I said.

A snorted laugh answered.

"Spark!"

"It's one of those names you just shouted at me," he said slowly. "And by the way, thank you. I'm deaf in one ear, now."

"Which one?" I cried. "Not which ear. I mean, which name?"

"You tell me," he purred. "If you can tell me in one guess, I'll come over right now."

I pinched my legs together to savor the luscious swelling in my groin. I felt a familiar glow rising in my body. I was fire-eating again. "If you come over, are we going to talk some more?"

"At four in the morning? No. I was thinking we'd make love. But if you'd rather talk, or sleep..."

"No!"

He laughed like warm syrup.

"I mean, no. I like talking, but right now--"

"One guess."

I couldn't believe how he'd made me want him. The thing of it was, I don't think until that moment he'd even known he was doing it. But in the midst of the talking and the curiosity, somehow this had become a sexy little game. I breathed consciously, closing my eyes in the darkness, memorizing his fiery hair and gemstone eyes, how I'd straddled his hips that evening after the car accident, picturing the hole in his jeans where a patch of alabaster flesh shone through. And remembering how I'd told him about Yeats and he'd actually listened and not laughed.

"Rick," I whispered my guess.

Click.

Robert, Raymond, Randy... what was the other name? I had to remember the other name I'd shouted. I knew I'd yelled five names. For some reason, I remembered the cadence. Rick was one of them, and he'd hung up. Robert. He didn't look much like a Robert, or a Raymond, for that matter. Randy was a possibility. I decided that the next time he called, I would use Randy and hope it worked. Otherwise, I had three more names to go, one of which I couldn't remember.

I stared into the darkness, sprawled across my bed with the covers pulled up to my chin. The ticking of the alarm clock beside my head drummed mindlessly. I glanced over to look at the glowing hands on its face. It was about 4:30 a.m. The mattress groaned beneath me as I turned my back to the glaring clock. I hadn't progressed to a clock radio. The jangle of an old-fashioned alarm bell was the only thing that could raise me from the death of slumber. Tonight, I was wide awake, and I knew there would be no more sleep.

Suddenly I slammed upright in bed. Aha! Star-69! I remembered that the phone company had this thing where you could dial star-69 and they would tell you the last number that called your line. Giddy, I turned on the desk lamp and dialed, a pen poised in my hand over a hot pink Post-it notepad. I would turn the tables and call him with my next guess.

"We're sorry," the sugared electronic voice on the phone said, "The last number to call your line is not available."

I howled my defeat, slammed the phone down, turned off the light and flopped back onto the lumpy bed. I couldn't remember ever feeling this way about a guy. After the high school crushes, the ones you always remember with bittersweet nostalgia, there was nothing but an endless parade of men in and out of my life. It was easier when they didn't stay, and you didn't get attached. It was easier when you didn't give phone numbers, and you just said goodbye at the door in the morning--or even that same night--and they went their merry way. Now, here I was, fascinated.

I closed my eyes, hoping to sleep for just a while, knowing dawn would spread its amber glow over the city soon. I silently made plans to spend the coming morning in bed, at least until noon. I waited for the phone to ring again. I wanted my next chance. It had to be Randy. It was either Randy or that other name I couldn't remember. When I opened my eyes again to stare up at the ceiling some more, the room was a subtle shade lighter. The morning had awakened.

Then I heard the knocking.

I stumbled out of bed and shrugged into my robe, naked beneath. When I flung the apartment door open, light from the hallway spilled in and I blinked at the shadow in the doorframe. All I could see, haloed by the hall light behind, was a tumble of matchstick red hair. I could hear his steady breathing, and feel his solid presence there in the dimness. I could smell him, a soft natural scent like wind and sunlight.

"Rick!" I cried, and dragged him in the door.


Karen Hertzberg started her writing career like many
writers -- scratching out feature articles for her community
newspaper. She was a columnist for the internationally distributed
magazine, "The Leader," a gig from which she still receives odd mail
from Japan seeking advice on grooming cocker spaniels. She writes a
monthly column for the literary zine, Cotworld Online
(http://www.cotworld.com), called "The Codependent's Guide to Life."
Raising two small children and acting as webmaster and content
writer for her web community, Coffeehouse for Writers
(http://www.coffeehouse4writers.com), assures the permanent removal
of the words "spare time" from her life. "Spark" is her first
serious foray into fiction since she peered out from where she was
secretly scrawling short stories under the covers with a pen, a
spiral notebook, and a flashlight.

 

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