“Heaven help us, and hell leave us be,” the old lady muttered through toothless gums, as she shuffled down the sidewalk.
The cruel wind whipped around her ankles and nipped at the hem of her thick, woolen skirt. The top button was missing from her coat, so she gathered her collar about her neck in a weak, arthritic grip, and tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the cold from barreling down and pounding at her chest through her thin dress.
The claw of her right hand clutched the handles of her cheap, black purse.
She inched along the sidewalk, taking small, unsure steps, marking her progress with the delicate caution of the very aged. She would never have ventured out today had it not been for Geoffrey, but the boy had almost had a stroke when she suggested postponing her trip until tomorrow.
Tomorrow. . . tomorrow. . . tomorrow. . .
“Maybe it won’t be so cold and windy tomorrow,” she said. “Geoffrey, have a heart. Let an old lady have the day off. It’s a bear outside, Geoffrey. It really is. And maybe tomorrow, I won’t freeze. Wait until tomorrow, please.”
Maybe my old bones won’t wither beneath my skin if I could only wait until tomorrow.
“Hadn’t the man on the radio said it would be warmer, then?”
It would be so much better for me if you would just be patient. If you could just wait a little longer, Geoffrey. Wait until tomorrow. Please, Geoffrey. Have pity on a poor, old woman. Let me go tomorrow.
Tomorrow. . . tomorrow. . . tomorrow. . .
But that boy had thrown a fit.
“Can’t you see I need my stuff now? What is wrong with you? Why are you giving me grief? Isn’t it your job to do what I ask? What in God’s name am I paying you for?” he raged.
It isn’t enough, she decided. Whatever you’re paying me, it is definitely not enough.
So, she dutifully got ready to go out and brave the elements.
When she opened the door, the frigid blast knocked her sideways. She looked over her shoulder in the vain hope that Geoffrey would tell her he’d changed his mind. He would wait, after all.
She hesitated, waiting expectantly.
He must have felt the icy air race down the hall and rush through the opened bedroom door, for he bellowed at her to goddamn hurry up and get going!
She refrained from slamming the door.
It would have been a spiteful, little protest, she knew, one that would have given her much pleasure, but such things only kindled Geoffrey’s anger.
He would hold onto those feelings while she was away, letting them seethe inside his belly, churning, incubating, festering, rotting while he waited for her to return home from the errand, cold and exhausted. He would wait until she entered his room, and then he would let her have it. He would unleash his outrage upon her, spewing out the acid abuse of his pent-up fury with all the force he could muster.
It was a storm and tirade that she could live without, she decided.
She closed the door softly and made her way gingerly down the steps. A rueful smile shadowed her expression.
How had she let herself go so far down this Road of No Return?
It had not always been this way, she brooded.
No, no, no, her life had certainly not always been this way. . . once, upon a lifetime ago.
She had been a drop-dead beauty in her day, ravishingly gorgeous, and capable of igniting the testosterone firecracker of a man into an iron-hard rocket that burned to take her on a celestial ride. Her lips and fingernails were always painted in the deepest shades of matching red, and this brash shock of color only accentuated the pearl-like luster of her skin and smile.
Her face was framed in undulating waves of silkiness: the blondest of blondes—platinum.
Her cocktail dresses were lavish in design and were cut to flatter the winding curves of a body so voluptuous that it only took one look, and men were besotted with lust.
Her name was Ernestine Montaglio, but she called herself Ruby.
The gem of fire and desire.
Of romance and love.
Ruby hated the bitter cold and the gusting winds that battered her body. She silently cursed Geoffrey for forcing her out into such weather. Phlegm gathered in the back of her throat, and she hawked up an enormous wad and spat it on the sidewalk.
Take that you bugger, she thought to herself, but it was too cold to find pleasure in spitting hock-wads at Geoffrey’s imaginary face. It was a game she often played, but today the weather was just too brutal to enjoy even the simplest pleasures.
She slowly approached the small convenience store located three blocks away from their home. Glowing neon signs in the windows of the store filled the street with splashes of gaudy color. Ruby saw hints of those faded hues mirrored in wet areas along the curb. The shop had a worn look, a greasy feel, and a bone-tired weariness that reflected the neighborhood.
The door banged with a hollow thud behind her.
“Hi-yah, doll,” said the man behind the counter. “What can I do you for today?”
It was a very bad play, and Ruby knew what his lines would be before the clerk opened his mouth.
Every single one.
She repeated this scene as smoothly as if they’d rehearsed together and played out their skit for a thousand nights in a thousand one-night openings.
And maybe they had.
She would have preferred silence, but he seemed to need the chatter, so she played her part.
“Same’s always,” Ruby said, her toothless gums and rubbery lips forming words with wet, mushy sounds, like shoes walking along marsh bottoms in rainy seasons.
“O.K., doll,” he said and began to gather the half dozen dirty magazines from behind the register. “Know just what you’re needing. Got just the ones you want right here.”
He was balding and unkempt. His stale, wrinkled shirt seemed to bear the stains of many past meals. He wore his trousers low, and loosely belted, beneath an overhanging belly. When he bent over to retrieve the magazines, Ruby was blessed with a view of angry red pimples that disappeared into the dark crevasse that split in half the rounded acres of mounded, dimpled butt cheeks.
He should display them on racks. She smiled at the thought.
The magazines or the ass?
Either would be appropriate.
At least, the man behind the counter knew Geoffrey’s taste, and he bagged the order quickly. A simple task, she imagined, for she’d never known Geoffrey to change his order.
She recalled how the first time before sending her out shopping, Geoffrey had phoned ahead and gave the clerk instructions on exactly the ones he had wanted to purchase. That had been a long time ago, but from then on, her routine had never varied. Come down, pick up the smut, and trudge back home.
At least, she never had to pay the man. That was one less worry for her, and Geoffrey probably liked keeping her in the dark about how much he paid for this trash. He must have made arrangements with the storekeeper to keep a running tab.
That would be convenient for Geoffrey. Not pay-as-you-go, but some kind of pay-by-the-month plan.
Geoffrey kept her in the dark about the mail and the bills. She left the bills on a nightstand by Geoffrey’s bed and put the stamped envelopes out in the mailbox by the door. She wondered if she should mention again that he could have these magazines sent in the mail.
Heaven only knew, it would be more convenient for her if Geoffrey had them delivered to the house, but Ruby’s convenience never entered Geoffrey’s mind.
He liked making her run his little errands. He got off on it. She could tell.
Not that she was surprised.
Geoffrey can’t get off for real, Ruby thought, and she gathered up the parcel, holding it close to her chest.
Poor Geoffrey had to make do with paper women, gloss and fantasy, the cheap imitation of true flash and heat. She could show that slob some real sizzle, she mused, and tricks he would never find printed upon the pages of his precious porn.
Fat chance, she thought, and she turned to leave.
“Give Mr. Channing my regards, doll,” he said.
“You bet,” she responded.
Like I will.
She let the door bang behind her and started back home.
The wind had not let up. If anything, it had strengthened. She looked up and down the street and tried to discern any signs of trouble ahead. Young bucks forever prowled the streets looking for easy prey, and her greatest fear was to be overtaken by them. She was elderly and weak.
Ripe and vulnerable.
She was a perfect target, and she knew it.
Who would come to the aid of a dried-up, old hag sprawled out flat in the streets, she mused, squinting harder to bring the scene in focus.
Nobody, that’s who.
She grunted disgustedly and continued on her journey.
All the do-gooders who might lend me a well-meaning hand are six-feet under and lying in a little pile of dust and ashes.
Every single one.
At least in this neighborhood. Years ago, everyone had known everyone. But, not anymore. Times had changed, and Time had passed her by.
She heard the threat before she saw it. The laughter of two males grew louder as they came upon her.
“Hey, what we got us here, Bro?” the taller one said.
She dropped the magazines and stared wide-eyed at the double danger.
The other one stepped up to her and pushed his face close to hers. She smelled the hot, sour rankness of cheap booze.
“Come on, Pretty Mama, le’s see wha’ ya givin’ up.”
He snatched her purse. Peering inside, he grabbed the dollar bills and whooped.
“Hey, Mama, ya one rich bitch, ain’t ya?”
“How much?” the taller one asked.
“Two dubyas,” he answered.
“Hell, I don’t cross the street for no less than three,” the tall one said, slamming a fist full of brass hard into her face,
He let the two one dollar bills fall to the street.
Ruby hit the concrete with a dull thud. Lights out. The magazines she had dropped lay scattered about her like a quilt spread beneath her still body.
Someone was calling from some distant place.
She was so sleepy. The numbing cold was like an anesthetic. It would be heaven just to give in, give up, and close her eyes forever.
“Hey! Lady! Wake up! Wake up! Lady! You alright?”
That voice again.
Not so muffled, now.
A man stood over her, and through the lifting fog inside her brain, she managed to make sense of what he was saying.
“You want me to call the cops or something, Lady?”
“No,” Ruby grunted.
Her face was bleeding. She felt the sticky frozen ooze against her cheek.
“You hurt? Let’s see if we can get you up. Jesus, you a mess!” he said as he helped her roll over. “You can’t lay here like this, Lady. You gotta get up. You’ll freeze solid!”
He helped her to a sitting position. After a moment, he was able to get her to her feet.
“Here’s your package,” he said, gathering up the debris around her. “And a coupla’ dollar bills. Least they didn’t take your money.”
“Thanks,” she said as he handed her the sack.
“No offense, Lady, but you don’t look so good. Better get to the clinic. Let them check that face out.”
“I’ll be o.k. Just got the wind knocked out of me, ‘s all.”
She staggered a bit, testing her weight. She was sore as hell, all over, but nothing seemed broken. She held the bag close to her chest.
“Gotta get these to Geoffrey,” she muttered.
She walked away, leaving the man standing in the middle of the empty sidewalk.
Her head was throbbing.
As she twisted the key in the lock, she felt its grinding resistance.
Gonna have to replace it soon, she thought, entering the gloomy hallway.
The house was dark, even in the daylight hours. Dark, dank, and musty. Every window stayed closed, every curtain and every shade drawn.
Geoffrey preferred it that way.
Ruby, however, did not. She craved light.
Even as a young working girl, she could remember rising at noon, when the sun was at its highest point in the sky, and walking to the little park near her apartment.
She loved to waste hours there.
She would sit on her favorite bench beside an enormous, old oak tree. Under its leafy umbrella, she loitered as children played around her. Their tiny forms raced in front of her with happy abandon, their laughter mingling with bird songs. She would sit quietly, preferring to talk to no one, content to watch the sun filter through the leaves and paint the children with dappled shades of purple and golden light.
Many years had passed; the park was just a memory.
Now, she lived in Geoffrey’s cave, and she loathed its depressing gloom. The rooms reeked. No matter what she did, she could not wash clean the stagnant air that cried out for sunshine and fresh breezes.
She stood near the door of Geoffrey’s room. It was cracked. She heard the blaring noise of bells and buzzers. A plastic voice cheered one second, consoled the next.
Game shows, she mused. Bunch’a cheap jollies for the chronically brain dead.
She hated game shows, too, she decided.
“Geoffrey? Do you want your stuff? I’m back.”
“Course I do, you fat cow. Where’ve you been? It’s not like I got all day.”
What else you got, if not all day, she thought, pinching her tongue between her gums before the thoughts escaped into vocalized syllables, and Geoffrey heard them.
She entered his room.
The rank smell was stronger here. He had not bathed for a long time and was naked, except for the sheet draped over his waist. The once white cotton sheeting was a tangle of dingy gray and fell to the middle of his thighs.
“You look like hell,” he said to her.
“Mugged. Feels like a jackhammer’s bustin’ through right here,” she said, pointing to the bridge of her nose.
“Life’s a bitch, ain’t it?” he stated. “They didn’t pinch my shit, did they?”
She laid the magazines on the bed beside him.
“No. They only took my purse. Left the money and your magazines, but took the purse. Can’t even begin to wonder why? Don’t want to, either. Makes my head hurt even more.”
“Well, thank God for small favors. Just got your purse, huh?”
“Yeah,” she answered.
“Hell, that’s no great loss. You get ‘um all the time down at the thrift store. Cost ya, what, fifteen, twenty cents? Nuthin’ to cry about. What ‘cha standin’ round for? Stop wasting my time, and start supper. I’m starved.”
She turned to leave.
“And try to fix something edible, for a change. Not that crap you’ve been cooking lately.”
She went to the kitchen and wet a dishtowel. Sitting down heavily in the first chair she came to, she attempted to wash up. Her face was tender. A brownish-red bloodstain quickly muddied the dishtowel. She finished her face and took an inventory of her clothes. Her coat had taken most of the spatter. Her dress looked pretty good, she observed, looking down her front.
Her headache was easing, so her biggest concern now, she decided, was fixing something ‘edible’ to appease Geoffrey’s insatiable appetite.
That boy wouldn’t be happy tasting pies in a pie factory.
There had been nothing wrong with the meals she had prepared lately.
She knew. She’d eaten them herself, and try her hardest, she’d be damned if she could ever figure out how to satisfy that boy.
He always complained and fussed about her cooking, but Ruby knew he devoured anything she gave him with ravenous pleasure.
Bitching and moaning was as much a part of the boy’s life as breathing, she decided.
She was doomed.
She would never be able to make him happy, no matter how hard she tried.
Geoffrey would never change.
Wearily, she spread her hands upon the table and heaved herself up. It was time to see what she had on hand to fix for dinner.
She moved to the sink, secretly sliding the curtains open.
The afternoon sunlight lit the room and seemed to lift her mood. She would leave them open. What Geoffrey didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt him, she determined and began digging in the cabinets through her canned goods.
She felt a warm, furry brush against her leg and rose to greet the cat.
“Sylvester. How’s Mama’s boy, today?” she asked. “What have you been up to while Mama was out, pretty boy? Catching up on your beauty sleep, if I know you.”
He started the engine in his throat and brushed his neck against her ankle. The warm silky contact felt good.
“Such a good boy. Yes, you are. Let’s get you fed first, o.k.? Mama’s gonna look after her baby boy, yes sir. That ogre in the back room can wait. Can’t he, my pretty fellow?”
She looked down the hall toward Geoffrey’s room.
“That ole’ boar holed up back there can feed off his own blubber while I take care of you. Won’t hurt him one bit, will it?” Ruby whispered to her pet.
The cat looked up at meowed at her.
“That’s right, baby. Mama loves her pretty boy. Yes, she does. Such a good Sylvester. Such a good boy, you are.”
She opened a can of cat food and emptied it into a saucer. She bent and placed it before the purring feline.
Three cans sat on the counter from the four pack of Pretty-Kitty Vittles.
She sniffed the empty can and smiled again.
“Smells like the perfect makings for supper, Sylvester. If it’s good enough for Mama’s boy, it’s more than good enough for Geoffrey!”
She opened two new cans of the cat food and emptied them into a bowl. They plopped in wetly and lay there in a moist, brown gelatinous glob.
“Kinda gooey, but I think it will make a nice addition to a meatloaf. Don’t you, Sweetie Pie? Gotta say, Sylvester, Geoffrey won’t be able to complain that it’s dry and tasteless, tonight!”
Sylvester ignored Ruby’s chatter and concentrated on his dinner plate.
Ruby was now a woman on a mission.
She rummaged around in the fridge and retrieved a small pack of hamburger, some ketchup, mustard, and a few other items.
The cat finished his meal and wandered off into another part of the house.
“Waste not, want not,” she said as she bent down and picked up the cat’s saucer.
A large lump of cat food remained on the dish. He never ate it all. There were dried bits of old food smeared all over his dish, as well. Sylvester’s plate was always a mess.
Ruby always thought of it as a buffet for a roach motel, but she never had the heart to clean her cat’s dish. There was no telling when her baby might get hungry, and she couldn’t bring herself to wipe the dish clean and deprive him of a late midnight snack.
But today was different.
She scraped everything into the bowl and began adding the other ingredients she’d placed on the counter. She found a half loaf of bread in a bag on top of the fridge.
No telling how long it had been lying around up there in No Man’s Land.
It was as hard as a rock. Small bits of mold speckled the slices. She untwisted the tie that held it closed and pulled out the few remaining pieces.
The earthy smell of musty yeast hit her nostrils.
Perfect, she thought and began tearing the slices into ragged pieces and placing them into the bowl.
A blender to pulverize the stuff into bread crumbs would have made the job easier, but it had broken long ago.
When she had added all the ingredients, she began kneading the mixture, humming softly to herself. She had a twinge of guilt, worried somehow that the conglomeration would make Geoffrey sick.
It wasn’t the fact that he would be sickened by this mixture that worried Ruby, but it would surely be one hellacious mess to clean up if he started vomiting. She’d probably need a dumpster to hold all the dirty linen.
Oh well. She’d take a chance. Life was all about chances and regrets, mistakes and mishaps, anyway.
Live a little, Ruby told herself.
She flopped the mixture into a loaf pan, making a mental note to pour ketchup all over the top of it when it was nearly done. She turned on the oven and slid the pan onto the center rack.
She searched the cabinets again, finding three boxes of Mac-Ah-Cheese and several cans of vegetables. She filled the pots and began to cook Geoffrey’s dinner in earnest.
Pot lids clattered as liquids boiled, their metallic click and clank rocking the small kitchen. Small puffs of steam blew in tempo with the clack of pot lids.
She pulled out a notepad and pencil from the junk drawer next to the silverware drawer and licked the end of the lead. Her brow creased in thought. The pantry was starting to get bare. She jotted down things she would need tomorrow on her grocery list.
“Hey,” Geoffrey growled, “what’s taking so long, you dried up piece a’ worn-out cunt?”
The slightest whiff of food, Ruby thought, turns you into a real bear. And you really do have the appetite of an ogre!
“I’m going as fast as I can,” she yelled down the hall.
It was the first time she’d raised her voice at him today.
It felt good.
Released some of her stress.
Made her head hurt like hell, but it was still worth it.
Live a little, she repeated to herself.
“Haul ass, you worthless trash heap. I’m telling you, get a move on! Dammit, my guts are growling!”
She turned the knobs of the old gas stove to high, hoping to finish faster, and watched the pots carefully.
Remember the oven, too, she reminded herself. The meatloaf mustn’t dry out or incinerate.
She was so busy trying to get the meal together that she didn’t hear the knock on the back door.
It sounded again.
Louder this time.
She heard the raps and raised her head, closing the oven door.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, startled by the noise.
They never had visitors.
She walked to the window and pulled the curtain back. A man stood framed by the window. Fumbling with the deadbolt, she opened the door as far as the security chain allowed.
“What do you want?” she asked harshly. “Dinner’s gonna burn if I stand here talkin’ to you. And I ain’t got no use for salesmen, neither.”
“I was wondering if I could use your phone,” the man said.
“Sorry,” she said, “I don’t have one myself that you can use. Try another house.”
She moved to close the door.
His hand barred her from closing it, and she saw, for the first time, the steely glint of a gun aimed at her chest.
“Open it,” he demanded.
With shaking fingers, she unlatched the chain. He slid inside.
“You’re not alone,” he stated.
She said nothing, staring at him, saucer-eyed and pale. Her stomach was in her throat, threatening to leap out between her teeth. Her mouth was dry and filled with cotton. Her heart pushed against her rib cage in a flurry of movement too quick to be healthy. She waited for it to explode inside her chest. It felt as if her knees would collapse at any moment. Everything inside her turned to jelly.
“I know you’re not alone,” he said, in a gentler voice. “I know it. So, don’t waste your breath trying to deny it.
You see the gun?
You have no need to worry. I won’t use it unless you make me. Don’t worry. Just do as I say, and I won’t hurt you. I promise.
But cross me, and you won’t live to regret it. I promise that, too.
Now, I’m asking you again, you’re not alone, are you?”
“No,” she answered, finding her voice at last. “You’re right. I’m not alone. I have a cat, Sylvester. He’s wandering around here, somewhere. He won’t hurt you. He’s just a pet. And there’s Geoffrey. Geoffrey’s in the back room.”
She saw the man’s face change at the mention of Geoffrey’s name.
“But don’t worry ‘bout Geoffrey. He won’t cause you any trouble. He’s an invalid. Lives here. This is his house. I take care of him. He don’t get out none. He’s pretty much stuck back there in the bed. He can move, but not much. Doesn’t seem to want to.”
Why do I rattle on like this? Ruby wondered. It’s almost like I can’t stop. Like he’s pulling all this out of me, somehow.
My head feels funny.
Must be the whack I took in the streets.
He had the strangest eyes, Ruby noted, like two dark pools of obsidian. Almost kind. But the glint of the gun caught her eye.
“I need a place to stay, Ruby,” he said. “That’s all. I just need a place to stay for a little while.”
He looked into her eyes. Her lids fluttered, and for an instant, the room jumped nervously about her as if it had been caught in the grip of a seizure.
She felt lightheaded, disconnected.
He knows my name.
Did I tell him my name?
I don’t remember.
I can’t seem to think straight.
Everything is all muddy. I’m so confused. I’m so scared. I can’t think straight.
What is wrong with me?
A stroke, she thought, but the sounds of his voice were once again making sense in her brain, and the moment passed as quickly as it had overtaken her.
He slipped the gun into a jacket pocket.
“All I want is a place to stay,” he said. “That’s all, Ruby. Only a place to stay. I’m as gentle as your feline, Sylvester, as long as you do as I say and give me no trouble.”
Is he hypnotizing me?
I’m so sleepy.
God, it must be a stroke.
That just can’t be.
She shook the cobwebs out of her head. She relaxed just a little. She was feeling better. Maybe it would buy her some time if she just played along.
She sure as hell couldn’t overpower him and take his gun. She looked at the meaty fingers that wrapped around the grip. Pure power was wrapped up in those masculine digits. His nails were clean and short.
And he was handsome, in a dark, swarthy, dangerous sort of way.
The kind of guy she would have loved to have taken home to meet her mother.
She almost smiled.
In her younger days, she would have considered this a lark.
“Okay,” she said. “But I gotta see to Geoffrey’s dinner. He’s such a monster if he isn’t fed on time.”
“He’s the one you take care of, right? Your invalid that rarely leaves his bed.”
“Yeah. But, if you ask me, it’s all in his head. Ain’t nothing wrong with Geoffrey that getting up, leaving those four walls of his, and doing a good day’s work wouldn’t cure.
Needs to get off his duff and exercise. Workout and work off all that pork.
He’s carrying way too much weight. Too much weight for three or four folks put together, you ask me.
Been cooped up in that back room forever, seems like.
Won’t come out for love nor money. Laid around so long, he ain’t no good for nothing. Just a glob of useless human flesh.
But, mister, I gotta stop dawdling, and get him his grub.
He gets real mean-tempered if he ain’t fed regular. Like I said, he don’t move around so good. Too big. He’s pretty much stuck in his bedroom. I don’t think you’ll have to worry none about him. Really. But he does have a mean streak and an acid tongue in his head that works just fine if you know what I mean.”
“Good,” he said. “Well then, you just go about your business and see to his dinner. Act like I’m not here, Ruby. Don’t let your invalid know that I’m here, either. Keep me your secret. I won’t get in your way. Just go on with your routine. You won’t even know I’m here.”
He moved to a far corner of the kitchen and leaned against the wall.
The food had finished cooking, and she hurriedly dished it up onto a serving tray.
“Let me help you,” he said. “It’s way too heavy for a lady to carry.”
He looked at the massive amount of food on the tray.
“I thought you said there was just one guy back there.”
“There is,” she said, suddenly fearful that the enormous amount of food on the tray made her look like a liar. “Only Geoffrey, I swear to God. It’s just, he’s like a mountain man with a hollow leg, and he likes to have plenty to munch on.”
“Easy, Ruby. It’s alright. Everything’s fine. I was just kidding. I know you’re not lying.”
She began the track down the dimly lit hallway.
“It’s a tomb in here,” he whispered. “Your boy likes his shades down, doesn’t he? He keeps them pulled like this all the time, doesn’t he?”
“Always,” she said. “Geoffrey doesn’t like the outside world peeking in.”
“Good ole’ Geoffrey,” he whispered as they neared the door. “I know we’ll get along just fine.”
They stopped outside the door.
“Leave it cracked,” he breathed. “Remember, I’m watching.”
“You decrepit, old bat, you got a boyfriend out there or something?” Geoffrey asked. “I could have sworn I heard voices coming down that hall.”
“Just me, Geoffrey,” she said as she laid the tray beside the bed. “I was talking to myself. I get so lonely sometimes that I need to hear the sound of a human voice.”
“Even if it is my own.”
“Crazy bitch,” he said, digging into the massive heap of food.
“You got enough here to hold you?” she asked.
“For now,” he said, baring his mossy, decayed teeth in his devilish grin.
He attacked the food with a savage vengeance, spilling it and smearing it all over his face. She turned to leave.
“Hey!” he said.
She looked back, anticipating a torrent of criticism.
“This shit’s pretty good,” he said, cramming a piece of meatloaf into his mouth the size of a man’s fist.
“Glad you like it,” she said as she exited.
The man was standing outside the doorway. He shadowed her footsteps, silently trailing her until they both entered the kitchen.
“Now, that’s one mean bastard. He looks nothing like you. He’s not your son?”
“No,” she said. “I just keep house for him. I’m hungry. You want me to fix us something, now?”
“Yeah. That sounds good.”
Canned biscuits, gravy, and scrambled eggs. Simple fare served piping hot. The man dove into it.
He probably hasn’t had a decent meal in a while, she thought.
She finished her dinner and poured him another cup of coffee.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Hey, witch. You comin’ back for this tray, or you gonna sit on your ass until the rats come and clean it off?”
“I’m coming, Geoffrey,” she said wearily.
The man rose and followed her down the hall.
“You’re not related,” he whispered. “But you put up with his abuse.”
“He pays the bills,” she said. “Keeps a roof over my head. Ain’t much of a roof, at that. But, it don’t leak.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
The man stopped outside Geoffrey’s door. He stood like a sentinel, waiting just outside while she entered.
She crossed the room and picked up the tray.
“Don’t have to worry about no rats, Geoffrey,” she said. “Looks like you pretty well cleaned up the crumbs, yourself.”
“Don’t go there, old woman,” he said. “That was a fine meal. I won’t let you ruin it for me. Now leave me alone.”
She gathered the tray and utensils.
“Oh, and try to do as well tomorrow, will ya?”