Continued from: Nocking the List: Part 3 — No Balls
Carl glanced out the bookstore’s window. The sidewalk outside the store was bustling. Carl rarely left the island like this, heading into the city. He stood beside an expanse of magazines on display. Here, he could keep an eye on the sidewalk outside while remaining semi-hidden. This area of the store always catered to lurking customers, some with a few minutes to kill while waiting for a companion to finish browsing for books, others just wanting to be alone. Beside Carl, a twenty-something scratched at his beard with one hand and pulled an issue of High Times with his other. An older man swiveled his head this way and that before snatching the last copy of Maxim, the guy retreating to the edge of the magazine rack—for what, Carl didn’t want to know. Two teenage girls stood a few feet away from Carl, the girls regarding a teen pop magazine, the two of them jockeying for position to view the pictures of prepubescent idols. Carl saw that the girls were looking at pictures of the Jonas Brothers. He grabbed a car magazine from the rack and started flipping through it. He scanned the pages of jacked-up muscle cars and new-age Italian sports cars as he edged toward the girls. They were gushing over the magazine, one girl saying, “…his hair…” the other saying, “…I would do anything for that to happen…” until one of the girls spotted Carl drifting toward them. The girl nudged her friend, the other girl looking up at Carl. He was now standing beside them. The girls set the magazine down and rushed away into other parts of the store.
Carl grabbed the magazine the girls were looking at. The aroma of their cheap perfume lingered around him—fruity, floral, cheap. He devoured the pictures of the pop stars, and he unfurled the pull-out poster of Clay Aiken stapled into the center of the magazine, imagining it was an action shot of himself, the microphone stand riding between his legs, one hand gripping the mic, the other hand extending out to the adoring crowd, index finger curling backward to invite them all to love him. He felt eyes upon him, and he suddenly realized it was not the eyes of an adoring crowd. He looked up to find a man staring at him, an issue of Field and Stream having gone limp in the man’s hand. Carl said, “What?”
The man shook his head and walked away.
Before Carl had a chance to return his attention to the poster, something from outside the store’s window caught his attention. Out on the sidewalk, a beautiful girl with raven black hair and flawless tan skin passed the store. Carl watched after her absentmindedly, wondering why the girl looked familiar, wondering for a moment if she was a celebrity, but then he remembered the Craigslist ad. Carl returned the magazine to the rack, noticing a line drawing of a female figure had fallen to the floor at his feet. He paid it no mind and he darted out of the bookstore.
He looked down the sidewalk. It was littered with casual daytime pedestrian traffic—an elderly woman pushing a stroller, a smartly dressed young man waiting patiently with a plastic bag opened in his hand while his dog squatted on an island of grass. Beyond them, Carl could see the young woman ducking inside a restaurant. He followed in her wake.
Inside the restaurant, Carl hesitated a moment in the darkened foyer. Red Velvety curtains shrouded a small podium where a hostess was having a conversation with one of the waitresses. Carl stood there and fingered a cup of toothpicks, taking inventory of the other items on the podium lip—matchbooks, business cards, a bowl of Starlite Mints. Finally, mid-conversation, the hostess turned to Carl and asked him, “Just one?”
“What?” Carl said, realizing that the word sounded more edgy and more confused than intended.
The waitress standing beside the hostess stared blankly at Carl, but the hostess didn’t break her smile. She said, “Just you today, sir?”
“No,” Carl said, again sounding annoyed, as if she had suggested some asinine premise. He tipped the toothpicks a little too far, and they spilled from the pedestal. He looked down at the pile of toothpicks and then moved past the hostess. He stepped into the bar area of the restaurant.
Carl scanned the room, a seed of panic germinating in his mid-section. He suddenly wondered what the hell he was doing there, meeting some beautiful girl on a blind date. He was gripped with a sudden need to run from the restaurant, but his eyes fell on the girl with the black hair, and he was frozen in place. She was sitting alone at a table. He started toward her, but then stopped, again gripped by an overwhelming urge to run away. It was similar to the feeling he had before bolting from Vincent Stone’s office, but he recognized the motivations behind the two feelings greatly differing. When he took off from the lawyer’s office, he was nudged forward by anger. Here, in the restaurant, it was something closer to fear that invoked the need for a quick exit. He wasn’t the guy who approached strange women like this. He stood, still, contemplating his next move. He regarded the people seated at the bar. They seemed to know what they were doing there, chatting in easygoing, confident manners. An older woman was drumming her fingers on the bar beside the stem of her martini glass while a portly gentleman, wearing self-importance on his sleeve, driveled on with some story. A pair of robust young women cackled and hollered comments across the shiny bar top at the bartender. Carl watched the bartender flash an obligated smile toward them, and as he did so, Carl spotted something that some might call an omen. The bartender was in the midst of pouring a glass of wine from a bottle. The bottle had the design of Klimt’s The Kiss on the label. The bartender handed the glass of wine to the waitress that had been talking to the hostess a moment before. The waitress brought the glass over to the raven-haired girl.
Carl took a deep breath and tried to make sense of this omen, still waffling on his decision to stay or flee. The raven-haired girl smiled and thanked the waitress, and then she looked over toward Carl. She cocked her head in a questioning manner.
By instinct, Carl walked toward her, but as he neared the table, he was suddenly unable to summon any words, he had become lost for a moment in the girls beautiful, light eyes.
She cocked her head again and said, “Carl?”
“Stacey?” he said to her.
“Yes,” she said.
Of course, her name was not Stacey. Her name was Sophie Monroe.
Silence hung between them for a moment. Carl wanted something witty to say, but he had nothing, just dumb silence.
The girl said, “Hey, what’s up?” She said it very nonchalantly, like they’d known each other for years. Carl liked that, and he felt a little more at ease. She stood and leaned toward him as if going to give him a hug, and there he was with his hand held out to be shaken. She stopped and adjusted to the handshake, while Carl leaned in for the hug. They both laughed as they met in an awkward embrace. She then motioned to the chair across from her and said, “Have a seat.”
Carl stood beside the table, still unable to respond as the waitress reappeared at the table, the waitress saying to Stacey/Sophie, “He want something?”
Carl, still standing beside the table, glared at the waitress and said, “He wants a scotch and water.”
The waitress, still not acknowledging Carl, walked away toward the bar.
Carl sat down across from Sophie, still unable to think of anything worthwhile to say. Thankfully, she broke the ice, saying, “Right on time, Carl. I respect a punctual man.”
He shrugged, saying, “Yeah, well.” Nothing more came to mind. His hands were clammy and he spun them in the white napkin of the table’s setting. His mind was spinning with questions: How did it come to this? How could he have wasted so many years with Mandy and let himself wind up an out of shape, socially-deprived nitwit chasing girls from internet ads? And how did he end up with a girl like this from an internet ad? And how long until he sent her running?
After another awkward silence, the girl made an attempt at small-talk, the girl saying, “So, what exactly does a guy like Carl White do?”
Carl began to say, “Well, I…” But he was cut short as the waitress placed the Scotch in front of him.
Without a word, the waitress walked off toward the bar, and the girl across from Carl focused her attention on him again. Her eyes seemed to acknowledge his struggle for communication, and she invited him to continue. The expression reminded Carl of Jane Goodall speaking to a chimp. She said, “So where were we?”
Carl tried to build the conversation again from the ground up, aching to gain some confidence. He said, “We were at the usual get to know you chit-chat, I guess.”
“Okay, so, let’s see, you’re from an island originally?”
“Yeah. Mystic Island. It isn’t far from here. Small community. Nice. Where are you from again?”
“Pittsburgh, born and raised.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. And what is it you do there?” Carl asked.
“How’s that working out for you?”
“All right, I guess. At least, when they can keep me from dancing on the bar top it’s all right.”
“Really? You dance on the bar?”
“No, Carl, I was just making a joke,” Sophie said.
“Oh.” There was more awkward silence. Carl finally said, “So what brings you to this area?”
“Just visiting. I wanted to check out the historical sites and all.”
Carl perked in his seat. “Really?” he said.
“Oh, yeah. I love history. Especially Revolutionary War stuff. I mean, to think, birth of a nation and all that.”
“That’s amazing,” Carl said. “I’m a huge history buff. Especially military history.”
“Yeah. I know. You mentioned something about that when we spoke on the phone the other night. You collect historical memorabilia and such, right?”
“Yeah. I have some great pieces.”
“I’d love to see them.”
“Why didn’t you mention anything about being into history when we spoke on the phone?” Carl asked.
“I did. Remember?”
Carl shook his head, feeling a flush of heat in his face, a fusion of embarrassment and Scotch.
Sophie laughed. “First you don’t remember where I’m from, now you don’t remember that I love history. Real observant, Carl.”
“For some reason I thought you were from Ohio. And I don’t know why I don’t remember the history bit. I must’ve been nervous. I don’t really respond to those Craigslist ads.”
“I guess that’s understandable. So, do you have any recommendations for what historical sites to see? I’m not even sure where to begin. I feel like I need a personal assistant just to navigate it all.”
Carl perked even more in his seat, his voice beginning to wind in speed, “Well this is certainly the place for history, especially Revolutionary War era history, and there’s…” As he spoke, he envisioned himself with this girl, making love in a pile of war memorabilia. And then a sudden dread came over him. How does he get this girl to his house? “Hey, have you ever heard of Mystic Island?”
“Um, yeah, Carl, you just said it’s where you’re from.”
Carl flushed again, but his voice kept speaking, seemingly independent of his brain, “Well there is a ton of history there, right back to when the Indians populated it, and then there’s some colonial era stuff, some Civil War era stuff. It’s also been voted by several paranormal societies and publications as one of the most haunted places in America. If you believe in that kind of stuff. But the structures on the island are very cool. A lot of Victorian type stuff from when the residents thought it was going to become some great metropolitan hub. And even though that plan failed, a lot of the structures have stayed the same to this day. A huge hospital and prison, both of which are still used today. There are old churches with more legends surrounding them than can be counted. Captain’s houses, like Captain Price and Captain Damon, and the wreck of the Dutch Horse, and then there’s a lighthouse, and even haunted woods where kids have disappeared for hundreds of years…” Carl stopped.
Sophie was staring at him before saying, “Wow, that sure was a lot of information, Carl.”
Carl looked down at the table. “Sorry. I can get a little carried away at times.”
“So what’s some of the historical memorabilia that you have?”
“Mostly World War II pieces. I have some Nazi pieces that are pretty valuable with the skin-head crowd.”
Sophie twisted her expression. “Skinheads?” The twisted face was a bit of an act on her part. Of course she knew skinheads would be the ones collecting that stuff. Who else would want it?
“Not that I like skin-heads,” Carl said. The words sounded forced and ridiculous to his ears. After all, he thought, who does like skinheads? Or, at least, who would proclaim that they do on a first date? “But they can really drive up the value of some of the pieces,” Carl said. “I also have Infamy Cards.” He said this with an air of self-importance.
“I’d love to see them.”
“Really?” Carl’s voice cracked slightly.
“Of course I would,” the girl said.
For a moment, Carl was twelve years old all over again, and the hot cheerleader was thrusting her cleavage his way, asking if she can copy his homework. And, even though he knew she’d never look at him until the next time she needed to copy his work, he obliged. But this was different. This girl seemed to have sincere interest in what he was saying.
“You sound surprised by that,” the girl said.
“Not many girls are interested in that kind of stuff.”
“Well, I’m not like many girls.”
Carl said as if to himself, “I guess not.”
“So how about it?” Sophie said, “You want to show me your goods, Carl?”
Carl probably should have listened to his inner voice, which at that moment was saying , That was way too easy.