Halfborn Woman (V. Diane Woodbrown)

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  The summer started out sticky and lonely. I didn't do much of anything except play dominoes with Audi out by the pool, and then otherwise lie around, listening to the Rolling Stones' "Shattered!" and feeling sort of sorry for myself.

Audi had just beaten me for the third game in a row when Mr. E. called and hung up after one ring, as per our code. Shortly after that I left to meet him on our usual corner. He pulled up in his air-conditioned car and I got in, rubbing my arms as if I had stepped into a freezer.

"Is your shirt on inside out?" was the first thing he said.

"Well, hello to you too. What kind of a depressing question is that?"

"I think it's on wrong," Mr. E. said again, with some concern. I looked down at it, my white collared pullover, definitely inside out, over my short pleated navy skirt.

"Does it bother you?" I asked.

"I'm not sure what to make of it. Should you fix it before we go out?" Mr. E., I noticed, didn't look so hot himself. He had a weathered old face and when he turned to the side like that it almost seemed like he had a double chin.

"You aren't taking me to lunch if I don't?"

"I'll take you to lunch any old way you want, sugar, I just don't know...I don't know what to make of you, Arlen." He had started the car and checked behind us for traffic.

"Don't make me anything, all right?" I said. feed me."

At the Veranda, Mr. E. ordered the pot roast special with carrots and celery and I asked for coffee and French fries. I was in the mood for French fries. Mr. E. could not keep from judging everything about me. He wanted me to order a full meal, to have tea instead of coffee, to try the dessert. He wanted to know why I was slouching, why my eyes were red, and he continued to mention the shirt until I finally slouched down, pulled it off over my head, turned it right-side-right, and drew it back on right there at the table. He was a little stunned. I thought he was going to choke on his beef.

"I'm strung out, okay?" I said to him finally. He had seemed like he was looking for a single solid answer to all my unorderly goings on.

"Are you doing drugs?" he asked after a minute. I was so surprised to hear him ask this that I couldn't help but laugh. What a sheltered girl I really was. Drugs had never seriously crossed my mind.

"Let me tell you a joke," I said, hoping to cheer old Mr. E. up.

"All right," he said, agreeably, but a little reserved. "Go ahead."

"Okay. What did the dresser say to the table?" I could see he was amused, even charmed again. He smiled broadly and took a sip of his lemoned water, swirling the ice a little before he did.

"Tell me," he said.

"I see your legs. Well, so what, the table said back. I see your drawers." Mr. E. settled back into his chair as if now his head had cleared.

"Very cute, Arlen," he said.

"I have another. Okay, what did the painter say to the wall?" Mr. E. shook his head. "One more crack like that and I'll plaster you." I thought that one was really clever and made me look clever too. I started laughing, thought I'd laugh my head off. Then I took a French fry and ate it as a reward.

"You're a living doll, Arlen," Mr. E. said. "You're completely irresistable, you know that?" I considered myself, my Mickey Mouse watch, my little navy skirt, my oxford shoes.

"I'm dressed like a schoolgirl, Mr. E.," I said, just feeling like it. "Is that what you like?" I was surprised, myself, to have posed such a question, but I suppose it had been lurking for some time, or maybe what was lurking was my wanting to shock old Mr. E.

"Come on," he said, staring at me and turning red. "You're always irresistible to me."

"Oh, you're just flattering me because I went all out and put my shirt on right." Mr. E. did not look at all happy then but I realized I didn't care. So I had embarrassed him. He was only an old man I wanted to use in some way, I just couldn't figure out how.

"Arlen, honey, are you sure you're all right?"

"I don't know," I said. "I'm broke and I'm tired."

"You need money, sugar? Doesn't your father give you money?"

"I don't want money. I want to be doted upon." Mr. E. sat silently and I studied his face. It was a good friendly face with a strong jaw and nice eyes, but his nose came to a most unflattering point, his ears stuck out to the sides, and he always had SO MUCH facial hair poking through his skin -- even when he said he'd shaved.

"You seem blue, sugar."

"Do you want to make love to me?" I suddenly said. "I want to know." Mr. E's face froze up and lost its color as though he'd just been bitten by a vampire. He was horrified, but I didn't care.
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Excerpted from Halfborn Woman by V. Diane Woodbrown. Copyright © 1998 by V. Diane Woodbrown. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.