Beckman’s heart sank as a familiar figure entered the café.
There was no point in trying to look away, bury his nose in his coffee cup, or whip up a book to cover his face.
Note to self: always carry a book.
Tyler would notice him. It was a foregone conclusion, because (1) like he, Tyler would be scouring the room for potential customers, (2) things always went right for Tyler, and (3) Beckman’s personalised license plate would stand out in a small parking lot.
Of course, it wasn’t impossible that Tyler would notice him and ignore him. Maybe even make do with a courteous nod.
At times like these, the Jaws theme wormed into Beckman’s head. He caught the moment Tyler painted on a good-natured expression, bypassed the short register queue, and lasered-in on his co-worker.
Beckman initiated a look of cheery humour, sipped his traditional beverage nonchalantly, and waited to feel the soft impression from multiple rows of sharky pearly-whites.
‘Crossing boundaries now, Becky? Tsk tsk.’
Despite many years of Tyler Quittle’s innocent-yet-offensive nickname, it never bounced off him without an unseen wince. He’d given up hope that the man would finally realise his gentle jibe had no effect. Or would get bored with it. Or come up with something, if not better, then at least different.
So, ignoring the term of non-endearment (as usual), Beckman focussed on the allegation of territorial infraction. Tyler had made an error because he didn’t get it. Like he didn’t get women. Or Beckman’s vastly different persona. Or the concept of generally being pleasant.
‘Afternoon to you too, Tyler. I get where you’re coming from, so put away the wiseass. Yeah—so this branch is not inside my sales patch, but it’s not verboten. Neither is taking a damn holiday in the Rockies. I’m drinking coffee, not trying to steal your precious customers.’
Tyler Quittle’s perfect blue eyes, set into his roguish face, narrowed, as he sought bluff in Beckman’s defence. Then, eyeing Beckman as if he’d throw a punch or morph into a unicorn, he eased into the moulded black plastic seat opposite. ‘Sure?’
Beckman merely sipped his brew. ‘Do I look that dumb to sneak onto your territory?’
Tyler nodded slowly, accepting this at face value. ‘Be a damn sight easier if you weren’t obsessed with this damn place. You know—coffee’s coffee.’
The nerve of the man.
‘I happen to like Coffee Planet—okay? So I’m about four miles over your border? Live and let live. I’ll be gone in two minutes.’
‘Cos if I catch you pitching to—’
‘Blow it out your ass, Tyler.’
‘Easy, Becky, easy.’
They mentally circled each other for a minute. Beckman sipped his soon-to-be-too-cold brew.
Tyler drummed his fingers on the table. ‘Any hot plans tonight? But—why do I ask, huh?’ He smirked.
Lesser men would have put their fist through the man’s face. Luckily, the angel on Beckman’s shoulder had long-ago blinded the opposing devil, using robes searingly white and starched, causing the little red guy to topple five feet to his death and impale himself on his trident for good measure.
‘Just a regular Friday, wind up the working week. I won’t ask about you.’
Nonetheless, Tyler grandstanded, ‘Having Valentine’s at home with Jennah.’
‘Jennah? Wow. That’s over a week now. Is that a record?’
‘Can it, Beckman.’
‘Barely once a decade we get a woman—besides Miss B—at the office, but you don’t hang about. And she’s sticking with you even after her two-week locum stretch? Kudos to you, Tyler. Kudos to you.’
Tyler’s gaze again drilled into Beckman’s soul, searching for the flannel, but Beckman was too good at fake pleasantry to be discovered. Ten years alongside T. Quittle had oiled his battle armour nicely.
‘Well—she knows a good thing. Knows how to keep a guy happy too. We’re getting takeout and I’m watching some hoops with a few beers.’
‘You old romantic.’
‘If she’s happy—fine.’
‘Let’s see if she’s still curled up with you this time next year. Or even month.’
‘Like I’d take dating advice from you, Becky. About as much use as taking tips about the job. What are you—about half my total?’
‘I don’t watch other people’s sales numbers, Tyler. Waste of time.’
Tyler sneered. ‘Yeah—too depressing, I guess.’ He patted the table like a drum, then rose. ‘Have a beautiful weekend. Say hello to your lizard.’
Then he left.
‘It’s a leopard gecko,’ Beckman breathed to nobody.
Arizona’s February twilight was falling as he reached his apartment building. It had been a pretty slow week—only 1122 miles—but he was looking forwards to getting inside and shutting out the over-commercial wash of hearts and flowers which subsumed society.
A delivery guy stood at the door of the apartment opposite. Not the parcel or takeout kind—more individual. The only clue that he was a delivery guy was that he was delivering something. Something with a smell. A good smell.
‘Thanks,’ EJ said. Beckman sensed she meant gratitude, but that her heart wasn’t in it—like she’d ordered a new wristwatch and in the meantime suffered a lower-arm amputation.
‘Have a good night,’ Delivery Guy chirped.
Beckman nodded the customary Never Going To See You Again hello-goodbye to the guy as he passed, then returned his attention to EJ as she lifted the two bags inside her doorway.
‘Hi, EJ.’ He’d never been told what EJ stood for, nor asked, nor expected to find out. EJ liked to be called EJ, and probably only her parents or boyfriend knew the E and the J of it. She lived across the hall, she was pleasant, she took in his deliveries while he was out (he was usually out, but equally ordered little), and they exchanged more conversation than he did with, for example, delivery guys.
‘Hey, Beckman. You’re home—means it’s the weekend.’
He flashed a smile. ‘And Valentine’s, don’t forget—although I see you didn’t forget. Or Jerome didn’t forget.’
She tried to respond with a smile, but it turned upside down pretty quickly. ‘Thanks. My idea. Bad idea as it turns out.’
He moved closer, curious. ‘You okay?’
She sighed a tornado. ‘We broke up.’
‘Today?’ he asked in disbelief.
‘Yeah.’ She shrugged. ‘He took offence at me wearing the trousers and organising a romantic night in. Told me not to waste money on a fancy private chef home order.’ She gave a maudlin chuckle. ‘Final straw. So, here we are. Hundred bucks worth of overeating stomach-ache for me tomorrow.’ She pushed a strand of long brown hair off her forehead. ‘He sure picked a day.’
‘That sucks, EJ.’ He offered the most sympathetic look in his arsenal.
Silence clanged in the short corridor.
‘You got anything planned?’
He knew she’d asked out of politeness. It was impossible to live opposite Beckman Spiers and not notice that there was nothing to notice.
‘You know—feet up, order a takeout. It’s just a Friday.’
‘What a pair, huh?’
Yet he hadn’t moved his key towards the keyhole. He felt something in the air. An approaching unknown, but not like the spectre of Tyler. In fact, if there was a tune playing in his head, it was more like that of an ice cream truck turning into the street.
‘Look, Beckman, this is crazy, but do you want to save yourself a phone call—and me guilt and indigestion—and give me a hand with this?’ She gestured to the bags, whose mouthwatering scent was now as much a feature of the environment as the unexpected uncomfortableness of the situation.
‘Not like a date,’ she clarified with a smile.
‘Just neighbours sharing a bite.’
‘Sure. Ignore the 14th part. Just… a Friday.’
What’s there to lose? She’s nice enough. And I am hungry.
Sure, she might stab me with the kitchen knife as in loco revenge for simply being a man—but that’s pretty unlikely.
He smiled. ‘Sure, EJ. Shame to waste good food.’
While EJ hustled up crockery, Beckman gazed around the living area.
She collected mice.
There were plastic ones, metal ones, enamel ones, glass ones, woollen ones. Big, medium, small. Singly, in families. On the shelves and the window sill and the table and the floor. A hand-drawn sticker of a mouse poked its head out from a semi-circular black sticker on the skirting.
It was much more… cutesy than he expected of her—certainly for a self-proclaimed trouser-wearer and dinner-orderer.
She slid a Bud across the table, and raised hers. ‘Thanks, neighbour.’
He shrugged. ‘I would only have sat across the hall and worried if you’d be okay.’ He drank. ‘You know—laid awake, waiting for the anguished wails of the unfairly dumped.’
‘Oh, don’t worry—I dumped him. Seems like the way to a man’s heart isn’t always through his stomach.’
‘I think the problem is that the stomach is always receptive, but the brain isn’t. Anyway—his loss.’ He realised that could be misconstrued as A Pass. ‘The food, I mean.’
‘I did good, huh?’
He devoured another mouthful of perfect pork belly. ‘Gourmet take-out may be my new favourite thing. If I ever get the occasion.’
‘Maybe if we’re both still single, your place same time next year?’ Her wink said that the words were good-natured yet serious.
‘Another Valentine’s to remember for all the wrong reasons? Let’s hope not.’
‘Another?’ Her brow furrowed.
‘I mean—remember for the whole non-Valentine’s, must-try-harder feeling.’
‘Oh, don’t worry—I’ve had a few.’
‘I hear you.’
Just please don’t ask about them, EJ, okay? I’m having a nice platonic face-stuffing here, trying to keep your emotional head above water. Let’s not go dredging up my dating history, huh?
‘Sounds ominous, Beckman.’
‘Nope. Ominous implies a departure from the norm. It’s just another mid-February day.’ He drained his beer. ‘I certainly never got dumped on this day in history, so you’re one up on me there.’
She snorted. ‘Go me. Ring out the bells.’
‘Hey, I’m no expert, but you’re probably better off. It’s worse when you can’t see the warning signs and end up living a lie. If Jerome wasn’t Mister Right, then better to find out sooner than later.’
‘That sounds like it comes from the heart.’
He shook his head. ‘Saw it on Oprah.’
She sniggered. ‘You—Oprah?’
‘What can I say? Ten years of motel TV and too much time.’
‘So, not at home most Valentine’s?’
‘Like I said—it’s a day. Some are in the hearts-and-flowers, candlelit dinners camp; those without the means, motive and opportunity aren’t.’
‘Well, I left the candles in the cupboard. That would have been too weird.’
She held up a mollifying hand. ‘Not that you’re not a nice guy, Beckman. I’m sure you’d be the chocolates-and-kisses type—for the right girl.’
‘Thanks, EJ. Five years of taking in my oversize mail and saying howdy, and suddenly you’ll break bread on a momentous day and say sweet things? Jerome is an ass.’
A worry lanced through his brain. ‘He is gone—right? Does he have a key? I mean—’ He looked around nervously.
‘What’s up? Chill out.’
‘If he catches me, I bruise easily.’
‘Catches you? We’re having a friendly dinner.’
‘We know that.’
‘He’s not a violent guy.’
‘To women, maybe.’
She shrugged. ‘You’d hold your own.’
‘Suddenly I’m punching him on your behalf? After two beers and bellyful you paid for?’
‘There are two kinds of men, Beckman. The white knights, and the ones the white knights save the maidens from. Which are you?’ She smiled knowingly.
Jeez. In that case, reckon I need to head down to Horses And Armour R Us.
‘Well, now you put it like that…’
‘Relax. I’d probably punch him first.’
Collecting mice and throwing punches. Interesting combo, EJ.
She collected up the plates. ‘Men, huh?’
‘Yeah. Sorry for us.’
After dessert, he steadfastly remained at the table, hoping she wouldn’t want to retire to the sofa. That would be too cosy, and risked the impromptu get-together crossing into another dimension—a more Valentine-y one.
Not that it wouldn’t be welcome—very overdue, in fact—and EJ had many attractive qualities.
It just wouldn’t be right. Too opportunistic. Too rebound. Too not-white-knight.
But the nice guy approach has hardly reaped stellar rewards, has it buddy? Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe get down off that high horse, shed that armour, and take a chance once in a while?
But those leopard spots are glued on pretty fast. Besides, “nice guy approach” implies an actual strategy—a mask. A plan, a front.
You’re just Beckman, Beckman.
So they had coffee at the table, talked about mice and take-outs and his life on the road and her life behind a computer screen and noisy Mr Hubbish upstairs and little of consequence.
And he wondered if, should they be at his apartment this time next year—as she’d joked, he might go crazy and put a candle on the table. Get a box of chocolates as a surprise. Ask her about the E and the J.
He might even tell her he had monochromatic vision. It didn’t make a difference—she was clearly a brunette with brown eyes, slim, and about a hand shorter than he.
And apparently doesn’t take a single guy for a loser.
Ten o’clock chimed on a small, tinny, mouse-themed clock.
‘Maybe this is one to remember for the right reasons?’ she suggested.
‘It beat being alone, for sure.’
‘Thanks for being my white knight.’
‘As I recall, you whistled up the horse anyhow. Besides, what are neighbours for?’
Her face lit. ‘On that…’ She rose and went to the next room, came back with a box.
‘I remember now.’ He smiled. ‘Being my PA.’
She waved it away, and set the box down on the table. ‘What is it?’
He examined the label. ‘Some fancy new save-the-planet washing soda. Mom insisted on sending it.’ Then he regretted revealing that his maternal relationship was more like that of a teenager than a mid-thirtysomething. Except it wasn’t—they seldom spoke, and she certainly wasn’t his mollycoddling supplier of necessary household goods. This had been an “Okay, mom” concession.
‘White knights gotta remain white, huh?’ he added, hoping she’d laugh and break the cringing embarrassment.
She did laugh.
Roll on February 14th next year. Hopefully she’ll be a maiden, but not in distress.
That would be one in the eye for Tyler. I can’t think EJ would be the waiting-on-her-man-while-he-lounges-around type, but another evening like this—maybe with Cupid in the room—is much more “Beckman”.
Don’t get ahead of yourself, sonny.
‘I should go. I’d be kidding if I said I had things to do, but, you know? You jog early, right?’
‘Yeah. I not wake you?’
‘No. Besides—when am I here?’
‘Sometimes, just at the right time, I guess. Thanks for company.’
‘No sweat. Thanks for the invite, EJ.’ He scooped up the box and went to the door.
He turned. ‘Yeah?’
He nodded. ‘Then thanks, Ellie. Gimme a knock if you need a friend. Or if you over-order again.’ He risked a wink.
She winked back. ‘Sure.’
‘Happy Valentine’s, neighbour.’
‘You too, neighbour.’
He let himself out.
The tingle of warmth didn’t let up as he unpacked his trusty shoulder bag, checked the vivarium to top up Bogie’s food and water, kicked off his shoes and allowed the Tonight Show to murmur into the room.
I was thinking Elizabeth, so that’s a result. Wonder if it’s shortened, or given like that?
And the J?
Maybe that’s for next year.
Again, don’t get ahead of yourself, sonny. It’s a non-solitary, non-sucky February 14th. Hang out the flags for that at least.
His cell phone rang.
I didn’t give her my number? Or did I—before—for emergencies? I’ve seen this kind of thing in the movies. The unspoken connection. One of them makes the first move, the evening recommences. Valentine’s accidentally catapults proximate dwellers into tender embrace…
Heart pulsing, he looked at the screen.
It was Tyler.
If he gloats, let him. We did alright here too.
He sighed, and thumbed Accept.
‘Free advice, Becky—steer clear of women.’
Thanks for the context.
‘Evening to you too, Tyler. Besides, you don’t mean “women”, you mean ‘commitment”. Even a whole week’s worth.’
‘She walked out.’
Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
‘Jennah? Can’t figure why,’ he lied.
‘The beer and hoops was a test! She thought it was a joke. Unbelievable.’
‘Yeah. Unbelievable’s a word.’
Tyler scoffed. ‘Women, huh?’
Beckman grunted noncommittally.
‘Thanks for the bulletin, Tyler.’
‘You get any?’ A snort. ‘Why do I ask?’
‘No. Like you, I didn’t get any. And now I’m hanging up.’
‘Steer clear, Becky. Steer clear.’
‘Thanks for the PSA.’ He hit the little red icon and tossed the phone onto the sofa. Glanced across at the door.
Shook his head. ‘Men, huh?’
Read Beckman’s full adventure HERE.