Friday, May 9, 2014

Two for Tea

Slade was six-foot-three of muscle sewn together with scar tissue, his jaw square and hard as a bulldozer shovel. His face was more deeply lined than an acre of Midwest hardpan but you would never mistake him for old or defective—not if you valued your bones unbroken, or at least your thumbs in working order. He wore a gray suit that had seen better days and a rumpled white shirt, and no tie. The little old lady across the table looked him up and down with her thick glasses, slowly, and said, “I heard you just got out of jail.”

Slade nodded. Elegant surroundings always made him a little shy. It was the first time he had ever been in a tea room, and he wondered what the other old ladies in the place thought of him, this brutal hulk with a tiny cup of Earl Gray in his massive hand. “What can I do for you?” he asked.

“Do for you, ma’am,” she corrected him.

The bulldozer jaw clenched. Under normal circumstances, Slade responded to grammatical lessons with a little correcting of his own. But this woman looked old enough to have gone steady with George Washington and that, he thought, earned certain considerations. He was not an animal, no matter what his parole officer told him. “Do for you, ma’am,” he said.

“Good.” She smiled, revealing teeth too white and perfect to be real. “Tell me why you went to prison.”

“I did a bad thing,” Slade muttered. “Some people lost their lives.” The first step toward forgiveness, his parole officer always said, was admitting your mistakes.

“You’ll have to be more specific than that,” she replied, a trace of archness in her voice. “What did you do?”

“I was driving too fast, hit another car. The two people in that car died.”

The old lady’s teacup, halfway to her thin lips, shook slightly. Tea dripped on the linen tablecloth, leaving a stain like old blood. “Why were you driving too fast?”

Slade swallowed before answering: “I robbed a bank. I was fleeing the scene. I didn’t mean to crash.”

With iron eyes the lady stared at her trembling hand until it stilled. “Do you regret what happened?”

“I do.” Slade’s fingers brushed the spot, just below his ribs, that marked an old bullet-wound. At moments like this one, when he thought about what he’d done with his life, the scar burned. “Ma’am, my friend Jack set up this meeting because he said you could use some help. So tell me: how can I help you?”

From the cloth bag on the table (a rather lovely blue flower stitched on its side), the old lady extracted a small purse, snapped it open, and removed a photograph, which she placed between them with reverence: a black-and-white portrait of a pretty girl, maybe twenty-five, with blonde hair and dark eyes like drops of ink.

“Do you recognize this woman?” the old lady asked.

Slade tilted the photograph to the light. The girl did seem familiar, but he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen her before, so he shook his head.

The old lady dipped her hand back into the bag. “She was my daughter.” The hand reappeared, gripping a small 9mm automatic. “She died fifteen years ago.”

She fired four times, hitting Slade in the chest with every round—poor eyesight or no, at this range the old lady was the second coming of Annie Oakley. Slade’s back hit the Persian rug with a thud so loud it made the crystal chandeliers tinkle and sway. The old lady rose to her feet, fetched her cane leaning against the table, and hobbled over to Slade gurgling his last. “She died when you crashed into her, you son of a bitch,” the old lady said, as she aimed the smoking pistol at his head, and fired for the last time.