A Real Occasion
Now and then, for a real occasion—say a thirtieth birthday or a bachelor party—we'd head over the bridge and pick up booze in Jersey to beat the Pennsylvania state liquor tax, and never once did we have a problem. When you're buying in bulk, picking up cases, it's the smart thing, and anyways if you only do it maybe once a year, the bridge cops don't care. So we had this wedding, Pete's the best man, so it's a no-brainer, you go to Jersey.
We're heading out of Camden after coming over the bridge and up Admiral Wilson toward Cherry Hill, and just as we get to the 42 bypass, where it splits, she's standing there on the shoulder before the exit. Tight shorts but no bulge, halter top, nice straight cut black hair like what's her name, the blonde in Scream, only black and parted in the center, no makeup, and this skin... I'm thinking caramel candy, antique bricks at sunset. City sunset. Anyway, Tommy said, Check this out, and starts to slow down, and that's probably all we would have done, is check it out, but she looks straight at the car and smiles, and so Tommy slows more, now he's in the right lane, now he's on the shoulder where she's standing, not slouching, a thumb out and her purse over her shoulder, swinging. Jimmy's sitting back of me, he slides right over, opens the door, and she slides right in. Pete asks her where she's headed and she smiles and says Just out to see the world, and she flips her palms up and wags her hand at the windshield. Which was when I noticed her hands and feet, long beautiful fingers and thin hands, and beautiful feet with a red mark on one heel that I saw once she crossed her legs. The legs, I couldn't take my eyes off the legs, long, tanned, not toned but sculpted, the kind you don't get jogging, and down the calves you could see long lines where sweat had streaked the road dust, knee to ankle to heel to this mark, which is the one I just mentioned, which was a tattoo, I figured. She'd been out there on the road a while.
She didn't say much, just kept a tight smile until Pete said How'd you wind up here? Then she grinned this two-mile grin, never have you seen a grin so beautiful or happy. My parents had sex, and she laughed a growly laugh, isn't that the way it happens? Pete blushes and goes, You know what I meant, and she grinned again and dropped her hand on his. I never seen Pete do this, but he blushed so hard his throat went like a sunset, meanwhile she squeezes his hand and said, Sorry, and her face relaxed and she said, My old man sent me. Pete's together now and says, What's your father do? and she smiles that smile and says, Runs things.
We're now rolling into Booze and Cruise and it's pretty empty except for a couple vans with Jersey plates loading kegs and an old guy sitting between two newspaper dispensers, spitting into a can and rattling a hatful of change. He had a sign, Drunk and plan to stay that way, but the hat was mostly empty. Tommy and Jimmy and me got out and left her in the car with Pete, went inside and got four cases of Colt, two cases each white and red wines, decent four-to-six-buck-a-liter stuff which you can't get without its marked up forty percent over here, we wheel it outside in these four shopping carts. She's out of the car and kneeling on one knee by the drunk who's still on the ground. You never saw nothing like it. She was speaking to him very softly, stroking his temples, and he's nodding and their faces are nearly touching, or maybe they touched. Then she gives him her hand and stands him up and he straightens and this smell came off of him, that homeless smell of clothes slept in for years, there's nothing like it, but you would never know it from her standing there so queenly, smiling and holding his hand the way she held Pete's, who's by our car and making the cuckoo sign with his finger. G'wan, she says to the drunk, stand up, walk straight and don't drink, and this old drunk could barely speak, it was like he had been crying or was about to and his eyes were wide open, and he gets up and walks off, then looks back and says, I won't, you better believe it.
We by now had the booze in and the rear end looked it; it was Timmy's '84 crap Camaro, on its second orbit, and with four guys, eight cases of booze and one tall woman the ass was halfway to China, so Timmy pulled out slow, very slow, looking over both shoulders, then he come to a stop sign and said, I almost forgot, where can we drop you? Because we were about to head in the other direction west to the bridge down 78. Just right ahead, and she pointed over the seat to a cutout on the shoulder that belonged to this road-side flower store—the Flower Mart, I think it's called. Which was when I noticed the mark on her wrist, red disks the size of a quarter looked like it'd been done with a center punch, but she left it there resting on the back of the seat. She must have seen the way I was looking and just tilted her head in this easy way, the way waitresses do when they're cadging for a tip, just there was something natural in this, there was nothing she wanted, it was me, I wanted to love her forever, never leave her. Hey John, she said, then in this low between-you-and-I voice, Caught you staring, and she put her right hand on my shoulder, and I saw another one like the left wrist, and she had to know what I was thinking because she said in the same way, Be cool, they're not self-inflicted.
This is when the Jersey state cop pulled up behind us. I remember because I still couldn't take my eyes off of her. Pete just went, God fucking damn, and she turned her head a half turn and looked him up and down. Sorry, miss, Pete says, and the cop is at the window and in Tommy's face. We knew we were screwed good, no way we get away with this, I mean it's like a hundred-bucks-a-bottle fine, so we're all reaching into our wallets when the cop says to Tommy, Get out and open the trunk. Tommy, I think, had lost his voice. He just gets out, and meanwhile she's grinning, and when Pete said, It ain't funny, and excuse the language but we're fucked really good, she said, Don't be so sure, still grinning. Then she leaned into me and checked the rearview, squeezed my arm and said, Have a little faith, baby, just as I'm hearing the trunk open. Jimmy goes Shit, Pete says, Oh shit, I'm totally into this look she has of you've got nothing to worry about, and from outside the car I hear somebody else saying, Shit, holy fucking shit. This was Tommy. Then I hear a laugh. It's Tommy again. Then a long second passed and you hear that crunch-crunch of the gravel, the cop's crunching back to his squad car—I'm figuring he's calling for backup—when Tommy sticks his head in the window and says, You'd better see this.
So we get out, which normally you don't do, but the cop's on his two-way half-in half-out of his car and Tommy's going, Tell me I'm not crazy, and points to eight cases of Perrier water sitting in the trunk. Pete says, I don't get it, where's the booze? and he ducks his head when he says booze. Tommy's just shaking his head and Jimmy's going, Where the hell did it get to? I can hear the cop now, his voice rises a second, I think he was talking to his spotter near the Booze and Cruise, and he's giving the guy on the other end a hard time. Then he says, Hang on. He comes back crunch-crunch-crunch and asks if somebody can produce a receipt, which Jimmy did. And sure enough, there it was, eight cases of liquor, but by now you think the cop gave a damn the receipt showed four cases of beer and four cases of wine? For all he cared, I mean the cop, some a-hole at the mart had made a mistake. You load it? the cop said. You're telling me you didn't see what you were loading? The dude is obviously going nowhere with this, that was real clear, he couldn't wait to ream somebody's asshole at the liquor store.
Then she got out. Long, dark, those long legs shining like brass in that afternoon sun, and you could see they were not tattoos but whitish pink disks on her heels. When the cop said, Is she with you? she strode right up between Pete and I and said, I'm always with them, then put her arm around both of us. Let my boys go, officer, she said. You have nothing on them. Now we were all looking away except for her, who was grinning right into the cop's face, but all he could do was do what we did: look away and go to his crotch once or twice to remind himself where his balls were. Then he's gone.
We had to just sit there for a time, just leaning on the car, none of us could speak for a long time. Jimmy lit a cigarette and kept opening and closing the trunk. Tommy kept pacing back and forth behind him. All Pete could do was stare at her. So how did you do that? he said. He wouldn't let go of her hand, either, not that she seemed to want him to, because she just kept saying, Pete, Pete, gently. Then she hugged him and said, Concrete Pete, and kissed both his cheeks, then said to me, As for you, gimme some sugar, and kissed me right on the mouth. Sucked the wind right out of me.
The next thing she's way up the road by the Flower Mart under an Easter Combos sign and about to cross to the other side of the road. Me, I'm right behind her. Didn't even bother to close my door.
J.T. Barbarese is the author of two books of poetry from the University of
Georgia and, most recently, a translation of Euripides' Children of
Herakles (University of Pennsylvania, 1999). His poems have most recently
appeared in the Georgia Review and Boulevard. He teaches Creative
Writing and English at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ.