Leanne stopped at Hennessey's Pub on a Friday afternoon, on her way home from work. There, she ran into Alice Tucker, her old friend from high school.
The two women exchanged several minutes of pleasant chit-chat. Then Leanne said, "So, tell me. Are you seeing anyone, these days?"
"I was. I'm sure you remember Tad Blackwell."
Leanne almost choked on her gin and tonic. She coughed and sputtered. "Of course I remember him. He took me to the prom. Tell me. Has he changed at all in the last five years?"
"Well, he takes a bath, every day, now, if that's what you mean. And he brushes his teeth. And he doesn't wear the same clothes, day in and day out."
Leanne leaned closer on her stool. She cupped her left hand to the side of her mouth, so that no one else in the crowded taproom could hear her. "Does he still--smell?"
Alice nodded. "Especially his feet."
Leanne threw back her head and laughed, causing nearly every person in the place to glance in her direction. Her hair cascaded like a waterfall over her naked shoulders.
"Remember how bad he smelled in high school?" she asked Alice.
"I know. But back then, I still thought he was cute. I would've gone out with him if he'd asked me. You have no idea how devastated I was when he asked you to the prom, instead of me. Or how jealous I was."
"You didn't get to go to the prom, did you?" Leanne asked gently.
"No," Alice said flatly.
"I'm sorry, but I hope you didn't waste any time fantasizing about what it would have been like to go to the prom with Tad. It was nothing short of a small nightmare, believe me."
"Well, if you don't mind my asking, why did you go out with him?" Alice asked. "I know it wasn't out of pity. You're not that kind of person."
"I kept waiting for Joey Duduka to ask me," Leanne said with a sigh. "But Bobbie Clemson asked him first. By then, there were only three days left. So when Tad asked me, I said, yes. I was that desperate to go to the prom...Did Tad ever go to college? I was always curious.
"He went to the community college, up in Squiresville, for about four months. He didn't finish, though. Tad's absolutely convinced that any further schooling is a waste of time and that his writing talent is going to make him rich and famous, someday. He let me read a couple of his short stories. They really were good."
"I know. He e-mailed me one of his stories."
"Did you tell him you liked it?"
"Oh, goodness, no. I was afraid that if I encouraged him, even a little, he might think it meant I was still interested in him."
"Well, he still carries a torch for you," Alice said. "And he hates Joey Duduka with a passion. He told me he wished he was man enough and strong enough to beat up Joey and make him pay for taking you away from him."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" cried an exasperated Leanne. Her deep, husky voice turned sad and mournful. "The poor guy really isn't wired quite right, isn't he? Joey Duduka never stole me away from Tad or anyone else, although I wish he would have."
"So you still have the hots for Joey Duduka, huh?"
"Oh, yes! But he's married to Bobbie, now. The last I heard, she was expecting."
"Second. They had a boy two years ago. The spitting image of his father and just as gorgeous."
"Now, calm down, girl. No use getting yourself all hot and bothered for nothing."
"Tell me about it," Leanne croaked dryly.
"Tad wants to be a father. He wants a daughter with curly, red hair and beautiful, blue eyes, just like her mother. Meaning me, of course." Alice's high-pitched voice crackled with broken laughter. "The poor guy can't even take care of himself, let alone a wife and child. He makes good money working at the post office, here in town, and yet, he can barely afford to pay his bills. The little money he has left, he spends on cigarettes and beer, and dirty movies, which he rents from that adult bookstore Goody Carlisle owns, out on the highway. That place is a blight on the entire community. I wish someone would burn it down or it would get struck by lightning, or something. Every day, after work, he stops at the 7-11 and grabs a cheese steak sandwich or a cheese burger, and a big bag of potato chips. That's his idea of proper nutrition. Whenever we went out to eat somewhere, it was always more of the same. You'd think a person would get tired of eating the same thing, day in and day out. Not Tad. 'It's my life and I'm going to live it the way I damn well please,' he says."
Alice allowed herself a moment to draw in a long, deep breath, expelling it slowly, almost reluctantly. The tiny slivers of ice at the bottom of her glass jingled gently as she downed the last lukewarm slug of her rum and Coke and set her empty glass back on the bar.
"Another one, please," she said, pointing one shor, chubby finger at her glass. Tom, the bartender, hastened to comply with her request.
"Oh, and he hates his job at the post office almost as much as he hates Joey Duduka," she told Leanne. "He complains about it constantly. I think he's getting ready to quit. I don't know what he'll do after that. I think he's expecting some kind of miracle to occur."
Leanne stirred restlessly on her stool, repositioning her elbows on the rounded edge of the bar. Her dark eyes gleamed like agates in the room's hazy light and she smiled a vulpine smile, as she stared intently at Alice, hanging on her every word. In her mind, she was writing down every word Alice said, thinking that this would make excellent material for the novel she was currently writing about life in a small town. This was exacly the kind of trashy stuff a certain portion of the population loved to read and she was more than happy to oblige them. In spades.
"How long were you with Tad?" she asked.
"A little over a year," Alice said.
"You didn't live with him, did you?"
"No. I saw right from the start that that was never going to happen. I did spend the weekends with him at his condo. But I always left early on Monday morning. Tad does like women. But at the same time, he likes being alone. He just can't seem to make up his mind which he wants more."
Leanne leaned even closer. "Please forgive me for asking this. I know how personal it is. But I just have to know. How was he in the sack?"
"That was the worst part of it," Bobbie said.
"You mean he was that bad?"
"Oh, no. On the contrary, it was the best sex I ever had in my life. Tad was kind and sweet, and gentle and tender, and so caring and sensitive. He had trouble getting started. But once I helped him get going, he was fantastic. It was never about me pleasing him, it was always about him pleasing me. And he did, too, in every possible way. But he wasn't always there. While we were doing it, I'd open my eyes and look at him. His eyes were shut and he'd have a big smile on his face. His body was there, but it seemed like the rest of him was a million miles away. I asked him, once, 'What do you think about when we're making love?' He just smiled that cute smile of his. 'Why, I think about you,' he said."
Alice sighed and shook her head. "I wanted to believe him, I really did. But somehow, I just knew there was something else there. I'd be making dinner and I'd come out of his kitchen, and he'd be watching a boxing match on television. Tad quickly grabbed the remote and changed the station, pretending he was channel surfing. He tried to act cool about it, like there was nothing wrong. But he looked red-faced and guilty like a little boy caught doing something nasty.
"One time, I walked into the bathroom, after he'd just gotten out of the shower," Alice said. "Tad was standing in front of the mirror. He had his towel draped around his shoulders. He was holding his breath, trying to make his stomach flat---he has this little paunch; not much, but it is noticeable. His hands were clenched into tight fists, just like a boxer."
"Oh, wow," Leanne gasped.
"One afternoon, not long after we started seeing each other, I decided to surprise him and clean his condo, while he was at work," Alice continued. "I found a bunch of old newspaper clippings under his bed. Stories from the sports section about local boxers. With photographs. Most of those stories had been written by you, by the way." Alice glared at Leanne with dark, accusing eyes. "The print on most of them was smudged and faded, and the paper was...had been...sticky. There were boxing magazines, too. And the pages in some of the magazines were stuck together.
"He had a sketch pad," Alice went on. "He'd sketched the photos from the articles and the magazines. And he drew his face on the boxers. In a corner of his bedroom closet, underneath an old blanket which smelled like it hadn't been washed in years, I found a pair of blue, silk boxing trunks and a pair of boxing gloves."
"Get out!" Leanne chortled. She smiled a wicked, gleeful smile. "So our Tad lives in his own little fantasyland. Tell me, dear, if it's not too painful for you. What did you do?"
"What do you think I did?" Alice huffed indignantly. "I confronted him about it. I told him there was no way I was going to be the second love in his life. It was either that garbage or me."
"And what did he say to that?"
"Nothing. But the next night, when I went to see him, all that disgusting trash was gone. Tad said he'd thrown it all out in the dumpster where it belonged. He let me check every nook and cranny of his condo. There was nothing left."
"Good for you, girl."
"It was still there, though. He still had it inside of him where I couldn't touch it and he could keep it all to himself and get it out and look at it in his mind, whenever he needed it. I waited. I hoped and I prayed. But at the end of six months, I knew he would never give it up. Not completely. That was when I finally told Tad I was leaving him.
"Tad tried to look broken-hearted, but I could see that he was relieved," Alice said. "'I'm sorry I can't be the man you want me to be,' he said. I could tell he really was sorry. But like I say, I knew he was glad it was over, so that he could finally go back to being who he really wants to be.
"Oh, you poor dear," Leanne moaned softly, placing a consoling hand on top of Alice's hand.
"Hell never change," Alice said and shook her head. She sniffed back a tear. "No matter how hard he ever tries to love someone, he'll never be able to let go og that garbage inside of him. That would kill him too much. He's like Gollum and his ring. That trash is more precious to Tad than all the gold in Fort Knox. I swear, if I ever hear that he did give it up, I'll be so amazed, I'll die right on the spot from shock."
Leanne made a great pretense of consulting her watch. Oh, my goodness, is it seven o'clock already? I really must run. It's been a long day and I'm famished and, oh, so tired. But don't you worry, dear. I jus know you'll find that special someone soon."
Leanne smiled to herself as she strode briskly out of the bar, letting the back door slam shut behind her. She almost felt guilty for leaving her old friend so abruptly. But she had suspected there was something wrong with tad Blackwell the moment he'd invited her to the prom. And now, she knew what it was.
"Better her than me," she said aloud, as she sped away in her car. It was all grist for the mill.