FIONA'S GIFT by Michael Gross
The main reason people didn't think of him as a loser was that people didn't think of him at all. Not exactly anonymous- people knew his name was Jimmy Shine. Knew he'd been living in 2B for over a year, that he had a limp, that he owned a dog named Buck and that periodically he came home with a date. Some even knew her name was Fiona. When the landlord, an Armenian, discovered he had a special bike, he charged him an extra twenty a month to keep it chained up in the basement. The Korean in the liquor store on the corner, one of the few who took the time to measure him up, correctly figured him to be unathletic, underweight, unmarried and in his late twenties. The return address on the monthly envelope told the mailman he was on disability but, of course, he didn't know how much he received. Couldn't be much, though, given the neighborhood.
But what, exactly, he did every day- his job, his friends, his family; his likes and dislikes; that sort of stuff? Well on those accounts he was not simply anonymous. He was invisible, which seemed to suit everyone involved perfectly.
Routine guided his way of life the way others were guided by astrology. Fiona, for one. She was one of the dispatchers and from the cheerful way she answered the phone you'd never suspect the job was a dead end. Every day, on his first call-in, she'd say, "Well, hello Pisces." There'd be a moment's delay while he imagined her looking something up, and then, before he ever got annoyed, she'd give him his daily update: "Work may be difficult today, but big results are on the horizon." Or, "Seek help from trusted friends."
"Thanks, Fiona," he always replied, hiding the feeling behind his words. As if his birth sign really meant anything.
No, Jimmy Shine trusted in nothing so much as Routine. And so it was that at 11:20, after the evening news and weather, he got up and pulled on his wool jacket. By then, Buck- a ninety pound black lab and also a creature of habit- sat waiting at his feet, his tail sweeping back and forth excitedly, like a faulty Geiger counter.
Once inside the park and unleashed, he set off down the path, marking and sniffing and periodically checking over his shoulder to make sure Jimmy was right behind. Ten minutes later, as they were heading back, Buck abruptly sat and stared ahead. Jimmy followed his gaze and there in the hazy yellow glow of a streetlight, someone crouched against the high wall separating the park from the street. Not the first time he'd seen someone taking a leak in that spot. When finished, the woman (at least it looked like a woman) stood up, erect. Tall, in an ankle-length camel's hair overcoat that would have looked good on a pimp. Buck looked up at Jimmy.
"Go check it out if you want to," he said, waving his arm, and Buck shot off like a bullet. The woman in the coat, seeing the light reflected in Buck's eyes as he charged towards her, grabbed her shopping bag and high-tailed it out of the park without looking back.
Buck nosed the ground, pawing at something which is why Jimmy looked down. And that's when he first laid his eyes on the money. There they were: two fat, rubber-banded wads of hundreds. But what really made his eyes blast open was the gun resting on a small clump of dead leaves. Jimmy spun around looking everywhere, including up. No one. Nothing. He peered around the wall, stared into the street where, even at this hour, traffic continued to stream along- busses, cabs, cars, plus the usual trickle of bikers and hookers.
He stuffed the money into one pocket of his jacket and the gun into the other and limped home quickly to the pace of his racing heart.
After double bolting the front door, he sauntered into the kitchen, looked out the window to the street below to make sure he hadn't been followed and then pulled down the shade. He grabbed a cold one from the fridge and sat at the table with Buck heeling at his side, panting softly.
"Well, Buckie," he said through a dazed grin, "I don't know. Why don't we count it and find out."
He made two stacks, alternately putting another well-worn $100 dollar bill on each, and at the end, each stack had one hundred bills.
"Total of $20,000," he said to Buck and then added: "You did a good job." From the fridge he got himself another beer and, from a bag under the sink, a dog biscuit which he snapped in half. He placed both halves on the floor just beneath Buck's nose, held his palm up to the dog's face and said: "Wait." The only parts of Buck that moved were his eyes, shooting up to Jimmy and then down to the biscuit halves. And back. And forth. And back and forth. Then the drool of saliva. "Okay," Jimmy said. And Buck started chomping away.
When it came to sudden intrusions of good luck Jimmy was like an untrusting virgin: first, he got real tense, and then he didn't enjoy himself. Not one bit. Instead, he tortured himself with worry. Whose money was this? Did it belong to the long-coat? Was it stolen money? Drug money? The pistol certainly hinted at something like that. And suppose it was, he asked himself. Does that make it right to keep it? What's going to happen to long-coat? What price will she have to pay?
After a sleepless night and his regular 7:35 brisk morning walk in the park with Buck, Jimmy called Fiona at 8:01. He didn't want to seem overly anxious.
"A-1 Messenger Service," she answered in a chirp.
"Checking in," he said.
"Well, hello Pisces."
"Morning," he answered.
"Let's see, here." He could picture her index finger running down the list of
signs. "Pisces, here we go. Saturn is ascending. Sudden reversals arise. Avoid entanglements with strangers." She paused, and added in a soft whisper: "I ain't no stranger." Then the line went dead.
No real help, he thought. Avoid entanglements. Damn! He slammed down the receiver and Buck cocked his head. "It's not you, boy" he said.
As his luck would have it, it was a slow day: dropping a few things off, picking a few things up, dodging traffic on his Schwinn with the orthopedic pedal and affording him plenty of time to worry his way through a list of 'what if's.' What if she saw me? Recognized me? What if she comes after me? What if she sends some goon after me? With no effort at all he could picture the goon: six-five, three hundred pounds, shaved head, weird sexual preferences. Probably named Bruno.
By the time he finally noticed that the street lights had come on he was a nervous wreck. He checked his watch. It was almost six and his shift was ending. He pulled out his cell phone and called the office. Fiona answered.
"Hi, you," she chirped.
"You free for dinner?"
"Yeah, I am."
"My place at 7?"
Normally, they got together on weekends. Friday or Saturday night. Dinner and a movie. And hasty sex. This was a Wednesday and for this break in routine Jimmy paid dearly- an increase in palpitations, sweat trickling down from his armpits, a throbbing at the temples. The gun and the money were awaiting further instructions and causing their own share of uneasiness.
Jimmy dialed the number for Dominoes and half an hour later the apartment was filled with the aroma steaming up from the box of pepperoni pizza on the kitchen table. Beside it, a box of red wine, a plastic cup and two paper plates. He jumped in the shower and by the time he was dressed Buck was at the door, dancing in circles, responding to Fiona's scent. When she entered she knelt and patted him before even looking up to acknowledge Jimmy.
"Hi," she said as she took off her coat and her red and green plaid scarf and hung them on the pegs in the hallway. Her pink plastic overnight case rested on the parquet. Buck and Jimmy led the way into the kitchen and after dinner, one of the few they hadn't consumed in a local restaurant, Jimmy leaned back in his chair, balancing on the back two legs.
"Got a question for you," he said.
"Shoot," she said without a trace of hesitation. She finished her wine and poured herself another glass. Her third.
"Let's say you're walking down the street and you come across something unusual. A package. There, on the ground. Obviously it was lost or dropped or forgotten. But there it is."
He paused, hoping for some direction from her, but her face was an open question mark.
"So," he continued, his throat suddenly dry, "do you open it or what?"
This didn't require knowledge of astrology, or of anything else. Simple human
curiosity held the answer for her. "Of course you do," she said.
"That's what I figured." He abruptly got up from the table and limped into his bedroom and when he returned he carried a shoe box. From Thom McCan. It originally held a pair of loafers but when he placed it on the table and removed the cover, she could see that it now contained a gun and two stacks of bills.
She whistled. "You found this?"
"Buck did," he said.
"Good dog, Buck. Can I borrow him sometime?"
"I think I know who it belongs to," he said after a long pause. "This gal was taking a leak in the park and I think Buck scared her and she dropped it all just before she ran away. Only thing is, I don't have a clue who she is or how to get in touch with her."
"Why would you want to get in touch with her? Did she see you? Does she know you?"
"No," he answered.
"So there you are. It's yours." She looked across at him, her soft eyes meeting his questioning stare "Or ours, if you're into sharing," she added. She looked down at his shoes then glanced across at him, tentatively. "You could get yourself fixed up." She paused and then brightened. "Hell, there might even be enough left over to get me a new set of boobs." She cupped her small, round breasts and jiggled them for his appraisal. "There's a doctor I read about out in LA ..."
Here it goes, Jimmy thought, and as he tuned her out his mind flooded with the image of Bruno, the goon. Crazy of him to have even hoped that finding this money would be the beginning of a streak of good luck. What an idiot!! Might as well throw it out the window, all the good it's going to bring.
Fiona finished her glass of wine, got up and walked behind Jimmy where she began working on the knots roosting in his shoulders. "I think I should return it," he finally said, relieved that she was behind him and he didn't have to see the disappointment in her eyes.
"You have a plan? I mean, seeing as you don't really know who it belongs to and all."
"I do," he said and hesitated a moment before continuing. "It involves you."
That night Fiona was wilder than she'd ever been. Maybe it was the wine, or the money or the gun or the combination, but when they finally rolled over and turned out the lights, Jimmy's face wore a grin of satisfied exhaustion. And when he woke in the morning Fiona was already gone. On the pillow beside him was her plaid scarf and pinned to it she had scrawled a note:
"Last night was fun. Tonight won't be fun but it's what you want and I know it's the right thing. I'll call around midnight." She signed it with a flourish, the F taking up almost as much space as the rest of the note.
When he called in that morning she was her usual cheerful self. "Hello Pisces. Let's see ... Here you go: Ventures are risky and may produce unexpected results. Rash behavior should be checked. But long distance travel may prove fruitful."
"Thanks," he replied, adding under his breath "I guess."
After reading him his first pick-up destination she hung up and from that point on his day dragged, as if he were pedaling against the gravitational force of a squad of Brunos intent on teaching him a lesson. When he had to walk up stairs his left foot, the one missing those three toes, just burned and burned.
Never once since returning from Iraq had he discussed the injury. Even
though the memory was fresh he was still too embarrassed to talk about it. The suddenness of the mortar attack, buddies lying injured on the floor of the tent, the 50 gallon plastic container of drinking water falling off its stand and onto his foot, the hurried surgery. Afterwards, when he saw his complement of toes had been diminished by three, he thought: there's more than one way to get yourself out of the line of fire.
And yet, here he was, back home and once again in the line of fire.
Thanks to his adherence to routine the plan he'd laid out for Fiona had been straighforward. At 11:15 that night Fiona would stand at the entrance to the park. They agreed that she would wait fifteen minutes. He'd originally suggested a half hour but Fiona rejected that quickly.
"If she wants her money back she'll be at that same spot and at the same time as she dropped it. If not, well: finders keepers, losers weepers. Either way, I'll call when I get back to my place."
He began pacing his cramped bedroom at eleven. Buck joined him for the first few rounds but then curled up at the side of the bed in his usual nighttime spot and drifted off. Jimmy paced until it was time for Buck's walk, but instead of heading to the park, he kept Buck leashed until they reached the shadowy walk along the river. Behind every tree he was sure he saw Bruno. His pulse didn't begin to slow down until he was back pacing the bedroom.
Around 5:30 he dozed off. Suddenly, it seemed, the room was filled with light. He rubbed his eyes, sat up on the bed and checked the time: 9:15. He hit speed-dial and the line rang twice before being picked up.
"Good Morning. A-1 Messenger Service," a man's voice said.
"Hey, it's me. Jimmy. Who's this? Where's Fiona?"
"She had to leave yesterday afternoon. Family emergency. Surgery. Said she'd be out at least a week. I'm Eric, the temp."
Habit kicked in immediately and a sense of doom filled his chest. His heart sank. His hand tightened into a death grip around the phone and he scanned his bedroom looking for something to crush. But in that brief interval he felt a calmness overtake him, felt his muscles relax. His body, sinking into the mattress, caught up with and rejoined his sunken heart. He inhaled deeply and caught a whiff of the perfume that lingered on Fiona's scarf.
"You speak to her again," he said smiling up at the ceiling, his voice light and free, "tell her I'll be waiting for her."
And even though it was way too early, he threw on his jacket, tied her red and green plaid scarf around his neck, and took Buck for a walk. Not to the park, and not along the river. Someplace new.