Perfect, for You
Of love after prison and the impossible girl at the dive bar you called home. First published in Gargoyle 57, summer 2011: 273–283.
“She was the kind of girl who likes to be told people are in love with her. Maybe he should tell her that, but he suspected that once she had what she wanted, she would leave him.”
The first thing Big Walter could think to do when he got out of prison, other than smoking a whole pack of cigarettes by himself, was to visit Christine in her office at PerfectForYou.
She had never been his girlfriend, but he had known about her ever since he moved to San Diego and discovered the Pink Panther bar. When the regulars voted for Pinkies on Oscar night, she campaigned to win the award for Bimbo of the Year. She wanted to be on TV and thought this could be her start, becoming a local celebrity. She flirted hard with every guy in the place and once chucked her little sparkly purse right at Big Walter’s crotch and let her hand wander when she retrieved it. That’s when she gave him his nickname and he gave her his vote. She won the trophy, a naked Barbie with her feet sunk in a plaster brick, and she was happier than he’d ever thought a girl could be partly because of him.
So when Big Walter stepped out onto a sidewalk for the first time in two years and thought about being with a woman, she was the one he thought about. He’d heard that the new dating service “for busy professionals” had hired her as a graphic designer, to make ads and things. She used to just organize classifieds in the Penny Saver but always said she had an education and special skills.
Big Walter looked up PerfectForYou in the phone book at 7-Eleven and walked over there as he smoked the last of the cigarettes. It was downtown, with a nice reception room that had posters of famous cities like Paris and Venice and Athens and some sofas and chairs. Big Walter looked forward to sitting in one of those chairs. First, though, he leaned on the counter in front of the receptionist’s desk and asked the girl to buzz Christine Tripp for him.
“Christine? Tripp?” The girl looked at Big Walter and he looked at her. He saw she would be short even when she stood up. Her eyes moved up to his and then down to his hands, which were cracked from kitchen work. She inspected his red T-shirt, which was pretty good, and the long black leather jacket, and the raggedy haircut from the prison barber. “Christine Tripp,” she said, as if something was suddenly making sense.
“Yeah,” he said, “she’s a friend.”
There was a weirdness about Big Walter’s face, he knew that, some pitted acne scars and the way his eyes didn’t always seem to be looking the same direction, even when he thought they were. He held himself very carefully and concentrated on keeping his eyes straight so he wouldn’t scare the little girl all alone in the room with a big desk. This was harder than it sounded, as he was feeling sick from the cigarettes. They were menthols.
The receptionist punched some numbers into her fancy phone and said in a low voice, “Christine, there’s a … man here to see you.”
“Tell her Big Walter,” he said, and the girl repeated it. Then, “She’s coming.”
Big Walter realized he could sit. He went over to a sofa and sank into the softest thing he’d felt in two years. The receptionist relaxed with each step he took away from her.
So Big Walter waited. One of his eyes wandered off and got caught in the black frame around Venice. A lot of water, a boat. Maybe it was where people went when they had found someone perfect for them. On a honeymoon, maybe.
Just as he thought honeymoon, the door opened.
Christine looked different but good. Her hair was still the same margarine blonde that people said only came out of a bottle, but she’d grown it out, so it swung around her shoulders. She’d lost some weight, too, and was wearing a black skirt and black sweater. He wondered if she still had the old dresses covered in beads and rhinestones that she wore to the Panther. Her lips were bright red, smiling, waiting for him to say something.
Big Walter realized he’d never imagined himself talking to Christine, only looking at her and doing other stuff. So he said the first thing that came to his mind. “Hey, it’s the Bimbo of the Year! How many times did you win since I was away?”
He remembered how she’d been so proud — had run up to the bar and grabbed the Barbie doll, had kissed every guy within reach. But now Big Walter realized immediately that he’d said the wrong thing. Maybe she hadn’t won again. Anyway, he knew that this time, when Christine threw her arms around him, it was only to shut him up. He knew, too, that Christine felt the gun stuck in the back of his pants, the one he’d got from that guy called Blur at 7-Eleven along with the pack of Newports, and that maybe she didn’t like it.
He’d had a gun before, of course; that had been his way of blending in by standing out. Not that the Pink Panther was a tough bar; it had small bands on weekends, a pool table and sometimes a karaoke machine if people were bored. Big Walter’s gun, which everybody knew about, had made him a part of them because it was fun to know somebody who carried one and might be arrested at any minute. For a while he’d tried out the nickname Danger, or Vicious, but Christine’s choice had stuck. Now, of course, the gun could get him into bigger trouble, but he felt better having it, ore like his old self before jail. Yet suddenly, when Christine pulled away, he knew it wouldn’t get him much in the offices of PerfectForYou.
Big Walter was sure Christine was going to tell him to get out of there, and he braced himself to argue or beg. But instead she said, “I’m starving. Let’s go to House o’ Wraps.”
It was a few blocks away from her office, and they walked. The sun was shining. She put on a pair of sunglasses. She asked, “How long’ve you been out of the big house?” and he said, “Nobody calls it the big house anymore.” Then he worried she’d think he’d just insulted her, so he told her she was pretty. She said thank you, and then they were quiet, just the sound of Christine’s heels tapping on the sidewalk with all the other expensive business shoes, and the whoosh and smell of cars.
They took a table outside on the sidewalk patio, behind a little iron fence. There were no tables inside. Christine ordered a veggie wrap, no cheese, and Big Walter asked for one with steak and a big beer. The waitress brought their food quickly on two red plates; he’d forgotten how fast people served him outside prison, how his height and his eyes could get him things. Maybe he should try being called Danger again.
The beer was cold and fizzy and tasted even better than he remembered beer tasting. But not half as good as Christine looked, sitting across from him.
Christine took a bite and then there was lipstick on her tortilla. Big Walter tried not to stare.
“I got out today,” he said, answering her earlier question. “This morning. I came straight to see you.”
He saw her shift and look awkward, the way people did when they hadn’t come to visit in a long time. She had never visited him.
She said, “Wow, this morning.” She bit over the part of the wrap with the lipstick stain and left another stain, paler this time. He thought she was trying to remember if she’d ever slept with him or even given him a blowjob. (She hadn’t.) “Well, what about your girlfriend?” she asked. “Uh, Bridget? Weren’t you going out with a girl called Bridget?”
He’d brought Bridget to the Pink Panther one time, one time only. She’d played pool on the big table and didn’t know how to swing dance. He’d brought her mostly to impress girls like Christine, girls he hoped would go out with him in the future. It didn’t work.
“Not really my girlfriend,” he said. “Just someone I knew. I forgot all about her till you just said her name.”
He wanted to turn the conversation to Christine, ask some questions to show he cared about her. Like if she was dating anyone now — funny, that hadn’t occurred to him, that she might be someone’s girlfriend. In his mind all this time she had been waiting, maybe flirting, but definitely available. He’d never known her to go with one person for long.
Christine didn’t seem comfortable with silence; she was picking little bits off her tortilla and not eating them. Big Walter tried to get his eyes under control before he asked her about herself. Before he could do that, though, she said, “Did you hear the Pink Panther closed down? Couldn’t afford the lease anymore.”
Big Walter had not expected a question and had just taken a bite of his steak wrap. He coughed and saw a crumb of something green land on the table. He swallowed and said, “I didn’t hear that.”
“Yeah, the Panther made that neighborhood cool, and now they can’t afford to stay.” The lipstick now was just a faint red rim on the very outside of her lips; she licked at a bare pink patch. “I don’t know what to do without it.”
With that, she sounded just like the same girl she’d always been. “You know, I need to blow off some steam every couple of days, specially with this new job.” She sang a bit of a song he didn’t know; he guessed it was by one of the bands who’d played at the Panther while he was gone. He told her she had a nice voice and she said thank you.
He did ask her questions then, about the job and her new clothes and how the guys he remembered from the Panther were doing. He figured she’d mention if she was dating one of them now. She said she designed magazine ads and postcards that PerfectForYou mailed out to single people all over the county, inviting them to join. She seemed to like her job a lot. “It’s more personal than an online service,” she explained, playing with the last dry bit of her tortilla. “The executives match people up and then introduce them. In person. It costs, like, fourteen hundred dollars to sign up and a hundred for every introduction.” She popped the tortilla scrap into her mouth and said, “There’ve been over a dozen weddings this year.”
He wondered if that was something she wanted for herself, to have a wedding. He tried to imagine her in a glittering white dress, dancing on the bar, marrying him. Somehow the picture wouldn’t come clear in his mind. He blurted, “Why did you come out to lunch with me?”
There was a pause, like a beat in music, and Big Walter heard the feet and cars around them again, moving in all their different rhythms.
Christine shifted in her seat. “Well,” she said, and he got the sense she was going to be honest. “My boss and her boss were going to go to lunch in a few minutes. They would have walked through reception.”
Big Walter looked down at the leather of his long jacket, which was cracking along the edges. So Christine hadn’t wanted her bosses to see him, and she probably didn’t want anyone else to see him either; that must be why she kept looking around while she ate, why she’d chosen this stupid place to begin with.”
“Fuck it,” he said out loud, and let both his eyes go wherever they wanted to. “Christine, you were the first person I wanted to see.”
She said, not meanly but not gently either, “Well, Wally-do, we were never really friends.”
He remembered she was the kind of girl who likes to be told people are in love with her. Maybe he should tell her that, but he suspected that once she had what she wanted, she would leave him. He said, in what he hoped was an interesting but not menacing way, “I know you know I have a gun.”
She took out a lipstick and took off her sunglasses and used them as a mirror wile she started to paint her mouth again. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking; her hands seemed to shake a tiny bit, or maybe he just imagined it.
“Well,” she said, with her eyes on the reflection of her own mouth, “isn’t that why you went to prison in the first place? Didn’t you try to shoot a cop or something?”
She acted as if it weren’t serious.
He debated telling her it was all a mistake, that he’d been busted just for speeding on I-5 with a couple pounds of marijuana in the trunk and, of course, possessing the gun; but maybe that would have been a mistake too, taking away his cool. “Are you saying I’m stupid?” he asked.
Christine put down the glasses but not the lipstick and looked at him. Her eyes were brown. “Where do you get that?” she asked. “I just asked you a question.”
He remembered one time at the Panther when she’d reached in the back of his pants and seized the gun, pretended she was going to pull it out and shoot the lead singer of a band she didn’t like. He reminded her now: “I had to take your hand away before you did something crazy.” He didn’t mention that he never loaded that gun.
“Look,” she said, “I didn’t say you were stupid.” By now her voice told him she did think it, though. She stared down at the glasses on the table and put on some more lipstick. She had the reddest mouth in San Diego.
Big Walter looked up and away from Christine for a moment, into the crowd of people in suits and pantyhose having their lunch breaks. Maybe one of them was Christine’s boss. Maybe one of them was somebody he knew. And as he thought that, he realized it was true: Somebody he knew was coming toward them right now. A guy named Dog who’d been in on a drug charge, same as most people, and got out after only a couple months. He was shuffling along in clothes older and dirtier than Big Walter’s, muttering to himself.
Christine was done with her mouth. “Should we get the check?” She obviously expected Walter to take out his wallet; she was looking at him the way he imagined a girlfriend looked at a boyfriend who paid for everything. He reached into his pocket, hoping he had enough. While he dug around, he kept an eye on Dog, who was coming closer and didn’t seem to have seen him yet.
Christine followed his eyes. “Oh, God,” she said. Maybe she knew Dog too. “That homeless bum’s coming right toward us,” she whispered, and Big Walter saw that it was true. Dog had recognized him.
“Hey, Big Man!” Dog seemed to think this was Walter’s nickname. They hadn’t known each other long. “You’re out too!” He leaned over the fence around the House o’ Wraps tables and held out a hand that trembled.
Christine fixed Big Walter with a sharp and accusing stare. “You know this guy?”
“We were — ”
“We were in the big house together!” Dog said, leaning over to shake Big Walter’s hand. He staggered and caught himself on the top rail, then looked down at the fence and laughed so hard that Big Walter had to help him steady himself.
Walter noticed that Dog did smell homeless. But what mostly mattered in that minute was that Dog had made him into a liar, since Walter had said nobody called it the big house anymore.
“Big Man in the big house,” Dog muttered ruminatively, and then he said it a few times more while Big Walter gripped his shoulders and tried to keep him from falling down. “So who d’you have here?”
Big Walter propped Dog up in the corner between the wall and the railing and turned to apologize to Christine, explain to her that nobody on the inside called it the big house anymore — but then he saw Christine wasn’t at the table. She’d gone into the restaurant while he was messing with Dog, and she’d left by the front door and was already halfway up the block, walking fast in her high heels, looking incredibly beautiful from behind.
“Christine!” Big Walter called her name. She didn’t turn around but she seemed to speed up.
This couldn’t happen. Big Walter threw down what he had in his wallet and vaulted the iron fence. He started running.
Christine, up ahead, seemed to know instinctively what he was doing. She started to run too. She darted through the crowd and blended in with her black clothes; he caught a few glimpses of her margarine hair.
Big Walter stopped when he felt a hand on his sleeve, tugging at him.
“Hey!” It was the waitress from House o’ Wraps. She was panting, and there was a skinny man in a tie with her, probably the manager. She nodded at the man with the tie, too breathless to say anything more.
“Sir, were you planning to pay for your wraps?” the manager asked, obviously nervous. He hunched his shoulders and wouldn’t look at Big Walter squarely.
“And your beer,” added the waitress.
Big Walter realized his eyes were all over the place. He looked down at his hand, which still held his wallet, which was empty. “I paid,” he said. “I put the money on the table.”
But of course Dog had leaned over and pocketed the money, maybe went inside and bought himself a wrap — or no, he would have gone to Burger King and gotten a Whopper, what Big Walter would have bought if he’d had a choice. There hadn’t been enough money for anything but food.
“It must have blown away,” Big Walter said lamely. “And I don’t have any more.”
The manager’s nervousness visibly increased. “Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to come with us.”
“You have to pay for what you ate,” the waitress said. She didn’t seem afraid of him anymore. “Or maybe your girlfriend will pay.”
Your girlfriend.That was mostly what Big Walter heard at first. And then he noticed the waitress’s lack of fear, how she was laughing at him, and he decided to show her the gun. He reached under the leather jacket — hot now and, he thought, smelly — and pulled it out.
It was a twenty-two. Not a very impressive gun, a ladies’ piece, but still a gun and therefore impressive enough. The waitress and the manager recoiled and Big Walter took off into the crowd.
He went straight for PerfectForYou. The waitress had called Christine his girlfriend. He was going to tell her he hardly knew Dog — say he was in love with her, Christine, had thought of her every day in prison. She was beautiful. He would tell her that. She was Bimbo of the Year, every year, for him.
“She isn’t here,” the receptionist told him. She looked afraid, as if she’d seen the gun too; or maybe receptionists were naturally more fearful than waitresses. Walter felt his eyes going all different directions, and he rubbed at his hair and felt how wild it had gotten.
“Sit,” the little receptionist said, “I can call security. I mean, I have called them. They’re on their way.”
Big Walter cursed. It was like the time he’d been caught speeding and said all the wrong things and ended up having his car searched, which sent him to prison. This time, before anything worse could happen, he turned around. He left PerfectForYou, passing before Paris, Athens, and Venice. He tried to slam the door behind him, but it was on a pneumatic closer and sighed softly shut.
Big Walter felt bad. He had blown it with Christine. He had no money. And there wasn’t even a Pink Panther to return to, to make him feel better with drinks and pool and maybe a girl with a big red mouth who would think he was dangerously appealing. He rode the elevator down to street level and came out on the sunny sidewalk, where the first thing he saw was a First Security Bank.
He didn’t think much about it. He went across the street and into the bank, up to the prettiest teller — there was a line, but he didn’t bother with it — and asked her politely for three thousand dollars. It seemed like the right amount for a fresh start. He didn’t have a bank account, but three thousand wouldn’t hurt anybody. He kept his eyes under control.
The teller didn’t say anything about his cutting in line. She was young and smiled at him while her long fingernails picked at an unraveling braid. When she asked to see some I.D., he moved the gun and showed it to her, discreetly, still inside his jacket. She turned ashy but didn’t exclaim; she opened her drawer and counted out three thousand dollars and handed it over.
Bit Walter juggled gun and money, tucking things away. He thanked the girl and left, sauntering past the bored guards and silk ferns, feeling much better.
Outside, sunshine again, three thousand dollars in his pocket. The world held possibilities. He looked up at Christine’s office building, all those black glass eyes — maybe somewhere behind one of them, she was watching him now. He still didn’t believe the receptionist who’d told him she wasn’t back from lunch. He smiled and waved the hand that had held the money, the one that had touched the gun.
Then Big Walter remembered that he had no car.
As he thought that, he heard the sirens.
Even before they stopped, he was face-down on the sidewalk, wind knocked out of him. Hot concrete pressed against his cheek, his jacket pulled up and his pants pulled down.
“This is the one!” the bank’s security guards were shouting to the cops. “This is the guy!” Their hands were all over him, searching.
From the corner of the eye that wasn’t smashed into the concrete, Big Walter saw people standing around, holding up their phones.
“Then he heard, “Big Man? Big Man, what’re you doing?”
Big Walter swiveled his eye. There was Dog, chewing, a Whopper wrapper still in his hand. Big Walter blinked and he vanished — of course it was just imagination; he couldn’t possible have heard Dog above the sound of the helicopter. Still, he called, “Dog!” at the top of his lungs.
A foot pushed his head back to the pavement. “Quiet!” a cop snarled.
“Where’s the gun?” somebody was asking.
“The teller said he had a gun.”
Face grinding into the hot concrete, Big Walter wondered what might have happened to the gun. He couldn’t remember tucking it back into his pants. Could he have left it in the bank? But where? He had a headache and his mouth tasted of blood. Could Christine have taken it? Could Dog? No, then Big Walter could never have robbed the bank … Was he so sure he’d robbed it? Why did he take only three thousand dollars?
“It’s a misunderstanding,” he mumbled.
The cops ignored him.
“I just asked for money,” he said, trying the words out. He’d have to go to court, would need some things to say. “I didn’t have my card. The girl misunderstood.”
Nobody heard him.
A TV crew pulled up. He hoped Christine was watching from her window, that she would see he was becoming famous. He’d done it for her, after all. Because of her.
Somebody was squatting in front of him. A cop, a woman. Latina, hair scraped back and lipstick on her mouth. She looked into his eyes, then waved her finger in front of them. “Something’s wrong with this guy,” she said.
“Yeah, he’s a criminal,” said the cop with the lead foot.
“He’s been drinking.”
“Let me through!” came a voice. “I’m his friend!” Dog was there after all, though he didn’t have a hamburger. Big Walter felt tears prickling at his eyes.
“Yes,” said Big Walter, “that’s my friend.”
The police took this to mean more than it did, and they grabbed Dog and started searching him. Big Walter felt a twinge of hope that he’d have company in prison. Then honor won out and he said to the lady cop, “He had nothing to do with it.”
This only seemed to make the police more suspicious, and soon Dog was face-down too, and the lady cop was cuffing his hands behind him.
A pair of heels clacked into Big Walter’s view. Christine? He raised his eyes hopefully.
It was a reporter. “… an interview,” she was saying. “Just a few words, a sound bite …”
Where was Christine? She’d always wanted to be on TV.
“Go get her,” he said into the sidewalk. “She’s at PerfectForYou. Christine Tripp.”
“You can’t talk to a suspect,” a male cop said.
But somebody heard Big Walter and decided to help. In a little while the cute cop helped him turn his head the other way and he saw Christine’s heels and her ankles, then her knees. She was crouching awkwardly to look into his face without letting her skirt hang open.
“Yes,” he heard her say, “that’s Big Walter.”
“I don’t know. Anderson? Andrews? I barely know him.”
“Christine!” First Big Walter shouted it, then Dog did.
“Who are these men?” a woman asked. “Christine, what are you doing?” Now there was another pair of heels next to hers. Her boss? Big Walter hoped he hadn’t made problems for her at work. Well, she would be on TV now. Maybe the boss would too. He had given her that.
“Christine,” he said, “I love you!”
“I love you too, Christine!” Dog shouted.
Christine stood up and walked away, but she’d never be able to outrun the cops. By cranking his head, Big Walter could still see her legs up to her hips, standing against the yellow police tape. There probably was a camera on her right now.
“Christine!” It was all he could think to say anymore.
She came back. She squatted down. “Walter,” she said, “I never want to hear you say my name again.”
He closed his eyes and thought of Venice. Paris. Athens. A honeymoon, romance. “But I love you,” he whimpered. “Bimbo of the Year!”
That was when she stood up and kicked him. The sharp point of her shoe gouged his ribcage.
He heard people laughing, but he wasn’t sure what it was at.
“Found it!” a cop was calling. “He dropped it in a potted plant!”
And that was that.
That night in the holding cell, Walter and Dog watched their arrest on television. They’d had to watch a lot of other things first, Dr. Phil and the Kardashians and news of some war, but they had no control over the channels. Finally there they were, lying on the sidewalk, surrounded by cops and bankers and bystanders. That reporter talking to Christine, calling Big Walter the Love Bandit. A new name.
“Just some guy I barely knew,” Christine said, speaking of him in the past tense. “At this club I went to once or twice. A long time ago.”
“Christine!” Walter groaned. His ribs still hurt. He was afraid he’d never be able to find her again.
The reporter asked, “Was he stalking you?”
But they cut to a commercial before Christine could respond.
Dog and Walter sat in silence. There were ads for mattresses and laxatives.
“She was perfect,” Walter said at last. “At least, I thought so.” Somehow she didn’t seem that way anymore.
“Well, you’ve been on TV,” Dog pointed out. He had come down, sobered up, and didn’t smell so bad anymore. “Now you’re going to get letters.”
“From women. You know. You’re the Love Bandit, and they’re looking for love. They’ll write to you in the big house.”
“Letters.” Big Walter thought of the postcards Christine mailed out, inviting people to find somebody to love. “Somebody PerfectForYou.”
“Perfect for you,” said Dog. He was jealous.
The guard called out, “You two be quiet in there. You sound like a couple of idiots.”
So Big Walter shut up. But he was comforted to know that despite all its disappointments, this day might lead to something good after all.
Susann Cokal is the author of Mirabilis, Breath and Bones, and the ALA Printz Honor winner The Kingdom of Little Wounds. Her new novel, Mermaid Moon, will be out in spring 2020.