I was hanging out at the law offices downtown in San Antonio that Saturday morning in September, working ostensibly, but actually just drinking free coffee and flirting with the receptionist, Rhonda. I wasn’t expecting to almost get murdered later that day. I wasn’t an attorney, I was just a 19-year-old community college student working part-time as an office clerk at a personal injury firm where the chief partner was a friend of my father’s. The Law Offices of Donovan and Klegg occupied the entire 9th floor of one of the old brick office buildings downtown, with gargoyles perched on the window ledges and a high, ornate lobby that made you feel like it was 1924. Working there I felt distinguished and important, a part of some glamorous enterprise. Most of the staff worked a half-day on Saturdays, in the morning. The vibe was different than during the work week, more free and easy. Sometimes somebody brought donuts or kolaches, enhancing the coffee for a nice, jittery sugar and caffeine high. Mr. Donovan, the firm’s founding partner, was in a chipper mood on Saturday mornings, wearing a loud shirt and Irish green pants, ready to take off precisely at noon for his lake house or to play golf at the country club. Sometimes he walked around with a Bloody Mary, clapping staff members on the back as he made the rounds through the office suite. You could tell he was luxuriating in his ownership, his success, his accomplishments. He let all of us in the office feel like we were partaking in a small piece of that.
The receptionist Rhonda wasn’t really my type, or what I thought my type was at age 19. What I thought was my type was a cerebral, high-brow girl, fragile, almost waiflike, a fan of late-Romantic era British poetry, a questioner, a quester, a war protester, somebody willing to take tear gas in the schnoz for her beliefs. With big boobs as a nice, elective feature. Rhonda wasn’t anything like that, but she was there. She was an old-fashioned working girl, tough, hard-driven, maybe a tad brittle around the eyes, two or three years older than me. She was a lean, freckled-faced, strawberry blond who wore glasses and her hair in a bouncy ponytail most of the time. We joked about that—I was a college kid and she was just a dumb working girl. That kind of banter invariably turned me on, though I kept that information to myself.
She wasn’t dumb, though. She was sharp and quick-witted, fast to learn and apply new skills. She had dropped out of high school before senior year—earning a GED later—and moved away from home to escape an oppressive situation there. She was a wiz at operating our office machines. She made me understand the whole concept of education in a new light, that there were different paradigms of learning, not just the traditional book learning that I had received. She existed in a different world than me, really. She lived with a 32-year-old Air Force officer stationed at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, a native New Yorker, divorced, with two young children who stayed with them some weekends. That was the story of her life, in a nutshell. Everything she did seemed slightly off-schedule, unconventional, offbeat. Nothing was straight and narrow. Nobody else at the office knew anything about her personal life. It made me feel good that she had told only me.
I wasn’t a full-fledged college student, anyway. I sure didn’t feel like one. I was a sophomore at the local community college, San Antonio College, living still at home, sharing a bedroom with one of my brothers in a comfortable—if stultifying—four-bedroom in a San Antonio suburb called Inspiration Hills. As the oldest child, I was subject to certain demands and expectations that my three younger siblings were largely able to circumvent. I needed a change. I was desperate to get out. I was set to transfer to the University of Texas in Austin next fall, but that was still almost a year away. A year that seemed forever at this point.
I took a break from filing around 10:30 to stop by the front desk to shoot the breeze with Rhonda for a little bit. She amused me. There was often some interesting development in her life to tell me about. Her life seemed filled with interesting developments. She was kinetic energy, I was just potential.
She was on the phone when I came by, but she held up a finger signifying for me to wait. She stared out at me with the blinking, searching, wide-aperture eyes of somebody who had just taken her glasses off. She held her glasses in one hand, by the stem. I waited gladly. Waiting for her was actually one of the great joys of my current existence. I knew that on the other side of waiting there would be something interesting to chat about, perhaps something ground-breaking, something that might pull us closer together in a cabal of conspiracy. She hung up the phone. She looked over at me. She spoke in a low, confidential tone.
“Guess what, I’m going to look at wedding dresses after work,” she said.
“Wedding dresses?” I said. “Getting married.”
She nodded, yes.
“Yeah, Ian thought we should go ahead and tie the knot. He wants to make it legal, he said.”
“Oh boy,” I said. “When is this happening?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Pretty soon. No date set yet. We’re still in the planning stages.” She paused, looked around. “But I thought it would be fun to look at dresses.”
“I bet!” I said. But my enthusiasm was all fake. My big fear was her moving away with Ian and I would never see her again. Besides, he had told me stories about Ian’s bad temper and controlling personality and the terrible arguments they had. Marriage seemed like a recipe for disaster. “Congratulations!”
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah.” She held up her right hand to survey her fingernails. She wiggled her fingers. The nails were chewed short. They were painted a pale red.
“Hey!” she said. “Want to come with me? Help me look?”
“At wedding dresses?” I said. “Sure!” My spirits soared. I had plans to go jogging and then maybe camp down in my room to watch a college football game—but this seemed like it might be more beneficial to my mental health. I needed practice being with girls.
“OK,” she said. “Let me just finish up with a few things here. Maybe we can cut out a little early. Nobody has to know, do they? I think Mr. D may already be drunk.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “Just let me know when you’re ready.”
“Will do,” she said. She put on her glasses. She stretched out her arms as if to assume a typing position. I returned to the filing room, thoughts racing. It almost seemed that I was entering a new realm, a different world, leaving behind the world of my home and family. I placed a rushed, impatient, irritable call home from the phone on the counter in there—I didn’t want my mother calling out the FBI to track me down when I didn’t return home right after work. I talked to my roommate brother, who seemed extraordinarily obtuse that day. “Just say I’m going to hang out with some friends,” I said. And hung up.
It was around 11:30 when Rhonda surprised me in the filing room, touching me on the write then tracing her fingers up my arm to the elbow. It was the first time I could remember her ever touching me. She looked freshly coiffed, with fresh red lipstick and a touch of rouge on her cheeks. She always wore the old-fashioned red lipstick, like a 50s. girl. She wore blue jeans, torn at the knees, and a printed tee shirt, her usual Saturday attire.
“Ready to go?” she said. No more wonderful words had ever been spoken.
“Ready!” I said. “Let’s get out of here!”
“Follow me,” she said, with a nod. She took my hand and guided me to a back door in an empty hallway by the stairwell, taking the stairs in a gallop nine floors down to the ground floor. It felt like a jailbreak.
We emerged into a cramped alleyway between buildings, blinking in a sudden deluge of sunlight. A homeless, Hispanic man sat nodding off beside a dumpster, a duffel bag of belongings in his lap. He lifted his head briefly to stare at us. I offered him a smile of affirmation, feeling a brief flutter of anxiety. At this moment, perhaps, I envied him his independence, his stolidity, his singularity of purpose.
“Where are we going?” I asked Rhonda.
“I know a place,” she said.
She took my hand again and we turned onto Commerce Street, passing a bank and a grocery and a porn movie house, then crossed a side street onto Houston Street, the main East-West downtown thoroughfare. It was bustling with Saturday shoppers and tourists with kids. The bridal shop was tucked into the middle of a crowded block, a small, glass-walled storefront. Mendel’s Bridal Salon was stenciled on the front door, with a drawing of a bride and groom in silhouette alongside. The door stood open to the street. We stepped inside, lingering near the threshold. A long, low-ceilinged space, it was populated by headless gray female mannequins in various styles of webbing garb. A rotating floor fan whirred somewhere in the background, rustling the sleeves of the dresses on the mannequins as it turned in their direction. What did I know, but the place struck me as somehow New York-like, a tiny piece of Manhattan plunked down here in south central Texas.
A short, stout, middle-aged woman, almost as wide as she was tall, emerged from behind a counter to greet us near the entrance. Her graying black hair was cropped close in utilitarian fashion, a head of hair that seemed to contain design elements of WW I British infantry helmets. A yellow cloth measuring tape was draped nonchalantly around her neck. It struck me that this could very well be Mrs. Mendel herself. For some arcane reason, I wanted her to be.
“How can I assist you?” she said. Her hint of an Eastern European accent seemed to solidify the New York illusion in my mind.
“I want to look at wedding dresses,” Rhonda said.
“Of course,” Mrs. Mendel—as I now characterized her—said. “There are catalogues over on the table. Help yourself.” She paused, looking me over. “Is this the gentleman?”
While I stood embarrassed and shrugging, Rhonda put her arms around my shoulder and pulled me close.
“He sure is,” she said.
I smiled, as I imagined a groom-to-be would smile. Mrs. Mendel smiled, too, a kind of shark-like reflex.
“You’re a lucky young man,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I know I am.” Mrs. Mendel smiled again, this time more a bare-fanged sneer. She was onto us, I felt sure—a couple of kids on a lark, not serious, just playing around. Wasting her time.
Rhonda and I settled in at the table with the catalogues, and Mrs. Mendel returned behind her counter. Rhonda would go back to try on dresses while I remained stationed at the table, trying on my new character as groom-to-be. With Rhonda away, Mrs. Mendel seemed to lighten up a little bit. She glanced over occasionally, and we established a kind of uneasy smiles and raised eyebrows relationship, based on our uncanny powers of analysis and a mutual deep understanding of human nature.
It wasn’t a bad feeling, pretending to be the groom-to-be. It was perhaps the most intimate connection I had ever experienced with a girl, the most secure, the most meaningful. I slapped my hands against my knees. I was in such a good mood suddenly I had to refrain from singing.
Rhonda appeared periodically to model the dresses for me. She curtsied and twirled as I offered my observations.
“Beautiful!” I said. “Gorgeous!”
Mrs. Mendel stood behind the counter, kibbitzing.
“What do you think, sir?” she asked me once, when Rhonda had disappeared back into the dressing room.
“They all seem nice,” I said. “I guess I like the less formal ones best.”
“Those are very popular now,” Mrs. Mendel said. “Especially if your wedding is outdoor and more casual.”
“That’s what we’re planning,” I said. What was I saying? My heart was pumping from my prevarications. “Outdoors. Casual. Only a few close friends and family.”
Mrs. Mendel nodded, in a way that said sarcastically, “Yeah. Gotcha.”
“She’ll make a beautiful bride,” she said.
“She sure will,” I said, flushed and sweating. I was overjoyed for the conversation to end.
Mrs. Mendel wet her finger on a moisture pad to turn some pages on a loose-leaf binder behind the counter. Something about her I found fascinating, though I had the young person’s fallacy that someone of her age and physical appearance could not possibly find any sort of fulfillment in life. I surmised that part of her role was to feed the egos of her customers who came through here, evaluating their situations, probing for a selling point. Perhaps she could diagnose those who had problems, those who were rushing it, those who were getting married under duress. Perhaps she could identify those who were lying their asses off, like me. Perhaps she had gotten into this business because she liked making young people happy. It did seem a cheerful sort of enterprise, dressing people for their big day.
Mrs. Mendel glanced over with a quizzical expression, as if preparing another line of questions. I turned my head away this time. I didn’t want to answer any more inquiries one-on-one. Fortunately, Rhonda reappeared just then, wearing her clothes from work. She seemed ready to go. I rose quickly. Rhonda couldn’t decide, or wasn’t ready to decide, on a dress, so she asked Mrs. Mendel for a business card and told her we would let her know. Mrs. Mendel nodded, as if acknowledging that she knew this all along. Rather huffily, she trooped back behind the counter and returned with two business cards, handing one to each of us. Her name was Gertrude Schmidt.
We left the store quickly, then, hightailing it halfway down the block before we looked at each other and cracked up laughing. Gertrude Schmidt seemed to signify everything that we as young people found absurd and farcical.
“What a hoot,” Rhonda said.
“She was a hoot,” I said.
We stood on the sidewalk talking aimlessly for a little while, then. It was a bright, clear, early autumn day here in San Antonio, with the dry air and mild temperatures promising optimum conditions for outdoor activities. The cauldron of our Texas summer was over. There would be college football games on TV and fall festivals in school parking lots. I wasn’t sure what was happening next, but I made not the slightest motion to depart. It seemed that so long as we stood there, so long as I remained in her orbit, I would be content. I felt attached to her in some new way, some way that had advanced our relationship beyond mundane office gossip and chit-chat. I could almost believe I was the one marrying her. It was amazing how easily I could set aside our political, philosophical, and sociological differences.
“Hey!” Rhonda said then. “What are you doing after this? You want to go grab some lunch?”
“Sure!” I said. “Where? Down here someplace?”
“Yeah, why not? Why don’t we just walk over to the Riverwalk? There’s tons of places down there. Ian’s out with his kids this afternoon anyway.”
“Sounds great!” I said.
The next several hours passed in a kind of lazy, languorous blur—an alcoholic blur, as it turned out. Rhonda wanted a Margarita and they served me one, too, though I was underage. The waitress—a slender, blue-haired young woman—seemed happy to oblige. We ate lunch at a jam-packed little Italian restaurant, our table perched high above the Riverwalk on a wrought iron balcony. It was a chiaroscuro of sunshine and shadow advancing and retreating across the dark green ribbon of river below and the bustling sidewalks and the facades of buildings on the far side. Some faint notes of tenors singing Irish drinking songs filtered up from somewhere down below. The food itself, I don’t much remember. I don’t believe that I tasted a thing. That first Margarita led to another, and then another. I remember touching legs under the table and touching hands on top. I opened up regarding what I considered my own rather tragic life story, restrictive parents and a poor self-image. I told Rhonda for the first time that I wanted to be a writer, a writer of fiction, like my idols J. D. Salinger or Walker Percy or John Cheever. I wanted to make people laugh with my writing, but also to feel strong emotions. Rhonda nodded sagely, as if this were a very important ambition indeed. Though I felt certain that she had never heard of any of these authors. Around us, tables were cleared and re-set, new customers were seated, finished their meals, and left. The sun had dropped behind the buildings on the far side of the river, draping us in a deep shade. It almost seemed like another day.
“What time is it?” Rhonda said. “Jeez.” She looked around, as if seeing her surroundings for the first time.
“It’s ten after four,” I said.
“Ten after four,” she said. “Crap. I’ve got to go. Ian’s going to kill me.”
“OK, let’s go,” I said. I pushed up from the table. Though I could have remained sitting there pretty much forever. Standing, I drained the last sticky drops of my Margarita.
“Can you give me a ride back home, though?” Rhonda said. “I’m pretty soused.”
“Sure, I’ll give you a ride,” I said. I wiped my mouth with a napkin. “What about your car, though?”
“Ian can give me a ride back tomorrow or Monday morning,” she said. “He won’t mind. I’ll make him.”
We went silent on the walk back to my car and the drive out to Rhonda’s apartment in the northern suburbs. Rhonda sat back with her head tilted sideways against the head rest. I felt pretty soused myself, so I focused on my driving, driving judiciously on surface roads rather than the freeway. Rhonda’s place was in a typical suburban complex, with brick walls and landscaping and a splashing fountain outside a glassed-in office area. A guy in a sleeveless tee shirt was walking his dog in the grassy area outside. I drove around behind the building as Rhonda directed and pulled into a spot alongside the curb. I turned off the car engine—I’m not sure why. Silence engulfed us then, silence that immense, oceanic, cosmic. Rhonda reached for the door handle, held on.
“I had fun,” she said. Fun seemed code for “I could really dig you.”
“I had fun, too,” I said. I could dig her, too, I thought.
“See you Monday at work,” she said.
“See you Monday,” I said.
A feeling of sanguine potential wafted through the car, like a potent perfume. I smiled, wistfully, I thought, touching her on the left wrist. I tried to make my smile wistful. Rhonda smiled back. She took her hand off the door handle. She turned toward me. She was all over me then, leaning into me, kissing me, kissing me aggressively, wrapping her arms around my back. Her bosom pressed against my chest. I was receptive. Boy, was I receptive! I was a 19-year-old virgin with security issues and an unfulfilled libido. I wasn’t going to turn down advances from an attractive female, regardless of any potential consequences or he political bent.
“I think I love you,” she said. She said this as her lips were inches from my mouth.
“I think I love you,” I said. I knew I didn’t love her, I understood there was no real future with her, but in the throes of passion it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to say. We could sort things out later.
And then, I was almost murdered. I heard knocking on my window and the door handle being pulled. I turned to see Rhonda’s boyfriend Ian—I recognized him from a photograph on Rhonda’s desk—and he was carrying what appeared to be a large kitchen knife. Rhonda screamed.
“Go!” she said. “Drive! Get out of here! He’s going to kill us both!”
I didn’t need much encouragement in this regard. Fortunately, the door handle was still locked. I turned on the car engine with shaking hands and floored the accelerator and fired out of there, squealing the tires and fishtailing. My heart was beating like a kettle drum at a football game. Ian ran after us, hurling the knife at the car. It hit the back window and clattered away. I watched him in the rearview mirror until I turned around a building and he was out of sight. I kept driving away, as far and as fast as I could.
So here I was, stuck with a young woman who said she loved me but who I didn’t love, escaping from her enraged boyfriend with no safe place to go. At least I wasn’t murdered that day.
Steven McBrearty have published more than 40 short stories and humor pieces over the years, including several in Adelaide Lit Magazine. A third collection of short stories—Children of the Shopping Mall—was published recently by Adelaide Books. A second collection “The Latin Sub – Impure Thoughts, and One Man’s definition of Mortal Sin,” was published in December 2017. The collection was nominated for a Benjamin Franklin award. A first collection, “Christmas Day on a City Bus,” was published by Kinney Press in 2011. Most recently, his short story, “Brother X,” was published in 34th Parallel magazine. My essay, “Sir Colon,” was published by Adelaide Publishers in an anthology of Best Essays 2020.