There’s an Indian guy in a Mercedes and he’s got one low tire, the left front. He’s put his quarters in the slot and he’s filled it up and now he’s fiddling with it like he can figure out why it’s losing air if he stares at it long enough. Now he goes around to all the other tires, which are fine, swaying in this giant parka that makes him look three times his actual size, and fiddles with them and eyeballs them all because he doesn’t have a gauge. And now he goes back to the one he’s already filled and looks it over and pumps in a couple more pounds. He’s got all day. But Brammer doesn’t. Brammer just wants to air up his own slow leaker, the right front, and be on his way. He’s watching from the driver’s seat with the windows up and the heater on full blast and he wants to spend as little time as possible outside the car because it’s cold as a witch’s tit, the coldest day of the year. Brammer has no use for the cold, it makes him jittery. That’s what brought him southwest in the first place, why he stays.
Finally the guy gets satisfied with his tire and pulls over to the gas pumps. With the Mercedes out of the way Brammer sees the wallet on the pavement just ahead of the air pump. He pulls the Dodge up and puts it in Park without turning off the engine. Zips up his hoodie, gets out and grabs the wallet, gets back in. Takes off his gloves. The wallet is light blue, what they call Columbia blue in football even though who knows if Columbia has a team, with three little black kittens cut into the front of it. The leather or leatherette or whatever it is, is cold. It folds over and closes with a snap. Brammer unsnaps it and sees all the credit cards are still in their slots. One of them is not a credit card. It’s a membership card to a gym. There’s a twenty in the cash compartment. A driver’s license behind a little plastic window, a picture of a decent-looking youngish woman with a round face and short blond hair that’s probably dyed. She’s all happy. But you can’t see much detail because the picture is made by one of those dinky box cameras while she stood behind the line painted on the floor and some state employee who could care less pushed a button. The stats say she’s five six, weighs 125, and has blue eyes. Brammer does the math back to her birth date and calculates she’s twenty-nine. She lives at 2509 South First Street #218, and her name is Christine Nancy Cameron.
By now Indian guy is gassing up, humped over the nozzle in the cold. Brammer thinks maybe the wallet came out of the Mercedes somehow, at least it’s worth a shot, gets out and walks over, waves the wallet at the guy.
“This yours? Found it over there.”
“No. I saw it on the ground.” Guy is too frigid for conversation.
Brammer goes into the store. Typical convenience place attached to the gas station. A skinny girl with stringy hair and acne issues is behind the counter. Long-sleeved sweatshirt under the fruity short-sleeve the chain gives her to wear. Somebody has dropped a beer back by the cooler and the heating system is sharing the smell all over. Brammer holds up his find.
“Anybody call about a missing wallet?”
“Not on my shift. Best bet is leave it here. They usually come back. If they don’t in a couple days we call them.” Girl holds out her hand. Long pale fingers, knobbly knuckles. Brammer extends the wallet for a second, doesn’t let it go.
“Think I’ll hold onto it, give her a call.”
Brammer fishes out a dollar.
“I need some quarters for the air pump.”
She hands the coins over with a little private smile. What’s she thinking? He’s gonna go nuts with the credit cards? He’s some kind of perv?
“I’m gonna call the woman, make sure she gets it back.”
“Okay. That’s cool.”
Brammer goes out and airs up the tire, puts in a few extra pounds, his breath making clouds like a dragon. If he got the tire fixed he wouldn’t have to do this every week. If he’d fixed it he wouldn’t have found the wallet. He should be back at work, but now he has this big responsibility like he’s picked up somebody’s life and they wouldn’t have it until he gave it back. The girl in the store is right, she’d most likely come here looking for it and if he drives off with it she’s screwed. He has to do something now or take it back inside and hand it over. Brammer pulls out his phone and punches in 411. That number is unlisted at the customer’s request. What the hell. The address is maybe fifteen, twenty minutes from where he is now. Wrong direction, but the round trip can’t take that long. He calls work, punches through the menu.
“Thank you for calling FedEx Office and Print Center.”
“How busy are we?”
“This is the boss, your manager.”
“Oh hey, didn’t recognize you.”
“We’re slammed, been crazy all day. Four or five customers waiting. I’m on a big binding job that’s kinda holding me up.”
“Did Kyla make it in?”
“Her kid’s still sick.”
“That’s what she said.”
“So it’s just you and Paulie?”
“Okay, look I’m tied up with something and it’s gonna be another forty-five minutes before I get back. An hour max.”
“Whatever. We could use the help but we’ll figure it out.”
Whatever? That’s how he talks to his manager? Yeah it is, and what do you expect? Brammer has a kid’s job. Manager, sure, but a kid could do it. Some locations, a kid does do it. Runs his own shop fifteen years, BB’s House of Printing, takes home a good buck until the economy goes south and nobody needs a real printer anyway. Spends his life breathing ink, knows a craft, does things right, who gives a flip? It’s all about glorified copiers and one click on the Internet. Nobody knows the difference.
Meanwhile he’s living, barely, on the global corp paycheck, the guy that’s always run his own show. He’s a manager. Been trained, just like a circus dog, and knows all the tricks. Brammer throws it in Drive and pulls out onto Riverside, negotiates a couple of intersections and hits South First. The downtown towers are in his rearview mirrors, at the base of one of them a FedEx Office and Print Center, formerly Kinko’s, with four or five customers waiting. He passes bungalows converted to hair salons and bike shops, some Tex-Mex restaurants, a bakery, a funeral parlor. Then houses that are still houses, the neighborhoods going downscale. An elementary school with no kids on the playground. Everything gray, the light soft and luminescent from the blanket of cloud that covers everything he sees. People waiting for buses huddled on the corner. Apartment complexes. He starts watching the numbers on addresses. Pulls in at a small complex that’s seen better days. The Fairview. Tiles missing from the roof, peeling paint, a broken-down pickup in the lot. Locates 218 and climbs the stairs.
Brammer knocks and waits. A skinny cat with tabby stripes and a white underbelly watches. There’s a withered ivy plant in a pot beside the door. When nobody comes he knocks again, puts his ear against the cold wood and listens to the hum of the building, air through the vents, water passing through pipe in some other apartment. Tries to pet the cat but it scatters. Knocks again and bounces on his feet. He holds a FedEx business card against the door and writes on it in careful block letters—Brammer’s penmanship is not the best—“Found your wallet. Call me.” Adds his cell phone number and his personal e-mail and lodges the card in the crack between the door and the frame.
He drives back downtown to work. Things are still busy, the customers and the two kids trying to keep them happy all on edge. Everybody’s got to make a presentation or get something on the plane and the world ends now if they don’t. Usually Brammer hangs out in the back, only comes up front to smooth a ruffled feather or check stock. He has plenty to do in his office but the rest of the day he works the counter with the kids. The cell phone doesn’t ring. He checks e-mail a couple of times, no message. It doesn’t make sense but he watches the door every time it opens to see if she walks in. When he’s been working a job and a female has shown up at the counter he searches her face.
That night he gets takeout at a Wendy’s on the way to his condo. It’s in better shape and a better neighborhood than The Fairview. After his meal he thinks about driving back there but decides that’s silly. He did what he could, she’ll call or she won’t. It’s her wallet. Besides it’s still too cold. Brammer watches the second half of the Pacers-Lakers game and goes to bed, lays the wallet beside him on the table so he won’t forget it in the morning. He tries reading but loses interest, picks up the wallet. One credit card per slot, no cramming. The card from Macy’s is expired. The others are current. There’s a debit card from Bank of America. In the slot with the twenty there’s a folded piece of white paper that turns out to be a receipt from a lamp shop. Everything’s shipshape. It’s not one of those wallets with a hundred scraps of paper sticking out and Post It notes with phone numbers and reminders. Not like the ex’s, that’s for damn sure.
Brammer looks up at the textured surface of the ceiling, the walls. He needs to do something with the place, make it look like somebody lives there. His eyes go back to the driver’s license.
“What do you think about my place?” he asks her. He listens for an answer. Why not?
“It’s nice,” she tells him. “I might put some pictures up. You got some pictures, your family or something?”
“In boxes. I never unpacked everything when I moved in. Just the stuff I needed.”
“So open a box.”
“So, I found your wallet.”
“You want a gold star? Maybe someday you’ll get off your duff and give it back to me.”
“I tried. Not my fault you got an unlisted number and you don’t stay home.”
“I work. People work. You heard of that?”
“What do you do, all this working?”
“You getting personal?”
He sees her face. She’s prettier than on the license. Her eyes pick up on the irony in things. She’s playing with him, not flirting, just playing to amuse the both of them. She cocks her head to the side like a bird. She doesn’t answer.
Next day the sun is out and the world has warmed up. Brammer picks up the wallet from the bedside, leaves early so he can stop by The Fairview on the way to work. The card is gone from the door. He knocks, no one comes, not even the cat.
In a slow time at work Brammer sits at his desk looking at the driver’s license. He takes it out to an MFP and scans it. Saves it to a desktop, enlarges it. The original is too small and the resolution too low, so she’s blurry, pixilated. For grins he pulls the image into Photoshop and does what he can to clean it up. It’s still not right, but he can make out some details—the shape of her chin, with a subtle dimple just off center, the eyebrows darker than the hair and slightly lifted, the way she wills the mouth up into the smile. He adds some painted effects to cover the blemishes in quality, make the image look like a creation, look like art. The highlights are rich greens and purples, reds. Meanwhile there’s no call, no e-mail.
He detours to her complex on the way home. Knocks, nothing. Waits in the parking lot until a rough-looking guy with tattoos up his neck asks him what his business is. Stops off at the convenience store. A different clerk. Nobody has called or come by about a wallet as far as he knows.
At the CVS, he buys a frame for the image. Hangs it on the wall in his bedroom.
He props up on the pillows, hands behind his head, doesn’t feel like watching TV or reading. After a while he’s talking to her.
“You’re a hard girl to find.”
“If I was easy, everybody would be doing me.”
He doesn’t like the answer, starts the conversation over.
“Maybe we could get to know each other better,” he says. “Tell me something about yourself. Anything you want, I don’t care.”
“Okay, but you first.”
“Not much to tell about me.”
“Me either, then.”
He thinks what to tell.
“Okay, I’m gonna tell you something crazy. I hope it’s not too crazy, so you don’t want to talk to me anymore.”
“Try me, crazy man.”
“I used to be married.”
“I know, right, and I’m married to this woman who spends like I’m printing money. I can’t get in the door for all the crap from Saks and Bloomingdales and Nieman’s. She’s got diamonds you can see across the street. Meanwhile I’m working my ass off, and I’m not putting that on her, my work is what I do, but it’s not going so great and the golden goose is on its back with a weak pulse, know what I mean? So one fine afternoon she thinks I’m working and I come home, like a surprise. But it’s on me because the woman is in bed, our bed, with one of my customers, this big-time lawyer. I print his business cards and brochures, folders with inserts really, nice die cuts and stairstep inserts, custom varnish, and he bitches about the price, and now he’s screwing my wife in my bed.”
“So what do you do?”
“What am I gonna do, shoot them? I admit I thought about it, but I just walk out. So we end up divorced and so does he and they end up together in his big house with a front lawn that reaches out to China.”
“And this is what you call crazy?”
“It’s not all. So one day I walk in the bedroom and see that bed and I decide we’re not quite done. I take the bed apart, it’s a king, it’s huge, got a headboard like the Titanic, I rent a U-Haul and drag the bed and the mattress out to it. I drive it over to their house and put it back together in the middle of the lawn. Make it all up nice with the sheets and blankets and a comforter and the pillows fluffed up in their cases. It looks pretty fine there, you know, like an installation, like a sculpture, the grass all green around it. Except it’s started raining, pouring down, and it kind of takes something off the effect.”
She’s laughing, her head thrown back, sweet and high in her throat.
“I love it. It’s crazy, but I love it.”
She loves it.
In the morning it’s sunny again and the nice weather is holding. Brammer doesn’t go by The Fairview or the convenience store, he figures she’ll be in touch if that’s the way things are supposed to be, and anyway he’s done his part. He’s not looking for her to come in the door at work anymore. She’s there already, so why look? He’s talking with her all day long, offering asides about the kids and the customers and she’s laughing with him and saying “right, right,” and making her own jokes that have him smiling. He calls her Chrissie now. At lunch they go together to the deli on the ground floor of the office tower across the street.
“So what do you do for fun?” he asks her, once they’ve settled into a booth that looks out on the traffic.
She’s quiet for a minute. He waits, wonders if maybe he’s asked the wrong thing.
“I guess I don’t have much of what they call a social life,” she says. She’s looking down at the table.
“What do you mean? A girl like you, with all you have going, how could that be?”
“It’s not like I feel bad about it,” she says looking up at him. “I don’t want you to think that because that’s not it at all. It’s just a fact. It’s because of my kid.”
“You’ve got a kid? I didn’t know.”
She holds her eyes on his. He waits.
“He’s in a wheelchair most of the time. He’s got a lot of problems.”
“Wow, I’m sorry. That must be really hard.”
“Don’t be sorry. He’s the sweetest boy in the world. I wouldn’t change anything about him, ever. And it’s not hard, it’s just our life. It’s just the way things are.”
“How old is he?”
“And what’s his name?”
“His dad on the scene?”
“He split a long time ago, before Joey was born. We never hear from him.”
Brammer looks out at the sidewalk, watches a tall guy in glasses buy time from a parking meter, whiffs the Reuben he hasn’t touched.
“I’ve got to get to know this little guy,” he says.
She smiles. She’s happy.
After that Joey is a part of things, it’s always the three of them. Brammer watches ballgames with him, takes him along whenever he can because it’s good for him to get out, starts making lunches for him and leaving them in their fridge. It’s tough for him to make things on his own. Meantime spring settles in, and Brammer really sees it. Green points on the tips of limbs everywhere he looks. He dreams up special plans for weekends, surprises. Like he’ll pack a picnic, take the two of them down by the lake on the other side of the spillway. Joey likes to watch the dogs chasing tennis balls and Frisbees in the water there.