Authors: Constance C. Greene
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The Love Letters of J. Timothy Owen
Constance C. Greene
For Philip and Lucia, readers and writers
of love letters nonpareil, with love and thanks.
He kept the motor going as he leaned on the mower and covertly studied the girl. She was baby-sitting the kids next door, monsters all. He wanted to let her know he was on her side, was offering up a few prayers, maybe even a novena or two, for her health and safety. But how? He didn't want her to think he was a complete wacko.
He wore his thick, tan hair long over his high forehead to conceal its depth and width, a suitable repository for his many weird thoughts. His Adam's apple, big enough to fend for itself, was a good prop, and his glasses, purchased at Woolworth'sâthick, professorial-type glassesâcompleted the image he chose to present to the world at large: a slightly off-the-wall, undercover intellectual. Inside, he was a true romantic, a veritable mush of romanticism. He would die if anyone discovered his secret.
He'd already blown it once or twice. Long ago. Take third grade. He'd sent Jennifer, Jennifer of the pigeon-toes and the scraggly pigtails, five valentines. He'd gone early to school and had slipped them into the valentine box on the teacher's desk before anyone else had arrived. All five were handmade beauties signed “Guess Who?” Then he'd signed, in the left-hand corner, his name: Tim O.
Jennifer had showed and told. They'd all laughed. Tony Montaldo had led the laughter, kept it going. “Guess who? Tim O.!” was the hue and cry. Tony was a big, good-looking kid who'd sat behind him and copied his arithmetic answers because Tim was good at arithmetic.
“How's it going, Tim O.?” Tony had shouted regularly. Tony wouldn't let go. “How's it going, Tim O.?” Tim had managed to conceal his hurt as well as his anger, but it still rankled.
Then, in an excess of romantic zeal in seventh grade, he'd thrown handfuls of pebbles at the window of a girl named Karen. A habit, he'd read, of long-ago lovers, it seemed to him a wonderfully romantic thing to do. Karen's father, however, took exception. Angered, no doubt, by his interrupted TV show, as well as a cracked windowpane, he'd given chase. Through backyards and over garbage pails they'd flown, he and Karen's dad, with Tim always a little out front, spurred on by adrenaline, youth, and terror. This incident had dampened the romantic fire always burning in his insides.
Until now. He hoped they were paying her a fortune, because that's what baby-sitting those kids was worth. He knew. He'd done it. In the olden days, five years or so ago, eager for a fast buck, a bag of M&M's, and unlimited TV, he'd been available at a moment's notice. The parents of the monsters, new in town, thought him a gem. Which he was. Living next door as he did, and being big for his age (eleven at the time), and cheap, he was called on whenever they felt the need of a breath of fresh air, which was often. A flick to be seen, a quiet dinner
, the shrink to be visited, whatever. Those monsters took a toll on the old nervous system, thereby lining his pockets.
He might still be baby-sitting, if the monsters' parents hadn't one day read once too often of the abundance of child molesters. Behind every tree, every steering wheel, lurking in every bulrush. Male babysitters, it seemed, were particularly suspect, henceforth persona non grata. From that day forward, the parents of the monsters worked hard at avoiding Tim's eye as they led a seemingly unending procession down the garden path, of tottering old ladies trailing their knitting, or girl-children fresh from their orthodontists, live sacrifices all, as the eyes and the teeth of the monsters gleamed a welcome from behind damask draperies.
What those parents didn't know, what he'd never told, was that
been the target of molestation, rather than the kids. Upon reflection, he considered himself lucky to be alive. Fortunately, he'd been a Boy Scout, and had also taken a survival course offered at the Y. Those kids had thrown some pretty heavy stuff his way. Masters at tying sophisticated knots, they also knew a multitude of ways to shut off the supply of oxygen to the brain. One memorable afternoon, the three oldest monsters had come close to trapping him in a handmade hangman's noose, with which they'd attempted to hoist him to the rafters in the garage. Thanks to his intense interest in reading all available literature concerning the renowned escape artist Houdini, Tim had wriggled free in the nick of time. Oh, how the monsters' faces had fallen; how they'd wept, the only time they'd done so, as he paraded before them, alive, victorious.
He sighed now, contemplating the girl from afar. Her cheekbones were a work of art. Her legs, long as a stork's and considerably more symmetrical, were comely, enticing. Her mouth was a bright-red beacon, luring him onto the shoals. A natural beautyâone of fewâher name, he happened to know, was Sophie. She was a sophomore and played oboe in the school band.
“Cut it out, Benjy!” he heard her holler from the neighbors' lawn. Little did she know that one word of protest acted like the proverbial red flag to Benjy. His blood, always on the simmer, reached a full, rolling boil, and his killer instincts, located close to his skin, emerged, fully developed. The other monsters, Tim noted, were out of sight, probably scouting around for some kindling to get a good blaze going in the master bedroom, a room without a fireplace.
“Tim!” His mother's voice, calling from the house, had a high, clear ring to it. She seemed to get nervous when she saw him standing still, doing nothing. She'd been on edge since his thirteenth birthday, when he'd become a full-fledged teenager. The day he'd hit thirteen, she'd started to go to pieces. Now that he was sixteen, she was still going downhill. He raised a hand to show her he'd heard and bent over the mower, pretending its motor had conked out and he was doing his best to get it going again. People were too uptight these days, he reflected, peering through his hair for a better look at The Girl. (Even though he knew her name was Sophie, in his head he called her The Girl.)
Uptight about everythingâteenagers, child molesters, security systems, triple locks, guard dogs, you name it.
“Tim, are you almost finished? I need some help.” His mother had gone into the antique business in an effort to keep busy, make some money, and allay her anxietiesâanxieties about him, his father, cholesterol, cellulite, anorexia, bulimia, the world in general, to say nothing of nuclear waste. She collected thingsâwillowware, fans, old clothes, whirligigsâAmericana in all forms. Once, in an effort to re-create a cabin in the woods, circa 1845, she'd draped the TV set in an old quilt, attempting to disguise it. She was queer for weather vanes, old baskets, Shaker pegboards. If it was art deco, she snapped it up. When she wasn't going to auctions, she was ravaging tag sales in the hope of flushing out an unsigned Picasso, or some ancient portrait of Abraham Lincoln done by an itinerant artist on oilcloth. It was the oilcloth that pushed up the price.
Then there was that story on the six-o'clock news, of an outrageously ugly candy dish, bought at a tag sale for two bucks and sold at an auction in a high five-figure bracket after said candy dish was found to have been made by some canny Frenchman smart enough to have turned out only two such outrageously ugly candy dishes, the other being prominently displayed in the Louvre. Tim's mother thrived on such stories and woke each morning, renewed, certain that today would be her day in the sun.
“Yeah, Ma, coming!”
A rustling in the bushes and a spate of giggles told him he was not alone. He glimpsed a couple of straw-colored heads and some bare flesh. The monsters were deploying their forces.
He got the mower going, revved the engine, and aimed it at the clump of bushes. Maybe he could wipe out the lot of them in one fell swoop. Mow 'em down, to coin a phrase.
“Coming for you!” he roared as he and his mower advanced noisily. The bushes trembled as if caught in a typhoon, but were not sundered. He kept on going, growing a little apprehensive, even considered backing down, thereby losing face. He didn't fancy having a murder rap hung on him.
With seconds to spare, the bushes parted, spewing three scantily clad bodies topped by three straw-colored heads, all screaming with glee and the excitement of bloodletting, even if the blood turned out to be their own.
Then a commotion next door silenced even the monsters, and they watched as the girl wrestled Benjy to the ground and sat on him. For that alone, he could've kissed her. For not only was she beautiful, she was also strong.
Before his mother would allow him to go next door to baby-sit, she had insisted on demonstrating to him the fine art of diapering a baby, as there seemed to be quite a few babies among the tribe of monsters. Moreover, most of them appeared to be wearing diapers. Either that or large, billowing behinds ran in their family. Like baldness. Or blue eyes. The monsters' mother revealed she had read all the books on child rearing and was against forced toilet training.
“When they're ready,” she said piously, “they will let me know.” In the meantime, the behinds got bigger and soggier, and the air in the monsters' house got pretty steamy on a hot summer's day.
Using an ancient diaper and Tim's scraggly old teddy bear, which she somewhat sheepishly brought from its hiding place for use in her diapering demo, his mother had said in her precise way, “You fold it with the thickness in front if it's a boy baby, Tim, and with the thickness in back if it's a girl.”
So it was he learned the facts of life, sort of.
He liked little kids. Maybe he'd have some of his own when he was thirty, and rich. Or forty, and richer. One of his friends' fathers was pushing sixty. When the father showed up at school on occasion, some smart ass always said, “Who's the old geezer?” It didn't seem to bother his friend, and presumably the old geezer never heard.