While rifling through the contents of the trash bin outside of the Walgreen's drug store in search of his receipt, Darius Filbert discovered a treasure: a small sheet of notebook paper with directions to a party on the back, printed in carefully drawn, pristine letters:
Take 45 to the Nasa One, take the exit and turn right on Blackhawk, left on Fourth. I'm in the Lakeside Apartments in Clear Lake, number 2171 J. The code to the pedestrian gate is 861, then press star. If you have any questions, call Lynette, 281-543-1973.
What beautiful handwriting, Darius thought as he rubbed his finger over the smoothness of the ink on the page. Lynette's "T" started at the edge of the line and rolled over and above the other letters. The "S" curled magnificently, like the stylized letters at the beginning of paragraphs in his beloved volume of Arthurian Legends. Her "M" was a pair of madcap hills; the "Y" in "Lynnette" floated beneath the "L" and hooked back up with the base of the "N" before wildly emerging in the mountainous double "T's." Darius tried to picture the creator of such beautiful penmanship, the delicate white of her flesh, the long fingers gently holding a pen as she painted each letter. An artist.
This poor girl had been deceived. She'd trusted someone, given them directions, her number, her address, and they'd betrayed her by throwing them away. How would poor Lynnette react if she knew? He felt sorry for her as he dug through the rest of the trash for his receipt. (What if Momma told him to come back to the store as she always did? He had to have the receipt, didn't he? What an idiot he'd been to toss it out in the first place.)
And then he thought: What if Lynnette knew he'd dig through the trash and had left the note for him? Was it God's way of letting them meet?
Surveying the parking lot, he wondered if she'd seen him in the drugstore and was too shy to speak. He tried to remember faces. The Mexican girl behind the counter. She didn't do it. She had to stay inside. The blonde girl at the photo booth. Maybe it was her. Maybe she'd only feigned interest with the set of photographs she held, secretly watching as he moved from aisle to aisle.
He felt something slimy inside the trash. Flinching, he pulled out a handful of paper and napkins covered in melted chocolate goo. And there it was. His receipt. For $5.95. Messy, but Walgreen's could live with the stains if he made a return. He wiped chocolate goo on the hip of his blue jeans, stuffed the instructions to Lynnette's apartment into his shirt pocket, and turned to go back inside.
A fat girl nearly ran into him at the door.
"I'm sorry," the fat said with a flirtatious giggle, or so it seemed to Darius, and he thought she was trying to make eye contact. There's no fat girls named Lynnette, Darius told himself. That's a thin girl's name. A beautiful girl.
The fat girl did not move out of the doorway.
"Um," she said.
"You're. Um. Kind of blocking the door."
Oh. He moved to the side and held the door open.
"Thank you," she said.
Did she grin at him? He could not tell. He swallowed, and then he said in a soft voice, "Sure... Lynnette."
She frowned. "I think you are mistaking me for someone else," she said.
Thank God, he thought.
He walked inside, and the Mexican girl at the counter smiled.
"Hello," she said.
"Lynnette?" he asked, hopefully.
Damn it, Darius thought. He'd far prefer the Mexican to the fat girl (That's the last thing he needed, another Momma!) and felt a twinge of disappointment, even though he knew in his heart it couldn't have been the Mexican (Whoever heard of a Mexican named Lynnette?) since she stayed at the counter and took his money and could not have slipped out the door, stuffed the note in the trash, and then run back in without him noticing. Nevertheless. She had smiled at him, and that was really something, considering how pretty she was, and considering how she didn't have to smile at him when he walked back in. He turned to speak to her but saw that the Mexican girl was smiling again, this time at a tall guy in a warm-up suit, and her smile seemed bigger as she chirped, "Did you find everything you needed today?" and Darius realized she'd only said, "$5.95," to him, and not, "Did you find everything?" or "How are you today?" or even, "Is this all?" She flirted with the warm-up guy, flipped her hair the way they did in bars, and it embarrassed him that he had almost thought she liked him, that he thought she might have given him the time of day if she hadn't been on the employee clock and he hadn't been a customer walking through the business doors.
And for a second he hated her.
But he had far too much to worry about right now. Lynnette might still be in the store.
He searched for the blonde from the film counter. He tried to picture her face-the soft white of her skin, the flush of her eyebrows, the curl of her upper lip. Had she worn a wedding ring? He tried to remember.
He couldn't find her. After walking the length of the store five times, he stood in a center aisle and called, "Lynnette?" He called again, more loudly this time, and waited for Lynnette to answer, which she didn't, which left him utterly and inexplicably depressed.
He went home.
"I told you to get Sudafed Sinus and Headache," Momma said from her place on the sofa, where she flipped channels back and forth between a talk show and CNN. "This is Contac."
"They didn't have Sudafed Sinus and Headache," he lied. They did, but it was four dollars more than the Contac, and why waste four dollars on another one of Momma's ridiculous colds? He'd wasted ten dollars the day before on diet formula for her, and it sat unopened on the kitchen table.
"You're lying," said Momma. "You just want to see me get sicker."
He filled a glass with tap water and gave it to her.
"You just want me to get sicker so I'll die and you'll get all my money," Momma said. He'd heard this before. She didn't have any money. That was the next line. "Well, I've got news for you," continued Momma. "I don't have any money."
"I know," he said.
"What do you mean, you know?"
"I know you don't have any money."
Momma hurled the glass, but Darius ducked. It slammed against the wall and slid to the carpeted floor. It didn't shatter like in the movies, but the inside cracked. He'd have to throw it away, anyhow.
"Where the hell are my cigarettes?" Momma said.
He got away from Momma's house that night at 5:30 with just enough time to reach the college for his 6:00 Algebra class. Darius didn't mind Algebra since it got him out of the house, and since there were girls in the class, especially the one who sat behind him and to his right. Her face inspired him to attend. It gave him reason to work. It even inspired him to get up in the mornings. And now, as he drove to school and pondered Lynnette's note, he imagined the girl from class writing it. He didn't even know her name.
So, why couldn't she be Lynnette?
In class, he situated himself to lean across his desk and rest on his left elbow, thus turning his body directly to his right so it appeared he studied his book when actually he stared at the girl. He imagined her outside the drugstore scribbling the note and leaving it for him, a maiden at a joust, tossing Darius her kerchief.
He stared at her throughout the night. Professor Schmidt droned on about a particularly boring problem, some nonsense about solving X and Y, and blah, blah, blah. The girl rested her chin in her hand and fought to stay awake.
Darius had tried to talk with her two weeks before. He'd approached her after class and said, "Kind of boring tonight, huh?" And she had given him a slight nod before walking out the door. But now, someone had left him a note at the drugstore, Darius thought, and had wanted to meet him, and he just knew that someone was her. And why not? Sure, he was a little shy and had trouble talking to people. But what did it matter? He was good looking enough, even if he needed to lose ten pounds—all right, 25—and had lost enough hair that he compensated for it by growing a bushy beard. But why not? Other slightly overweight, balding and bearded guys got women, so why not Darius? But he hadn't had a date in two years. Three if you didn't count Kimberly, and he didn't count Kimberly, because she was someone else's girlfriend and hung around with him when her boyfriend left town. And sex? He didn't want to think of the last time he'd had sex. Ages. Centuries, it seemed.
All right, so he'd never technically had sex. Not if your definition of sex was the same as Bill Clinton's, and that only once, four years ago, when he and the girl were remarkably drunk at a party and ended up in the bushes and blah, blah, blah. It wasn't particularly interesting, and she passed out on the couch and went home with someone else. He'd bragged to the guys, though, as guys are supposed to do, except that she'd heard about it and found him one afternoon in the school cafeteria and tossed her tray of chicken-fried steak and gravy into his lap and splattered her carton of milk on his head (he still had most of his hair then, though it had begun to thin already and the guys called him "baldie"), and she'd left Darius wearing milk and gravy, with no chance of cultivating a relationship.
Professor Schmidt stopped his lecture. Students gathered their books. Darius stood and looked at the girl.
"Kind of boring tonight, huh?" he said.
She looked at him and slightly raised the corners of her mouth. Was it a smile? Yes, he thought. A smile!
"Um," he continued. "Did you understand number twenty-four?"
She placed her book in her backpack and zipped it shut. "What?"
"In last week's homework. Number twenty-four." He thumbed through his book as someone at the front door snickered. "Here." He held the book open and inched close enough to breathe her perfume. Darius's heart pounded.
"No," she said. "I didn't."
She pulled her backpack over her shoulder and pushed against him. He felt lightheaded. She'd touched him. Oh, my god, he thought. She'd reached out and touched him!
"I'm Darius," he said. She walked away without answering.
She turned, no longer smiling.
"Are you Lynnette?"
"My name is Amber."
"Oh. Do you..."
"I've got to go."
"Oh. Okay." He watched her leave the room as he pulled his own backpack over his shoulder and moved to the door. "Hey," he said. "Maybe we can go to a movie sometime?"
She did not turn around to answer him. Instead, she joined a group of students who waited for her by the hallway exit. They burst into laughter as she approached, and they whispered and chuckled as they walked away.
Momma sat by the television when he got home.
"What time is it?" she demanded.
"11:00? Your class ends at 8:30," she said. "You knew I was sick. Why didn't you come check on me?"
"Where have you been?"
"I went for a beer."
"You no good drunk," she snarled. "You're just like your father."
"I'm not drunk," he said.
"Did you drive drunk?"
"You smell like a brewery."
"I'm not drunk."
"Your father never admitted it either. He just..." Momma's voice trailed off, and her rage melted. Suddenly, her eyes teared. "Don't be like your father," she sobbed as she grabbed Darius and pressed his head into her terrycloth bathrobe.
He spent Saturday at work ignoring his superior, Mr. Rice, as he barked criticisms of Darius's careful piling of boxes and racking of shopping carts. Rice had it in for Darius. He lurked behind aisles while Darius worked. (Darius knew this because he felt Rice's eyes, and once he'd actually turned around quickly enough to catch Rice watching.) Just one slip-up and Rice could write him up for a complaint. Rice was Zeus with a thunderbolt.
Darius thought about Lynnette as he worked. He replayed the conversation at school with Amber, (Her name was Amber? But he knew she was Lynnette—she had to be Lynnette!) searching the girl's face each time for some sign, some little signal that she was interested in him. By break he'd given up hope on her and begun replaying the note's discovery.
He reached inspiration in the break room over a Twix candy bar and a Coca Cola. Lynnette had left him his holy grail! Why hadn't he thought of it before? The answer was there in front of him. Lynnette had left him a phone number!
All this time she must have sat by the phone and expected him to call! What was he thinking? She'd left her address, too, and if Lynnette had meant the note for him, then the party was tonight, Saturday, and she'd expect him there! Why else would she leave the note in the trash? He wiped the chocolate from his lips and chugged the drink, then reached into his front pocket, retrieved the note (He'd been carrying it just to admire the beauty of her penmanship, of course, there was nothing weird about that.) and debated whether he should call. He played the conversation in his mind:
Is this Lynnette?
Who is this?
It's me. Darius. The guy at the drugstore.
Oh. Hi! What took you so long to call?
I dunno. I'm slow, I guess.
Are you coming tonight? It's BYOB.
He picked up the phone in the break room and tried to calm his breathing. Come on, stupid, he thought. It's nothing. Just call her and confirm. You don't want to just show up. It could all be a mistake. You need to call her now.
He held his breath and punched the buttons. 281.
Come on. Don't chicken out now.
You'd look like a fool showing up if you're not really invited. 197.
He put his finger on the three but could not press the button. His breath quickened. He felt a droplet of sweat fall from his underarm and down the side of his shirt. Come on, he thought. Just call her. Get this over with right now.
Suddenly, Mr. Rice threw open the break room door. "Filbert! How freaking long is a 15-minute break? What are you doing in here, eating the whole vending machine?"
Darius slammed down the telephone receiver and rushed from the workroom so fast he forgot the paper with Lynnette's directions. Later he had to sneak back to get it.
At seven in the evening, Darius clocked out of Walmart and bought a case of Miller Light. He got a ten percent discount because he worked there. He did not say goodbye to Mr. Rice until he was in his Corolla and could safely salute Rice with his middle finger.
Darius drove down I-45 with an open beer hidden in the compartment between the driver's and passenger's seats. He had learned the trick in high school. Cops wouldn't stop him unless he drove crazy, and if he kept the beer hidden, even a stop didn't matter. He had a box of breath mints in his pocket, though, just in case.
Darius had not called Lynnette, though he thought about how embarrassing it might be if the note wasn't intended for him. Nevertheless, he thought, God left that note in the trash bin. God had made Darius throw away the receipt. And it was all in God's time and God's control. God created Lynnette for Darius, and now it was time, Darius felt it, it was time for him to finally meet a girl and date a girl and maybe even marry a girl and leave Momma to sit, miserable, in her house while Darius left like his father, that no-good so-and-so, who left her and didn't have to listen to her bitching anymore, and that was that.
He tried to imagine if Lynnette had brown hair or blonde? What did she look like? How old was she? Maybe she knew him from school, or maybe he'd taken her cart out and loaded groceries in her car. Or maybe she was just a complete stranger chosen for Darius by God. That was the best idea of all.
He reached the Lakeside Apartments as the sun set. Nearly eight o'clock, and the traffic had been horrible, a dozen slows and a stop on I-45, a full 15-minute stop, while cops and tow trucks dragged the remains of an accident from the road and left commuters inching by in one left lane. He finished his beer, downed a second, and opened a third in the standstill.
Lynnette's complex stretched over three blocks and was surrounded with a large iron gate. He parked and found a pedestrian entrance, where he punched in the code, 861. He twisted the doorknob, but the door did not open.
"Eight, six, one," he said as he punched the numbers again. The door remained closed. What the hell? Had she given him the wrong address? Had he gone to the wrong gate? He searched for an automobile entrance, where once again he tried the code-861-and once again nothing happened.
"Son of a bitch," he said aloud.
He opened another can of beer (He'd brought the case for the party, of course.) for a little extra help to solve the problem, and sipped it as he punched the numbers one more time. But this time he looked back at the page and realized he'd forgotten the star.
What an idiot I am, he thought. He was doing this all wrong. Could Lynnette be in her apartment watching? Maybe she could see the entrance and from her window and was snickering as he struggled. He felt a little angry. Maybe he was the butt of Lynnette's little joke. Maybe all the people in the party watched him struggle, like the time at the funhouse when he saw a picture of this weird guy making a face, and Darius tried to make the face, too (The sign had said to. They'd set him up!), and all the time there were people on the other side of the mirror watching, laughing. He'd thrown such a fit that the manager asked him to leave.
The apartment grounds were dimly lit, and he had trouble seeing the letters on buildings. What's worse, the letters were scattered about like children's blocks, an H here, a Y there. J was between M and R, and he walked by it twice because the lamp against the side of the building had burned out. He wanted to find someone to ask (Where is the party? What party? The one at Lynnette's. Oh, Lynnette's having a party? She's a great girl!) but couldn't find a soul. In fact, the complex seemed dead, especially dead for a Saturday with a party inside and all.
When he found J, Darius giggled and bolted up the stairs, a giddy child. He thought of Lynnette's surprise when she saw him, of how clever she'd realize he'd been in finding the place on his own, of how perhaps, even if Lynnette was a stick-in-the-mud (For who knows what kind of girl might be desperate enough to leave a message in the trash?) then he might find another girl at the party, a nice girl (He only liked nice girls. If Lynnette appeared to be a degenerate then he'd have to leave immediately.) who would love him for who he was. When he reached her door, he stood there awhile, a little surprised at how quiet things seemed from the outside.
So Lynnette didn't know how to throw a wild party. No matter. Wild parties weren't important to Darius, anyway.
Darius reached up to knock but stopped himself. He stuck his ear against the door and listened for the sound of a stereo on the other side. He waited for laughter or conversation, for any sign of life at all. He waited and waited and heard nothing.
And then he pictured Lynnette (Or what he'd decided was Lynnette: a slightly thin girl with shoulder-length brown hair and a tan and little freckles on her nose and just above her bright green eyes.) sitting in the middle of a decorated room, sitting among her CDs and party favors and cake and chips and pretzels. He pictured her all alone, prepared for her party, waiting for the crowd that never came. He saw Lynnette in all her loneliness, and he almost cried.
He knocked on the door.
Darius breathed deeply and tried to control his composure as he waited for the door to open. And when the door did open, when he saw the overweight girl in a blue bathrobe, the soft, yellow light of a lamp that shone just behind her, her soft, brown hair in curlers, her makeup half-finished, her feet in slippers, her fingernails freshly painted, her eyes naked without mascara, her face flushed, her eyebrows raised, when he saw her standing there, he melted for the love of the girl who had stolen his heart, and he reached out and wrapped his mighty bear-arms around her and pulled the startled girl close to him in a heartfelt, all-forgiving hug.