Storyglossia Issue 12, March 2006.

Caveat Emptor

by Steven Gullion


By the time Alma teetered in from the rain, clutching a splattered copy of the Journal-Constitution over her head, Janie was nursing her second gin martini and watching the Braves. "What a frickin' day," Alma said. "I wouldn't wish this day on an ex-husband." She flicked a hand at the bartender, rings and bracelets jangling. "The usual," she said. "You know the drill."

Janie squeezed Alma's shoulder pad. "Poor baby," she said. "Tell me all about it."

Alma pulled a cigarette from a lizard-skin case as the bartender placed a martini glass on a coaster, two olives impaled on a plastic sword. She stirred the clear liquid, took a slow sip and blew out a sigh. "What a frickin' day. This couple—the DeGroots? Been looking for a house for a year."

"The guy at Coke?" Janie said.

"The same. They think he's Jesus on a scooter. I bet I've shown these people fifty houses, okay? But every time I find something they like, the guy gets promoted and we start over."

The bartender set a saucer of olives in front of Alma. She patted his hand, winked, and dropped one in her glass. "I only drink these things for the vegetables," she said. She took a long swallow and looked at the television. The Marlins had just taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the second. "Damn Braves," she said. "Did I tell you Ted Turner called me this morning?"

"No," Janie said, crunching an ice cube. "I don't believe you did."

Alma clenched a cigarette between her teeth and shot up a flare from a flip-top lighter, sucked, blew twin plumes out her nose. "Teddy asked me what to do about the Braves. I said trade Dale Murphy, that fricker's done nothing lately." She made a smoke ring. "I sold him his house, you know. Ted Turner. Well, the land anyway, then he built. Spent twenty-seven million. Can you believe it?" She leaned toward Janie. "Twenty-seven million, and only one bathroom. And on top of that, the bathroom only has a pissoire, no crapper."

Her voice dropped to a stage whisper. "I went to his housewarming party. A thousand people in evening gowns and tuxes. Waiters with trays of champagne. The food! Suckling pigs, foie gras, pecan pies big as manhole covers. The governor was there. Margaret Thatcher popped in. Of course, you had the Hollywood crowd. DeNiro, Jim Belushi. Cher. Judge Reinhold. After a while, people find out there's only one bathroom and no place to squat. They're running to their limos, leaving early, because they have to pee. A fiasco. When Teddy has to poop, he goes out back and squats in the azaleas, then scratches mulch over it like a cat. Guy works there told me."

Janie frowned in disapproval. "My goodness."

Alma leaned back. A cloud of smoke mushroomed upward. "True story. That's the real reason Jane Fonda left the crazy frick. Mulch gives her a rash." She looked around, suddenly annoyed. "Bartender, where's my frickin' martini?" The bartender leaned over the bar and pointed, palm up, to her glass. "Well, it's about damn time," she said.

"Whatever happened with the guy from Coke—DeGroot?" Janie asked.

Alma waved her cigarette, ashes scattering like snowflakes. "Yesterday out of the blue the Missus calls. They want to see a house, and this is The One. Gorgeous. Buckhead. Seven thousand square feet, hilltop, five wooded acres, gate, guest house, five mill. Fabulous interior, must see. Upgrades fricking everywhere. Owners are getting divorced, so per foot it's a bargain."

Janie smiled. "Sounds nice."

"Nice as rice," said Alma. "Yesterday, I make an appointment to show. I call the buyers. Mrs. DeGroot's excited, about to wet herself, three times she says be prompt, and I say okay okay okay."

Alma lifted her drink and sipped. On the television was a promo for Boys Town, colorized, coming on after the game. She pointed her cigarette at the screen.

"Mickey Rooney," she said. "Now there was a sweetheart. Did I ever tell you about the time Mickey Rooney and Howard Hughes fought over me?"

Alma listed to starboard and Janie righted her gently with a hand to the elbow. "No, I don't believe you did," she said.

Alma tilted her head back and gazed upward. "I was running a cockfight just outside Ruidoso," she said, "when the carnival came to town. Of course, I was younger then. Gorgeous. Men wept at my feet." Her lips puckered slightly. "Howard and Mickey were both carnies. Howard was the strong man, and Mickey was the well-hung midget. That was when carnivals had adults-only tents. You had to pay an extra quarter, but it was worth it.

"So I got to know Mickey and Howard, if you know what I mean. Neither of them knew I was seeing the other until one night when they both came to the cockfights. The whole thing exploded, and Howard challenged Mickey to a fight." Reaching for her glass, she saw that it was empty. She rattled the ice at the bartender. "Try to keep up," she told him. "I'll be dead soon, then you can stop pouring."

She turned back to Janie. "Well, it wouldn't have been a fair fight, of course. What people don't realize about Howard Hughes is, he was huge. Six-eight, three-fifty. I saw him bench press an Edsel once. Those pictures of him with that wormy little moustache, the Fu Manchu nails, they're all fake. After he built the Spruce Goose and got famous, Howard hired Clark Gable's stunt double to play him in public. That way Howard could come and go as he pleased.

"Anyway, I told Mickey and Howard they'd have to settle it with a cockfight. Winner got me. They didn't own roosters, so I had to get a pair from my private pen. I gave Howard a capon—it would've broken his heart if he'd found out—and I gave Mickey the nastiest gamecock I had. That rooster pecked the eyes out of a pit bull once. Anyway, after about thirty seconds, Mickey's bird stood there holding the capon's wishbone in its beak. Howard was a good sport about it, though."

The bartender set a full glass on her coaster. She blew him a kiss. "Sure, I wanted Mickey to win. The thing is, it's kind of ironic, but for a big guy, Howard's Johnson was small and furry. Looked like a gerbil. And they didn't call Mickey the well-hung midget for nothing."

Janie shifted on her barstool and crossed her legs. "Quite a coincidence that Howard Hughes and Mickey Rooney were working the same carnival," she said.

Alma shrugged. "Maybe. Things were different then. There weren't so many damned people, so you ran into each other more often. True story, though."

"So what about the DeGroots and the house in Buckhead?"

Alma speared an olive and stuck it in her mouth. "Yeah. So I'm meeting them at the house. I'm on my way, and I'm at a stop sign when these three kids with bandanas on their heads—what do you call them, do-rags?—these three do-rags jump in the Mercedes with me, two in back and one in front, holding some little piece-of-crap pistol, a real Saturday-night special, looked like a twenty-two. He sticks it in my ribs and says, 'Start drivin'. Do what you're told and you won't get hurt.'

"So I go along with it. They're just punks, I figure they've never done this before. The two in back are nervous as Chihuahuas. They're all wearing the fallin' down pants with their boxers showing, they've got the chains, all that frickin' bullshit. The leader thinks he's tough, but he can't think of a place to go, for frick's sake. So I suggest some places. We cruise the loop for a while. I tell Mr. Twenty-Two to reach under the seat, there's a Mason jar of homemade hooch under there, we could all have a drink to relax. So he opens it and we pass it around. After a while he puts the pistol in his pocket and we're best friends, except they still want my Mercedes.

"We drive around some more, then I get an idea. 'Hey, I know what,' I tell them. 'Let's go somewhere and shoot dice. We'll play for the car.' Lucky for me, they're sporting men, and crapshooters to boot. I get off the highway, head down Peachtree, and find an alley. We get out and start throwin' bones.

"When the dice get to me, I start killing. I'm throwin' numbers like crazy, and I keep hitting my point, keep rolling sixes, over and over. I hold the dice for an hour, I'm up three grand, the do-rags are tapped. Then one of them grabs my dice and gets a funny look. One of the dots is peeling, and he sees it. Of course, the dice were loaded, and I figured I had about two seconds before he caught on. So I grabbed all the cash, threw it up in the air, and ran like hell for the car.

"One started to chase me, but when the other two started grabbing the cash he turned back. I got the hell out of there."

Janie clucked her tongue. "Lucky you weren't killed."

Alma slurped her drink. "I was more worried about being late. Anyway, I finally pull up at the house in Buckhead, and Mrs. DeGroot's waiting. She looks a little skanked out. Sweat suit, no makeup, but carrying this big black purse.

"So I say where's your husband and she says oh he's running late, we should go ahead. We go in. Beautiful two-story entrance, river pine flooring, art nooks with actual art. Professionally decorated. Restaurant-grade appliances. I start telling her about the house. She ignores me, takes off up the spiral staircase, her arms around that purse.

"I follow. I'm doing the spiel, saying look at this Italian marble, there's four full baths, the architect's gay, yada yada. She just keeps going. She gets to the master suite and stops. Something's going on inside. She kicks the door in with her heel like she's the fricking vice squad, and these people are doing it right there on the floor. Arms and legs everywhere, the guy's butt's jiggling, yowling like a couple of cats.

"The guy jumps up, naked as a babe. After a second I look at his face, and it's Mr. DeGroot." Alma stirred her drink with the sword and took a sip.

"Let me guess," Janie said. "The woman on the floor was the seller's wife."

"Bingo dingo," said Alma. She ate another olive from the sword.

"Well, what happened?" Janie said.

Alma took a drag from her cigarette, the tip brightening. "Well, what happened is, Mrs. DeGroot reaches in her purse, pulls out a gun, I think it was a Glock, and blows the poor guy away. Shot him right in the face. His head exploded like a frickin' water balloon. I didn't stick around to watch, but she must've had a full clip because that thing just kept going off. I ran out and called the police."

She turned to Janie with a smirk. "So anyway, my whole frickin' afternoon was wasted on that crap, talking to the cops, giving a statement. The buyer and the seller's wife. Can you believe it? Of all the people in the world to diddle, they had to pick each other. Cost me a damn nice commission, too. And then I get rained on.

"What a frickin' day." Alma drained her glass, fished out the last olive and ate it. "Well, hon, I need to go. I'm meeting Dixie at that new indoor shooting range. Gonna try out a flame-thrower—they rent 'em now. All my love to Jimmy and the kids." She dismounted the barstool and tottered out the door.

The bartender collected her glass. "I think I've heard that story about the guy at Coke before," he said to Janie. "Didn't she tell that last time you two were here?"

Janie smiled, looking at the door, her chin in her palm. "Yeah," she said. "She likes that one. It's the only one of the bunch that's true."

"No kidding," he said.

"She sold real estate for thirty years, and then one day, about ten years ago, it happened. Shook Alma up. She never worked a day after that." Janie slid off the stool and picked up her purse. "What do I owe you?"

"Let's see, two martinis for you, two waters for your mom, fifty cents for the bowl of olives. . . ten bucks."

She took three fives out of her purse and laid them on the bar. "Thanks for taking care of her, Jay" she said. "We'll see you next week. Same time, same station."

She walked out, and he turned back to the baseball game, drying glasses with a white towel. The Braves were winning.


Copyright©2006 Steven Gullion