I was starting to calm myself after my unsettling arrival at the expansive, waterfront party house when the singing began. Murphy, the director of a local musical-theater playhouse, was belting it out. He’d feigned resistance to the other partygoers’ urgings and then released his plummy baritone into the room with an obscure show tune. He oddly made eye contact with me every time the chorus came around.
On this Fourth of July, the home of my friends, Maritza and Chase, was filled with camaraderie and the aroma of finger food. Camped near the picture window was a fawning group of Murphy’s friends and fans. The liveliest was Shelby, a literal backslapper with a gulping laugh. Bemused, I studied her from across the room, replaying what I’d been told about her. She was attractive in a rakish way, with her dark hair intentionally messy, but Maritza had described her as a homebody and voracious reader who savored the peace and beauty of the North Woods. Maybe she had more than one side. After all, most people were surprised when they learned that I, a quiet, doughy introvert, had a black belt in karate.
From the kitchen, diminutive Maritza snaked through the guests, her crisp, pink-dyed bob appearing and disappearing like a fishing bobber, until she popped up in front of me and gave me a hug.
“So,” I said, “you’re going to introduce me to Shelby later?” I tried not to sound too eager but failed. I’d had a solitary existence for too long, living and working remotely in my waterfront cabin across the lake.
“We’re all set,” said Maritza. “When the party breaks up, you and Shelby will join Chase and me and take the boat over to Mom’s place. We’ll have a better view of the fireworks there. Hmmm…”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I just remembered how much Diablo hates fireworks. Maybe we’ll take him along in his carrier, so he won’t be alone.” I felt my face go slack. “Why are you looking like that?” asked Maritza. “You like Diablo, don’t you?”
“Sure, I love cats!” Hearing my too-emphatic answer, I smiled to hide my embarrassment.
“Good,” said Maritza. “Just be sure to do a lot of loud talking when you step onto the pier.”
“Whenever the neighbor hears our boat and sees it’s just Chase and me, he comes over. We can never get rid of him. I’d rather eat bees than listen to him complain about work for another two hours. He’ll stay away if he sees we have company, so this will be perfect.”
I started to feel less like an intended match for Shelby and more a companion of convenience.
“No problem,” I said.
Maritza winked, pinched my cheek and walked away.
Murphy finished his song with a flourish, hitting the last high note while standing on the sofa. In a show of grandeur, he bowed deeply, hopped down to the floor, and took a swig of something from a bottle. His smile turning vulpine, he sauntered up to me. “It’s Jerry, right?”
The pungent smell of whiskey hit my face. I managed to croak, “Yeah.”
“Let’s step over here.” Murphy motioned to the hallway off the living room.
“Trust me, you’re not going to want anyone to overhear this.”
We stepped into the hallway.
“Here’s the thing,” said Murphy. “I was outside having a smoke when you pulled in.”
My body stiffened.
“Relax, Jerry,” said Murphy. “It wasn’t your fault. The cat darted in front of your car. Anyone would have hit it.”
I nodded, a bit relieved.
“And I’ve got a hunch why you haven’t said anything. Maritza told me she’s fixing you up with Shelby. Imagine the pall your news could cast over the party atmosphere. Not exactly good for a budding romance.”
“Uh-huh.” Where was he going with this?
“You should have seen Shelby snuggling up to Diablo before you came over. She loves that cat. And even though she would know it wasn’t your fault, every time she saw you or heard your name, she’d think, ‘Jerry the cat killer.’ It’s poison to your chances.” Murphy gave me a pat on the shoulder. “I give you credit for showing good judgment. I would have done the same.”
“Okay, ya got me.” I could tell he was a perceptive guy, but at this point I just wanted to move on.
“You see, Jerry, to be an actor, you have to be able to read people. I could tell you were shook up about it from across the room.”
“I can’t stand it when harm comes to an animal.” I felt a sudden pang and tried to suppress it, but my eyes started to water. Anyone could read me now.
Murphy looked me up and down. “I knew it. You’re a saint.”
I’d made my decision. It was better to forget what happened on the driveway. But here was this loudmouth reminding me and making light of how I felt, with that smarmy tone and those arched eyebrows.
Murphy leaned in and whispered, “Listen, Jerry, I helped you out. I moved Diablo behind the front tire of somebody’s car.”
“That’s sick. I don’t need that kind of help. Let’s just forget it ever happened.”
I turned to walk away, but Murphy hooked my arm. “Not so fast, Jer. It’s gonna cost you, my man. Let’s say…one hundred dollars.”
“You’re blackmailing me? You’re a freak.”
“No, no, Jerry. We’re both opportunists here. You’ve got your little scheme to meet Shelby. Me—I like money.” Murphy’s face turned grim. “And don’t make like you can’t afford it. I’ve seen the car you drive, remember?”
I hesitated. I didn’t like being hectored, but when was the last time I’d had an actual date?
Murphy continued his pitch. “Drop the pouty face and look at Shelby over there. You don’t think those other guys are interested?”
I didn’t bother to look. Maybe stalling would help. “I don’t have that much on me.”
“No worries. There’s an ATM in the convenience store on Highway M. You could be back in ten minutes. Did I mention she’s whip-smart? I’m tellin’ ya, Jerry, this is your big ch—” A child’s scream cut him off.
As Maritza rushed outside, Murphy said, “You better get the money. It seems some unfortunate kid has found Diablo. This would be the perfect time for me to tell my story.”
“Try it,” I said. “I’ll say I saw you run over the cat. They’ll believe me since I’ve known this family my whole life.”
The front door slammed shut. “Who owns the blue Subaru?” broadcast Maritza across the room. She smeared tears across her face.
“I do,” said Shelby softly. “Why? Did I block someone in?”
“Maritza, tell me what happened.”
“Diablo’s dead. My sweet Diablo.”
“Maritza?” I piped up. “I don’t want to be a tattletale, but I saw Murphy pull in, just as Diablo ran across the driveway. It was an accident—that part, anyway—and then Murphy moved Diablo behind Shelby’s front tire.” A murmur ensued as if on cue in a play.
“Is that true, Murphy?” Maritza called out.
“No,” said Murphy, “but I know you’ll believe him over me, so I’m going to leave.” Without even a wave to his friends, he walked out the front door, with Maritza tailing him. Faces pressed against the picture window like puppies in a pet store.
With things turned in my favor, I decided this was the right moment to introduce myself to Shelby. “Hi, I’m Jerry. I hope you didn’t mind me butting in.”
“No, thanks for helping me out. But I actually think it was pretty clever of him to move the cat like that.”
“Anyway,” said Shelby, “I’m going to catch up with Murphy, so I gotta run. I heard he’s casting the female lead for the next production, and now I have leverage. The cat’s in the bag, you might say.” After stepping outside, she opened the door to say, “Can you tell Maritza I’m sorry I’m going to miss the boat ride?”
What a letdown. But the day wasn’t a total loss. I’d avoided spending a hundred dollars and would later provide my services as a neighbor repellant. I pictured myself sitting on the pier with Maritza and Chase—that’s where the image ended. A boat ride and fireworks? Not likely. There, visible through the picture window, was Maritza, alone, sunken into an Adirondack chair.
I’d been in this house a hundred times. Why did I suddenly feel so out of place? Even my clothes, which I had picked out after much vacillation, felt as comfortable as papier-mâché.
My mind shifted to the novel I’d been reading, its 900 pages weighing down the end table next to my velour-covered recliner. A few hours later, I could hear distant, muffled booms as my body reclined and I flipped to Chapter Two.