The Traitors Among Us - SR Claridge
Angel slid slowly out from under the sheet and lifted herself off his double bed, trying not to make any sudden movements that might wake him. She tiptoed across the hardwood floor, scanning the room for her clothes and pausing each time the floorboards creaked. Last night must have been wilder than she remembered because her clothes were strewn across the room. She was wearing one of his black t-shirts that hung almost to her knees, and her bra was missing in action. She bent down and peeked under the bed. It was possible it could have been kicked under there during their romp. Angel didn‟t remember taking it off, though she was certain it wasn‟t forced off. She‟d been here before, many times, and there was no question she was a willing participant.
Too willing, she scolded herself.
She had been carrying on with Grayson for the past year, and though their relationship was unconventional and probably even unhealthy, she couldn‟t resist him. From the first time he strutted into Tetterbaum‟s pub, which she owned, she was putty in his hands. Thereafter, each time he showed up she followed him home like a bouncing puppy. He was mysterious, alluring and rendered her defenses inoperable with a mere glance from his big brown eyes and dimpled cheeks.
Making it to the bathroom without waking him, Angel exhaled a sigh of relief. She splashed cold water on her face and blotted at the mascara smudged on her cheek. Her brown eyes looked glassy, like she tied one on last night, which was only fair considering she had. Her shoulder length, dark brown hair lay flattened against her head and she ran her fingers through it just above the ears, trying to add volume. It didn‟t work. She finally opted to tuck it behind her ears and let the rest fall messily over her shoulders. Standing back Angel took in her reflection and sighed. “I hope I can sneak out before he sees me,” she mumbled to herself. “Talk about a turn off.”
Angel was certain Grayson would wake up just as good looking as when he went to sleep, though she never stuck around long enough to find out. It wasn‟t because she didn‟t want to behold his manly glory at sunrise; it was because she didn‟t want the awkwardness that comes with the morning after. Everything felt easier at night when inhibitions were compromised by alcohol, expressions were hidden in darkness and there was no particular pressure to talk. At night, in Grayson‟s arms, Angel felt she could become anyone she wanted. She was free and open and that spontaneous excitement was different than anything she‟d ever experienced.
Tiptoeing around the bed she was able to locate her black converse tennis shoes but her bra and black t-shirt that read Tetterbaum‟s Pub were still MIA. She stared at the covers wadded up at the foot of the bed and surmised that her bra and shirt were probably buried in them. Deciding to attempt a quick search and rescue, she knelt down and slid her arm under the black comforter, careful not to touch his legs. Moving to the other side, she slid her arm in again, still nothing.
I’ll have to go home braless and borrow his shirt, she concluded. There were no other feasible options.
As she withdrew her arm, the sheet pulled back slightly and something on his right hip caught her eye. It was a tattoo. She hadn‟t noticed it before, though that wasn‟t hard to believe since she‟d never seen him naked in the light of day. Carefully she lifted the corner of the sheet just enough to view the entire tattoo. It was about two inches long and looked like a scar, like it had been burned into the skin, leaving grooves in his flesh. She‟d never seen anything like it. Angel fought the temptation to let her fingertips explore the grooves. She didn‟t like tattoos, but this one intrigued her and she shuttered, as the possibility it had been branded into his flesh filled her with waves of nausea. Cocking her head to the side, Angel narrowed her eyes and studied it. It was the letter M, but the slanted line on the left that made up the middle of the M contained tiny letters. Angel leaned closer, and silently read the letters engraved down the side. “AVGC.” She repeated the letters in her mind, trying to assign significance to the acronym, but had no idea what it meant.
When Grayson began to stir, Angel froze, holding her breath. Please don’t wake up. Please don’t wake up. Her mind chanted and her heart raced. She really didn‟t want him to see how horrible she looked in the morning, not to mention how weird it would be if he opened his eyes and saw her looming over him. When she was certain he was back asleep, she slowly rocked back on her heels, scooted away from the bed and made a beeline for the door.
Their relationship was perfect, she told herself as she drove to her apartment. He didn‟t know where she lived so she didn‟t have to worry about unannounced drop-ins. They‟d never exchanged phone numbers so she didn‟t have to obsess over whether he‟d call the day after sex; nor did she have to carry her phone around hoping for a text. She didn‟t even know his last name. In fact, they knew very little about each other outside of the bedroom. There were no strings, which was exactly what she wanted, or exactly what she tried to convince herself she wanted. The truth was Angel was lonesome. She turned twenty-nine last month and besides the ticking of her biological clock, her heart longed to feel loved.
Angel had experienced her share of typical teenage crushes that lasted a few months, but had only been in love once and it ended badly. His name was Tony and they met as journalism students at the University of Missouri. It was love at first sight. They dated all through school, and after graduation, moved into an apartment together upon returning to Chicago. Shortly after they announced their engagement, Tony changed. As if overnight he grew distant and began to drag his feet about setting an actual wedding date. Finally one night, he dropped the bomb.
The memory of that day was something Angel would like to forget, but it haunted her. He drove her to a place that had become their favorite spot outside the city. The property belonged to a friend of his parents, and Tony was allowed to use it whenever he liked, as long as he cleaned up and locked up. A gravel road led up to the enormous house, which sat a hundred yards from a small lake. The lake was surrounded by trees on all sides and Tony and Angel had gone there many times for romantic getaways, picnics, making-love under the stars and the occasional spontaneous bout of skinny dipping. It was quite possibly Angel‟s favorite place in the entire world, though in all fairness she hadn‟t seen much of the world. Her travels were limited to Illinois and parts of Missouri, with the exception of one trip to New York City when she was five. Tony drove her to this special place to break the news and her heart in one fail swoop. Then he was gone.
She clung to the hope of his return for six months before denial slipped into depression. Angel‟s Great Aunt Olga came to her rescue, forcing her to get out of bed, to eat and shower, to go to work and to find a way to live without him. What made the breakup so painful for Angel was that she never understood why Tony left. All he said was, “we can‟t be together.” He never explained. He never said he didn‟t love her anymore or that she had done something wrong. He just vanished completely from her life.
Getting over Tony had been a long, painful journey that left her heart guarded and unable to risk desertion again.
Since then most nights in Angel‟s life were uneventful. She‟d close up the pub and head home to her apartment in Lincoln Park. When the weather was nice, she walked since it was only a few blocks; but on stormy or snowy days, she was thankful to have her own car, even though owning a car in Chicago was actually more of a hassle and ate up a lot of money in lot fees. Still, it gave her a sense of independence, like she could hop in her car and go anywhere anytime she wanted.
Every night after work, Angel would join her two cats, Midnight and Mo, on the couch for left-over bar food and a round of TV‟s best re-runs. Midnight was solid black and liked to lurk in small, dark places; like under the couch or in a closet. Mo was a social Calico who liked to snuggle. He had a purr so loud it sounded like a motorcycle humming in the distance. After feeding herself and the cats, she‟d fall asleep on the couch, usually thinking about Grayson and wondering when he would show up again.
“Next time he shows up,” she would tell Mo, “I‟m not following him home. I‟m going to play hard-to-get.” She could see Mo didn‟t believe her anymore than she believed herself. He‟d look up with slits of mockery in his eyes, as if to say “who are you kidding,” then go back to bathing himself with his sandpaper tongue. Angel knew Grayson was part of the reason there was no love interest in her life; but she resolved herself to the fact that some form of love, albeit just a physical thing, was better than none at all.
Angel pulled her silver Camry onto the lot and into her reserved spot which cost almost as much monthly rent as her apartment. Turning off the ignition, she sat for a moment, thinking about Grayson‟s tattoo and his nakedness. Her face flushed. How can I date someone else, she interrogated herself, when I know the minute Grayson shows up I’ll dump the other guy for a mere night in Grayson’s bed? It was a fair question. She was stuck.
The aroma of cinnamon pancakes and maple syrup greeted her as she opened her apartment door, momentarily taking her mind off Grayson. She made her way to the kitchen and found great aunt Olga in front of the stove with big pot holder gloves on both hands. Aunt Olga stood four foot ten and was almost as round as she was tall. She had dark gray hair that sat on top her head in little poufy lumps like storm clouds and light brown eyes that sparkled when she smiled. She was seventy but you‟d never know it because her chubby cheeks stretched out her wrinkles and she was as spry as ever; something she attributed to her daily glass of Jack Daniels. “Keeps my mind keen and my intestines clean,” she always said.
Aunt Olga had her own house in the city but showed up at Angels at least three times a week, usually with a bottle of Jack and always with a hidden agenda. For some people the frequent visits may have been invasive, but Angel didn‟t mind. The truth was she didn‟t have many friends of her own. Over the years she had lost touch with high school friends and in college Tony had been her whole life. Now that he was gone she had no one; well, no one except Olga.
Angel gave Aunt Olga a hug from behind. “Mmmm, you make the best cinnamon pancakes in the world,” she said, inhaling in a big whiff.
“You eat up now,” Olga answered, carrying a plate over to the table, “you‟ve got a busy day ahead.”
Angel sat and shoveled in a fork full. “No I don‟t.”
“Angel May,” Olga gasped, “no wonder you don‟t have a man.”
Uh-oh. It was always bad when Olga used her middle name. “What?” She moaned.
“Don‟t talk with your mouth full. No man wants to see that. Close your lips when you chew. You don‟t want him to think you‟re disgusting do you?”
“Who?” Angel blurted, half-chewed pancakes mashing around in clear view.
Olga shook her head in disgust. “Harvey Milligan.”
Angel froze with another fork full half way to her mouth. “Harvey who?”
Aunt Olga snatched the plate from in front of Angel and stormed across the kitchen, to the sink. “I‟m not done with that,” Angel grabbed at the plate.
“You gonna go out with Harvey Milligan this morning?” Olga‟s question was an ultimatum in disguise. Angel watched in wide-eyed horror as she tilted the plate ever so slightly and the pancakes slid towards the disposal.
Olga was a feisty old broad and she didn‟t mind sticking her nose into other people‟s business, no matter the cost. This wasn‟t the first man she‟d found for Angel and she was certain it wouldn‟t be the last. Olga‟s matchmaking skills were sub-par, despite the fact that each time she met a single man she swore to Angel it was fate.
Rodney, the fireman, was the first act of fate. Olga met Rodney when she set her kitchen curtains aflame with an out of control fondue. The oil splattered on the burner and flames shot up three feet high, singeing Olga‟s eyebrows and disintegrating the lace curtains altogether. Rodney was big, strong and not bad looking but he had more muscles than brains. When Angel looked into his eyes it was clear that not only were the lights on and nobody home, but nobody was ever coming home.
The next victim of fate was poor „old Stanley, the dentist. It took the first five minutes of their date for Angel to realize he had the personality of a doorknob.
“I don‟t understand,” Olga wailed when Angel described what a dud Stanley was. “He‟s so witty when he‟s working on my teeth.”
“That‟s not his wit,” Angel explained, “its laughing gas.”
While on one of her exercise kicks, Olga met Manuel, the yoga instructor.
At first, Angel thought Manuel had potential. He had a great body, tan skin, chocolate brown eyes and dark hair that sat perfectly in place. He looked perfect, too perfect, which made perfect sense when Angel found out he was gay.
“No,” Olga gasped at the news, “but he ogles all the ladies.”
“He smiles at the ladies because you‟re all in your seventies and you pay him.”
Olga wasn‟t convinced. “Maybe he didn‟t like you and it was easier to lie than be up front?”
“He‟s not an up front guy. Believe me, he goes in the backdoor.” Angel waited for the metaphor to sink in, and then grinned as Olga giggled like a little girl.
“Oh, that‟s a good one. I‟m gonna have to remember to tell that to Elsa at the hair salon,” Olga snickered.
Then there was Clyde. Angel referred to him as a sweaty clod. He was nice enough, but he took Angel dancing and she had yet to recover from the haunting images of him on the dance floor. He fancied himself an erotic dancer, but his five foot eight, stocky body with a beer gut bouncing up and down, and wet smelly arm pits spoke otherwise. Not to mention the profusion of sweat that dripped from his hairline onto her shoulders. Angel fought her gag reflex when he came off the floor and draped his sweaty pit around her shoulder. She let him have one goodnight kiss, out of sheer pity, then ran inside and brushed her teeth.
Angel watched as Olga tilted the plate slightly higher and one piece of pancake slopped into the sink. “Okay,” she moaned, “you win. I‟ll go out with Harvey Milligan if you give me back my pancakes.”
Olga grinned a big, rounded smile of victory. She waddled over and put the plate back down in front of Angel. “You‟re a mean old sphinx,” Angel said, stuffing pancakes in her mouth.
“How do you think I‟ve lived this long?” She sat down next to Angel and watched her eat. “Hurry. You need to shower and go.”
“Where am I going and who is this Harvey guy?” Angel rolled her eyes, showing how annoyed she was by Olga‟s tactics. She knew Angel couldn‟t resist cinnamon pancakes. It wasn‟t a fair fight.
“Don‟t roll your eyes at your old aunt, it isn‟t proper.” Angel looked over at Olga and crossed her eyes, which made Olga giggle. “You‟re meeting him at the Art Museum at 9:00am.”
“So he‟s another geek.” Angel wasn‟t surprised. Every man Olga lined up for her was a flop. They‟d all been nice, but who wants nice? None of them were manly and strong. Unfortunately, they all had one thing in common, none were Grayson.
“He‟s an accountant dear, very smart with the numbers and loves art. When I told him you used to work at the museum his face lit right up.”
“I haven‟t worked at the museum for years, and I quit that job because I was bored out of my freaking mind.” Angel shoveled in the last bit of pancakes right before Olga snatched her plate and took it to the sink.
“You can‟t be that stranger‟s ho forever,” Olga snapped. Angel didn‟t know whether to laugh at the fact that Olga just used the word ho, or feel offended that she called her one. “You‟re not getting any younger and it‟s time you settle down with a real man.”
Angel rolled her eyes. Here we go again, she thought, the real man speech. What constituted a real man anyway? Olga disapproved of Grayson because his ways were unconventional. He wasn‟t a come home and meet the family sort of guy; but he was more of a real man than any of the men Olga picked out.
“How do you think it looks being a single lady running a pub in the city all by yourself? You don‟t want a reputation you can‟t live down.”
She hadn‟t thought about her reputation as a single female pub owner.
True, most the night spots were owned by men, but that didn‟t mean a woman couldn‟t run a successful bar business alone. Besides, Tetterbaum‟s Pub was a local icon on the North Side with a fabulous reputation. It was a small pub, but had a quaint charm that drew in both locals and tourists.
The Tetterbaum family opened the pub in 1936, shortly after the end of prohibition, and it has been in the same free-standing, corner brick building ever since. Though the building had undergone several renovations through the years, it had never lost its historic allure. There were rumors that Al Capone himself had a table at Tetterbaum‟s though there were no pictures to confirm the tale, just a plaque that hung over the back booth which read “Capone‟s Corner.” Angel was certain it was all hype to bring in tourists.
“You never should have started working at the old, nasty pub. It‟s no place for a woman.” Olga ranted.
“It‟s one of the classiest pubs in the city and you know it.” Angel scolded and Olga threw up her hands.
Angel wasn‟t backing down because she knew she was right. Tetterbaum‟s Pub served the highest quality bar food on the north side and you couldn‟t find a more unique ambiance.
The walls were red brick with dark wooden beams running up and across the ceiling. The floors were dark wood with a natural gleam that reflected the lights from the tiny yellow lamps that sat on each table. The bar ran the entire length of the dining area and the front of it was over-laid in red brick to match the walls. The top was deep brown mahogany, surrounded by a dark brown leather bumper and tiny inset lights illumed the overhang on the outside of the bar. Each stool was covered in dark brown leather to match the bar bumper and the booths throughout the restaurant; and the stool rungs were shiny gold plated.
Mr. Tetterbaum didn‟t believe in neon bar signs advertising alcohol products. He said, “The liquor speaks for itself and doesn‟t need a flashy sign.” So the back of the bar was simply a large mirror, surrounded by shelves made out of the same mahogany as the bar top. Bottles of every size, shape and color adorned the shelves and tiny yellow spotlights from the ceiling were intricately aimed at each shelf, highlighting their offering. It was a beautiful design, with the dim lighting creating an aura of romance and sophistication. It was unlike any pub Angel had ever seen.
“It‟s still no place for a single woman.” Olga sputtered.
Angel sighed from the mental exhaustion of arguing with Olga. It wasn‟t like running a pub was her dream job. She had wanted to be a journalist, but like so many other things in her life, she just sort of stumbled into owning the pub. After Tony left, Angel started waitressing at Tetterbaum‟s Pub, not because she needed the money but because she needed something to force her out of her apartment every day and keep her mind off Tony. She especially liked working the evening shift because night time hours spent at home by herself were the loneliest. After a few months Mr. Tetterbaum had Andrew train her to become a bartender, a challenge she found fulfilling. It somehow gave her a feeling of control, at least over one tiny aspect of her life.
“They shouldn‟t have sold the pub to you. They should have sold it to a man.” Olga waddled from the sink to the stove to the table, mumbling under her breath.
“That‟s sexist,” Angel argued, raising an eyebrow. “There‟s no reason a woman can‟t run a pub in the city. Besides, the Tetterbaum‟s didn‟t have anyone else to sell it to.”
“Rubbish,” Olga spat. “You mark my words missy,” she shook her finger at Angel, “that pub is bad news.”
“It is a great investment and it gives me a sense of purpose. I was lucky to get it.”
Less than a year after Angel started waitressing at Tetterbaum‟s, Ernest Tetterbaum died of a sudden heart attack and his wife, Mable, offered the pub to Angel.
“I‟ll sell it to you for under half of what it‟s worth,” Mable told Angel with her eyes darting around the pub in frantic bursts, and wringing her hands.
“I‟ve never owned a restaurant before,” Angel told her, but Mable insisted.
“I don‟t want anyone else to have her,” she said of the pub, “you were like the daughter we never had and it should be yours.” She patted Angel on the side of the cheek. “If I didn‟t need the money I‟d give it to you for free.”
Angel used some of the inheritance money from her dad to purchase Tetterbaum‟s. Though he left her a substantial amount, she rarely touched her dad‟s money. She used it to pay for college and to buy her car, but everything else was paid for by income she earned herself. It was important for her to feel independent and self-sufficient. She didn‟t like relying on other people because if fate had taught her anything it was that people inevitably leave. Using her dad‟s money to buy the pub was an investment that she felt would have met with her dad‟s approval. In fact, Angel felt certain that he‟d have made Mable an offer on it had he still been alive.
After Angel purchased the pub, Mable wished her good luck and left. Angel hadn‟t seen or heard from her since.
“Humph,” Olga snorted. “It isn‟t right.”
“That pub has been nothing but good for me.” Angel grinned, thinking about how she met Grayson one week after she officially became the new owner of Tetterbaum‟s. In her mind that was icing on the cake, like a tiny kiss from fate.
“People are starting to talk,” Olga said in a half-whisper.
“Wait a second,” Angel blurted, catching up on the conversation, “Did you call me a ho? I‟m not anyone‟s ho.”
“Well, sure you are dear,” Olga argued. “Whenever he comes to call you go, that‟s a ho. He probably has a ho in every bar across town.” Angel hadn‟t thought about that and it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up from sheer irritation.
“He does not,” she scowled.
“How do you know?” Olga stood with her feet squared and her hands on her round, chubby hips. She gawked at Angel, waiting for an answer.
This was getting out of hand. Maybe Olga was right and Grayson did have a girl in every bar across town, but that didn‟t make her a ho. That would make him a ho.
“You‟re wrong about him.” Angel sputtered defensively, all the while searching her vocabulary for a definitive term that would paint her relationship with Grayson in a more positive light. “We‟re friends with benefits.” Olga threw up her hands and Angel felt infuriated. “Maybe he‟s MY ho,” she blurted, raising her right eyebrow slightly. “Did you ever think of that?”
Olga stopped futzing around the kitchen and gasped, “A man ho, now that‟s a different story all together.”
“Yep,” Angel chimed in, feeling vindicated, “he‟s my boy toy and I keep him around to pleasure me until Mr. Right comes along.”
Olga chuckled a raspy laugh; one only years of smoking could produce. “I can‟t wait to tell Elsa you have a man ho.” Olga shuffled around the kitchen. “Maybe I should get me a man ho?”
Angel buried her face in her arms and let them drop onto the kitchen table, exhaling an exasperated sigh. “You‟re killing me.”