Red in the City
Pauline has taken the cookies from the oven and packed them in a shoebox. The shoebox goes in her gym bag. The bag goes into her bicycle basket.
She got the bike on her twelfth birthday. It's apple-red,with three speeds. It was just a little too big for her at twelve; now it's just a little too small.
It's a twenty-minute ride to Grammy's. Down the alley behind the brownstone where she and Mother live, onto 23rd, past the mini-mall of nail salons and resale shops, across the Kwik-E-Mart lot and onto Royal Brougham. Then the long coast down, down, down, into the decaying neighborhood where Grammy's tiny house sits wedged between an abandoned warehouse and a barely more prosperous body shop.
Industry had grown up around the little house, then died. "And they'll get my house when I die too," says Grammy. "I know your mother will sell it. She's like her father."
Mother finds Grammy exasperating. "Exasperating. She thinks you'll want to live there. By a warehouse, fachrissakes."
Exasperation is why Mother only visits when she brings Grammy groceries. Exasperation is why Pauline visits every Saturday -- so Grammy won't feel as forsaken as her neighborhood.
The little house smells like old age. Grammy is dying, the house is dying, the body shop is dying. But slowly.
Pauline doesn't mind the smell. She tidies up and vacuums, wipes out the refrigerator, throws out the dabs of leftovers Grammy saves up. Then she makes tea and they eat the cookies and play rummy. They have their tea with powdered milk.
Riding home takes thirty minutes, mostly because Pauline has to walk the bike up Royal Brougham instead of coasting down.
Sometimes, going back, she stops at the mini-mall to browse the resale shops. Sometimes she stops at the Kwik-E for a pop.
When she rides up, there's a dark-haired man smoking by the entrance. He stubs out the butt as she opens the door.
"Glad you showed up, Red. I was getting bored."
She's been told not to speak to strangers.
Inside, there's no one at the register. "Hello?" she calls out, expecting the Indian man who's usually there to pop up from an aisle.
"Hello," says the dark-haired guy, stepping behind the counter. "Smoke break. It's only me here."
She brings a pop to the counter, but he doesn't ring it up.
"So what's your name?" When she doesn't answer, he says, "Bet I can guess."
She's avoided looking at him directly, but this piques her interest. He's not so old, maybe nineteen or seventeen or twenty-three. Sort of cute, except for his crooked teeth.
"Starts with B." He looks her up and down. "No, P. There, I'm right, aren't I? So, P. Polly. Wrong. Pam. No. Prospera. Uh-uh. Prunella. Paella. Paprika."
She smiles, just a little.
"There you go. Got you to smile, didn't I?"
She smiles a little more.
"Now I'll tell you your name. Ready?"
"It's Pauline," he says confidently. "But Red fits you better. Now guess mine. Starts with F. One guess, go ahead."
"Well, you can call me Frank today." He rings up her pop and drops three quarters in the till. "On me. Because you're so pretty, Red."
All the next week she turns those words over and over in her mind, like secret treasure.
Grammy's the only one who ever calls her "Red". Because of her hair, her father's gift. It's the prettiest thing about her; at least that's what Pauline thinks. She likes the coppery color. She likes how it flames in the wind when she rides her bike. She likes Grammy's pet-name better than "Pauline". Pauline is a fat lady in a bathrobe. Red is insolent, daring, French.
Riding by the Kwik-E the next Saturday, it pops into her head to buy real milk for Grammy's tea.
"Red! You're early!"
Pauline blushes. "Where's the other man?"
"Ajay? I'm his Saturday manager." He says it as if a Saturday manager was something like a bank president. "I pretty much run things on Saturdays."
"I came to get milk." She hadn't, though, not really.
"Did you guess my name yet?"
"I thought it was Frank."
"That was last week. Try again. Starts with F."
"Fred." She puts a pint of skim on the counter.
"You're not very good at this game, are you? Guess again, because I don't like Fred."
"Warmer." He rings up the milk and says, "On me, pretty Red." But when she takes hold of it, he teasingly pulls it away.
"I'm off early and I got my car," he croons. "Come back at noon and we'll take a ride."
Coasting down Royal Brougham, her hair blazing in the wind, she thinks of Ferris's crooked smile.
Every time Pauline leaves, Grammy says the same thing: "Be a good girl, Red, and keep away from the boys." It's because her husband was a wolf. Mother's husband was a wolf too, according to Grammy.
When Pauline was little, she imagined a wolf in pants and suspenders, like in cartoons. But Mother said no, "Grammy just meant he liked the ladies."
"All the ladies."
It didn't make things any clearer. She felt too stupid to
ask her real question: If her father was a wolf, wasn't she part wolf too?
She's disappointed when she sees his car. It's nothing special, and there's a big dent on one door.
"Gotta get that fixed. But no one's going to notice it when you're with me, pretty little Red."
He holds the dented door open. There's a churning feeling in her stomach. The smell of cigarettes and aftershave inside the car is unfamililarly masculine, terrifying and exciting.
"Tell me your real name now," she demands as he puts the key in the ignition.
He's wide-eyed, innocent. "It's just Rick."
"That's not 'F'!"
"Ha! I'm messing with you, Red. Richard Foster Fenris, see? Double F."
He grins wickedly, showing his crooked teeth, and turns the key.
BIO: Until now E.L. Johns was unpublished. He is unemployed and lives in the Pacific Northwest.
Motivation: To write a modern fairy tale.