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Soft and Low by Jamie Bennett (1)

Chapter 1

Tracey was sitting on his lap, straddling him, her legs hooked around the back of the chair, her skirt hiked up.  His fingers gripped her butt, digging in, and she rocked up and down as she shoved her tongue deeper into his mouth.

I stared at them.  Ick.  Who was this guy?

“Tracey?”

She didn’t make any acknowledgement that she’d heard me.

I cleared my throat.  “Tracey?”

It was just too loud in this club.  The bass was pumped up so high it felt like my heart was beating in sync with it.  I hated places like this, that made it even more difficult for me.

I tapped on Tracey’s shoulder once, gently, then harder.

Her lips jerked off what’s his name, Club Guy #3, and she glanced back over her shoulder.  “Oh.  Wreck.”

“Um, sorry to interrupt.  I have to go,” I told her.

Club Guy #3 licked her neck and left a trial of spit.  For crying out loud.  But Tracey smiled and her teeth gleamed a purple-white under the lights.

“I’m going to stay,” she told me, and motioned to the guy with a tilt of her head.  His hand was on her breast.

“Then can I have your car key?  I have to get back, right now.”  I had been looking for her for a while, hoping she hadn’t left me and gone off with someone.  It had happened before.

Tracey reached down into her bra and handed me a humid black and silver key fob.  “Thanks,” I said.  I wiped it on the fabric of my jeans, the ones that Tracey had told me looked like they came from my mom’s closet.  “Will you call me later?  So I know you’re ok?”  I also tilted my head at the guy, who was now sliding his hand up her shirt.  But by the time I had finished speaking, Tracey had already turned to plunge her tongue back into his throat and was grinding against him.

I pushed through the writhing bodies and around crowded tables piled with empty glasses and walked outside into the freezing January night.  I stopped to breathe in the sharp air and enjoy the relative quiet.  Then I looked up and down the icy street.  I had no idea where I was, really, except that I was absolutely forbidden by my father from being in this part of town.  “It’s his house,” my mom had stated flatly when I tried to question the rule—now that I was 24, it seemed like I could have a little more leeway.

Tracey had parked in a lot around the corner, off the main drag.  I walked quickly, clutching the key to her new car in my hand, avoiding dirty snow and slippery patches on the sidewalk.  It had rained a little, earlier that day, but then it had gotten cold again and everything had re-frozen.

“No!  Let me go!”

Under the street lights, ahead of me down the block, a man and a woman were fighting, physically fighting.  She was struggling against him, clawing at his face, and he was trying to drag and push her into the open door of a car that was idling next to the sidewalk.  “No!  Help!  Help me!”  He shook her violently and then slapped her, and her head lolled.

Without thinking, I started to run toward them, my feet slipping on the ice.  “Stop!  Stop!” I told him.  It was supposed to be an authoritative command, but it came out more like I was asking.  Stop?  I grabbed the woman’s other arm and started to pull in the opposite direction.  She was now screaming her head off and the man was yelling, too, as we used her for a terrible game of tug of war.  My feet were sliding on the pavement as I tried to find traction, like a cartoon character running.  Like a nightmare where you couldn’t go anywhere.

Another voice started yelling, adding to the confusion, a deep voice, and there were pounding footsteps.  “What the fuck is going on here?” the new voice boomed.  “Let her go!”  The man, the one I was fighting with over the poor woman, reached over her, put his hand on my face, and shoved hard.  I flew backwards, my fingers slipping off her arm.  She broke free from him too and ran down the street, still screeching, and he leapt into the running car and peeled out,  fishtailing down the road.  For a moment it was almost completely silent on the city street.

“Are you ok?” the deep voice asked.

I rubbed the back of my head.  I had fallen into a streetlamp and connected hard with the metal pole.  I groaned a little, feeling pain shooting through my back, too.  A stranger knelt in front of me.  “Are you ok?” he asked again.

His voice sounded funny.  Something must have happened—

His hand came out and touched my cheek, startling me.  “Here.”  He stood, and lifted me up too.  I wobbled, unsteady, and fell forward a little onto his chest.  His arm went around me and he pressed me to him, my good ear against him.  I could feel the vibrations of him speaking but I couldn’t understand the words very well at all. 

“I’m fine.”  I pulled back and he looked surprised.  Maybe I had said it too loud.  I always felt discombobulated when something went wrong with my hearing aid.  Even with it working perfectly, that side was not even close to how I could hear with my other ear, my good ear.  I turned my head to the left to listen better.  “Thank you for helping me up.”

He frowned at me.  “Next time mind your own business.”

It sounded a little like a threat.  I stepped back and bumped into the streetlight again.  He was a very big guy, tall, and even though it was freezing, he was only wearing a t-shirt and I could very definitely see the cut of his arm and chest muscles. 

“You shouldn’t have gotten in the middle of a girl and her pimp.” 

“She was a prostitute?” I asked.  It didn’t actually matter—I would have helped her, anyway.

The man burst out laughing.  “Here’s what you’re going to want to do.”  He pointed toward the corner.  “See Jefferson Avenue?  Get in your nice, clean car, and drive east, all the way until you see the sign for Grosse Pointe.  Then don’t come back down here without an escort.”

“I’m not from Grosse Pointe.”

“Birmingham.  Bloomfield Hills,” he guessed, naming more wealthy suburbs, and I didn’t answer.  “Get back where you came from, baby girl.”

I still didn’t answer.  Keeping my eyes on him, I edged around the post and picked up my purse from where I had dropped it in the melee.  Then I continued to back up down the sidewalk, toward the lot where Tracey and I had parked hours earlier.  I really, really hoped her car was still there.

The man was still watching me, eyebrows drawn together.  He opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but then closed it.  I caught my heel on the uneven sidewalk and tripped a little.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” he said.  “I’m the least of your concerns.”  He smiled, but it didn’t feel like a particularly warm and friendly expression.

I turned around and walked quickly to the parking lot, keeping my head twisted partway so that I could hear him coming with my good ear, just in case.  When I reached the gate, I risked a quick look back at him, but he was just standing there watching me.  He smiled again, but it didn’t seem so scary this time. 

The lot attendant was asleep and I woke him up, and very sourly he took a load of cash off my hands and backed out the car for me.   As I drove towards the freeway, closely following the directions as issued by Tracey’s car, I saw the man again.  The one who had helped me, then made fun of me.  He was walking alone on the sidewalk, and I slowed briefly to read the writing on the back of his t-shirt in the blinking flashes of a broken streetlight.  Then, as he started to turn to look, I sped up, pushing down the accelerator until I got very nervous.  I drove as fast as I could make myself go all the way home, my head and back aching from my fall, and my face too from where the pimp had gripped it.

Brody’s Automotive, Detroit.  That’s what it had said on the back of the man's t-shirt, with a picture of a car with horns—like a devil’s horns.  It made sense, because the man himself had reminded me of a devil.  Black hair and dark, flashing eyes, perfect features to lure anyone into sin.  And his smile…He had scared me, but he had helped me.  I thought back to leaning against his chest.  I had been scared, but I hadn’t minded that.

My phone rang a few hours later.  It had taken me a while to mess with the battery and get my hearing aid working, and thank goodness, that had been the whole problem—but then I hadn’t really fallen asleep.  I had been expecting a call from Tracey.  “Where are you?” I asked her.

“Ypsi.”

“Tracey, really?  I have to drive to Ypsilanti right now?”

“It’s my car!  Hurry, Wreck.  I want to get out of here.”  She was whispering at me, so I bet that Club Guy #3 was asleep nearby.

I had heard my father when I came in from the night out.  He had waited up for me, I knew.  Now I hoped he wouldn’t hear me leave again.  I had parked at the end of the driveway at the street and walked in so he wouldn’t see that I was driving Tracey’s car.  I went as quietly as I possibly could, creeping down the stairs and skipping over the one that did the weird squeak.

It was quieter to leave through the kitchen, but the light was already on.

“Wreck,” my brother Ian greeted me.  He was sitting at the kitchen island, eating from a mixing bowl full of cereal.  There was no limit to how much Ian could eat.

“What are you doing up so early?” I whispered.

“Basketball.”  Ian had one volume: loud.  I gestured to him to turn it down.

“If Dad comes in here, I went for a run,” I told him.

Ian nodded.  Despite the seven years between us, we got along great, and we were definitely co-conspirators when it came to our father.

I shoved my feet into fleece-lined boots and pulled on my old ski jacket over my t-shirt before I ran back down the driveway to Tracey’s car.

As I drove to get her, she called me repeatedly to check on my progress, and when I pulled up to Club Guy #3’s decrepit apartment building, she was waiting outside, wearing her skimpy party clothes from the night before and rubbing her arms to stay warm.  She dove into the car and I resisted the urge to hold my nose or roll down a window.  She stunk, booze and other things I didn’t want to think about.

We drove in silence for a few minutes.

“You’ll never guess what that guy had in his bedroom,” Tracey said, her sudden words startling me.

“Do I want to know or am I going to be grossed out?”  One guy she had gone home with had been into BDSM and she went into disturbing detail about everything in his “dungeon,” or what I would have called his basement.

“He had a giant teddy bear, six feet tall.  It was like it was watching us.  It was so disturbing.  His ex got it for him.”  She wiped off makeup from under her eyes with an old, wadded-up paper napkin she had fished off the floor.  “He kept talking about her, how much he missed her.”

“Oh, you guys were doing a lot of talking?  Is that how these nights go?” I asked.

“Shut up, Wreck.  As if you’d have any idea at all.  I kept wondering if he was fucking the bear and pretending it was his ex.”  She tried to finger-comb her matted hair.  “He was gross.  I should have stuck with the other guy.”

“Club Guy Number One?  With the high heeled loafers?”

“No, the second guy.  The bartender.  Why didn’t you stop me?”

“You never listen to me,” I said.

“Yeah, well, if you were really my friend, you would have tried,” she retorted.

The last time I had tried to steer her away from someone, she had screamed that I was a fucking bitch in the middle of a crowded bar.  So I just shrugged.

Tracey leaned forward, licked her thumb, and scrubbed my cheek with it.

“What are you doing?” I exclaimed, jerking away from her.  “Ick!  I don’t know where your thumb has been.  That hurt, too.”  I slapped her hand away when she reached for me again.

“What’s on your face?” she asked.  “Is that a bruise?”

I put my fingers up to my face, the way the man, the pimp, had gripped it the night before when he’d shoved me away and I had hit the lamppost.  He had grabbed me hard and his thumb must have made a mark.  “I hit my face on the door,” I told Tracey.

“Stupid Wreck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“Do you want to hear what I did with the teddy bear guy?” Tracey asked me.  “He was really dirty.”

“Like, he didn’t bathe?”  Maybe that explained why she smelled so bad. 

“No, you idiot, I mean kinky.  Sleezy!  I’ll tell you all the details.”

“No thanks.  Please don’t,” I protested.

She told me anyway.  For Tracey, the more degrading things got, the more she liked it.  The whole story made me feel slightly sick to my stomach.

“See what you’re missing?” she asked me, and I nodded like I really saw.

“Sounds great,” I told her.

“Go get laid, Wreck.  You’ll thank me.  You know why you never meet anyone when we go out?  You act like a frigid prude.  Look at what you wear!”  Tracey gestured to her own outfit, now crumpled and stained.  “But it’s your whole vibe.  It says ‘sexless.’  I could have had three guys last night because I’m so hot, but it’s also my attitude.”

“I did meet someone.”

She stared at me.  “You’re kidding.  Who?”

I thought of the guy who had intervened in the fight between the woman and her pimp, who had picked me up off the ground.  “Brody,” I said.  That had been the name on the back of his t-shirt.  Brody’s Automotive.

“So?  Did you go home with him?”

“No.”

Tracey slapped my leg.  “Why not?”

I shrugged.

“Tell me about him!” she demanded.

“Well, he’s really cute.”

“Frat boy, poet, or football?” Tracey asked.  Those were some of the designations we’d used in college to sort out all of the types of guys from her, um, encounters.

I laughed, thinking of trying to peg the man I was calling Brody into one of those categories.  “None of the above.  More like…remember that actor in the old movie, the one who crashed his car and died so young?  James Dean, that was his name.”  But Brody was bigger.  Darker, tougher-looking.  Like a man, instead of a boy.

“You met a guy who looked like that and you didn’t go home with him?  Your vagina must be pissed!  What the hell is the matter with you, Wreck?”

I shrugged again.

“Are you ever going to see him again?” Tracey asked.

I nodded, slowly.  “Yes. Tomorrow.  I’m going to see him tomorrow.”  Why had I said that?

“Nice,” she told me, also nodding.  It did feel good to have her approval.  “You have to let me know what happens!  I’ll be wiping someone’s ass or telling them not to pick their noses, thinking about you screwing your new guy.”

“That’s awful, Trace.  God!”  As farfetched as it might have seemed, Tracey was a kindergarten aide.  She had set off to be a teacher, but she’d gotten a little lost along the way in college and didn’t quite end up with her credential.  Really, that career choice for her never seemed right to me.  Her parents had thought that it would help her settle down and pushed hard for it, but Tracey had always laughed about the poor kids she was going to have to teach and how she was going to warp them.

She leaned her head back on the seat and fell asleep and I drove us back to my house, where I poked her awake at the entrance to my long driveway.  “Your turn to drive.  Go home.”

“Can I come into your house and get dressed so my parents don’t see me like this?”  Now even she frowned down at her nasty shirt.

I shook my head.  “My father’s home.  See you later.”

“Don’t forget to tell me about Brady.”

“Brody,” I corrected her, as if I was sure of his name.  He probably just worked at the garage, or just happened to be wearing that t-shirt.

“Let me know,” she insisted, and I realized that I’d dug a major hole for myself.  Tracey was like a dog on a bone when it came to men and sex, and she wasn’t going to forget that I was supposed to see this new guy.  She would pester me to death.

I watched her car kick up a huge dust cloud as she drove off.  No one who lived on our road, including my parents, wanted the public driving past the long, winding driveways that led to their giant mansions.  Leaving our road unpaved discouraged traffic.  I slowly walked back down my driveway, noticing with relief that both my parents’ cars were gone.  I had the house to myself so I went into the kitchen to do my favorite thing.

I took the scale off the shelf to weigh the ingredients, put the eggs in a bowl on the counter to bring them to room temperature, and turned on the ovens to pre-heat.  Dark chocolate with coffee-flavored frosting.  No, mint would be better.  These guys were in high school, and maybe coffee wouldn’t be their thing yet.  While everything warmed up, I got dressed, and a few hours later I drove to my old high school where Ian was practicing with his team.  I left the big plastic container of cupcakes on a chair near the door of the gym.

“Thanks, Wreck!” I heard Ian call I as hurried off.  That box would come home (if my brother remembered it) without a crumb in it.  Ian said the guys on his team practically fought over my treats.  That had made me smile, when he said that.

I went back home and ran up to my room.  I had a few hours before dinner to think about Brody.  My two-minute encounter with him had been the most exciting thing that had happened to me, outside of my daydreams, in a very long time.

“I need to take my car in to the shop today,” I causally announced to Melina, my immediate supervisor at the auction house.

“What’s the matter with it?”  She eyed me sharply, rubbing her bulging stomach.  Anything I told her would go straight to my father, so I had to be careful.

“I’m not sure.  I noticed a little rattling noise.  Probably it’s nothing.  But I thought my dad would want me to have it checked.”  I tried to look like a responsible adult, narrowing my eyes and nodding sagely.

“What time is your appointment at the dealership?”  Melina spoke slowly and distinctly, her hands poised over the keyboard so she could type in the information.

“They told me just to come by,” I explained, not mentioning that I wouldn’t be going to the dealership.  I had found the address for Brody’s Automotive in Detroit the night before.  “I don’t need an appointment.”

“Ok.  Don’t dawdle.”  She enunciated each syllable carefully.  I wanted to slap her.

“Sure.”  As if there were so many pressing things for me to do at work.  My position at my family’s auction house was completely unnecessary.  A monkey could have done what I did, and Melina’s job too, for that matter.  She was nominally in charge of warehouse supervision, but there was an on-site warehouse manager, Kelvin, who took care of all the important things.  Melina mostly played around with invoices and bills of lading, and sometimes drove out to check on things in the actual building, as if she knew what was going on in any way.  As her assistant, her intern, I did even less.  Melina’s father had helped out my father some way, a long time ago, so she got a job out of it and she had hung onto it.  My dad was big into loyalty and paying people back, both in positive and very negative ways.

I counted the minutes until Melina went on her morning break.  She stood up from her chair, stretching out her back.  The maternity policy at the action house was terrible, so she planned to work up until the moment she went into labor to have more time off afterwards.  In the meantime, she made me suffer through her snappish temper, and forced me to listen to the stories of her swollen feet, aching back, and sleepless nights.

When the door to our office closed, I counted to 30.  It took her about that long to make her way to the employee lounge.  Then I grabbed my coat off the hook on the back of the door and ran down the stairs to the parking lot to drive to Detroit.

I stopped at the corner of the block with the garage.  I stared for a while at the two bays onto the street and at the big sign with the same devil car image as the graphic on the back of the man’s t-shirt.  Brody’s.  For crying out loud.  What was I doing?  I put on my turn signal to merge back on the street then I sat for a moment, watching the blinking light on my dashboard.  No, I was going to do it. 

I turned off the engine then brushed my hair carefully, smoothing it down in front of my left shoulder, making sure my ear was well-covered.  I pulled up the road and parked in front of the garage and took a deep breath, calming myself down.  He probably didn’t even work here.  And what if he did?  What was I going to do about it, walk in like Tracey and seduce him?  Even the thought of me trying to do that made me start laughing, which then made me relax.

“Can I help you?”  The woman sitting at the window in the waiting room had more tattoos and piercings than I’d ever seen on anyone.  I looked at the spider web that started at the corner of her eye and went down her neck.

“Oh!  Yes, please.”  I cleared my throat.  “My car is making a funny noise and—”

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked me.

I was craning my neck to see around her through the windows into the garage.  There were a bunch of guys working back there, but I didn’t see the one that I was looking for.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked again, and smiled at me.

“Oh, no, I don’t.”

“Let me see if I can fit you in.  Have a seat.”  I didn’t sit because I was still looking through the windows at the guys in their coveralls.  He wasn’t there, but what had I expected?

The tattoo lady stood up from her chair and opened a big blue door leading into the garage.  “Digger?  Dig!”

And there he was.

He was wiping his hands off on a rag, walking towards the office.  I backed up a step away from the counter and awkwardly clutched my purse in front of me.

“Do you have time to look at her car this morning?”  The office lady jerked her thumb in my direction.

Then the man looked at me, and our eyes met.

“I know you.”

I shook my head vigorously.  “No.  No, I don’t think so.”

But he was nodding back at me.  “Yeah.  You’re that girl who got in the middle of the hooker and her pimp.”

“You did?”  The tattoo lady eyed me.  “Really?”

“I’m here because my car is making a funny noise,” I explained.

“And you drove all the way from Grosse Pointe to get it checked out?” he asked me.

“I told you that I’m not from there.”

He grinned.  “Right, that’s what you told me Saturday night.  I knew you were that girl.  The one from the suburbs.”  He looked at me for a second.  “Give me your keys.”  Wordlessly, I held them out and he stepped to the window to take them.  He grinned again and left.

I had just given my car to a stranger.  I looked at the tattoo lady, who seemed to think nothing was amiss.  She opened the door to the office and gestured me in.  “Come get a coffee,” she told me.  “Explain this thing about the pimp.  How do you know Digger?”

That was his name.  “I don’t.  We just—”  A loud crash echoed in the garage, followed by a lot of swearing.  The woman shut the blue door and the sound muffled.

“I’m Lorelei,” she said, and filled a Brody’s Automotive mug with coffee from a big pot.  “Milk?  Sugar?”

“Both, please.”  She handed me the mug and I took a sip.  Lorelei looked at me expectantly.  So I explained about seeing the fight, and trying to help the woman. 

She frowned a little.  “You shouldn’t get in the middle of something like that.  What if he’d had a knife?  Or she did, for protection?”

I flushed.  “I wasn’t really thinking clearly.”

“Yeah, I don’t guess you’ve been in a lot of street fights!  You’re not the type.  Anyway, it was nice of you to do that.  Brave,” Lorelei told me.  She held up her coffee mug in a salute.

I bit my lip but couldn’t suppress a smile.  “Thanks.”

“How did Digger come into it?”

“He was just there,” I explained.  “He yelled at the man, the pimp, to stop and that made it break up.”

“And you came here looking for him?”  She smiled widely.

“No!  No, not at all.  My car—it’s making a weird noise.  A bad noise.”

Lorelei just kept smiling.  “He’s hot as fuck, isn’t he?”

I gulped.

“He’s like my little brother,” she explained.  “It’s like I can see the hotness, but I don’t have the urge to jump on it.  I think it’s cool that you came down here, but I have to admit, you’re not the first.  Lots of women have ‘car trouble’ when Digger’s around.”

“I’m not,” I swallowed again.  “I didn’t come here because of that.”  Why had I come here?  To engage in an exercise in humiliation?

The blue door from the garage swung open and banged against the wall.

“God damn it, Dig!  Knock that crap off!” Lorelei yelled at him.  “This isn’t a barn.”

“I don’t hear anything.”  He threw the keys on the desk.  “It runs great.  You don’t even have any mileage on it.”  He stared at me.

“It’s intermittent.  I mean, the noise comes and goes.”

“I know what ‘intermittent’ means,” he said, frowning at me.

“Digger, don’t be a cunt,” Lorelei said.  My mouth dropped open.  She had an even filthier mouth than Tracey.  “Go out for another ride with her, see if she can make it happen.  I meant, make the noise,” she explained, and winked at me.  “What’s your name, honey?”

“Wr—Rebecca.  Rebecca,” I repeated.  I pulled at the long hair over my left shoulder, smoothing it forward.

Digger sighed.  “All right, R-Rebecca, let’s go for another ride.  Lorelei, you know I don’t have time for this.”

“For your customers?”

“For your bullshit,” he answered, and they glared at each other.  I could totally see the brother-sister relationship.

“That’s ok,” I said.  “I’ll just leave.  Maybe it fixed itself.  I bet that’s what happened.”  I started to back out of the room.  I knocked into a chair, pushed it back into place.  “Sorry.  Sorry to bother you.”

“Hang on,” Digger barked out, and I froze.  He disappeared into the garage then came back out, holding out his hand to me.  “Is this yours?”

I looked at the shiny object in his big palm.  “Yes!  It’s my saint medal!  Why do you have it?”  I reached for it and carefully picked it up, barely brushing his warm skin with my fingertips.

“I found it on the sidewalk where you got into your altercation with the prostitute.  I mean, fight with the hooker.”  I glanced up, and he looked like he was trying not to laugh.  “Saint Francis de Sales,” he noted, as I put it carefully around my neck without disturbing my hair.  I’d had it in my purse at the club that night, because Tracey thought wearing a Catholic medallion was contributing to my frigid vibe.  “Are you a journalist?”

“What?”

He put a long index finger on the medal now hanging against my chest.  “I read about him.  He’s the patron saint of journalists.”

“Oh!  No, I’m not.  I work at my family’s auction house.  Lindhart Detroit Auctions.”  They both looked blank.  “Thank you for my medal.  Thank you for looking at my car.  Bye.”  I managed to get out into the street without knocking into any more furniture.  I wanted to die.  This had been a terrible, terrible idea.

My phone started ringing as soon as I got onto I-75.  “Well?  Did you see him?” Tracey asked impatiently, not waiting for me to finish saying hello.

“How are you calling me while you’re at school working?” I asked her.

“I snuck away while I’m supposed to be watching the little shits on the playground.  What happened with Brady?”

“Brody.  Digger Brody,” I said absently.

Digger?  What kind of a name is that?”  I didn’t answer.  “So?  Did you?”

I got angry.  “Did I have sex with him, a man I met about five minutes ago, on my lunch break?  No, of course not!”

“There’s no reason to be a raging bitch,” she said coldly. 

“Sorry,” I muttered.  “Nothing’s going to happen with Digger Brody, so please, can you not talk about him anymore?”  I was so, so sorry I had said anything to her in the first place.  And even more sorry that I had gone to the garage.  What had I been thinking?

“Wreck, don’t be an idiot.  You have to...oh, crap, someone’s crying.  Of course one of them got hurt.  I leave them alone for ten minutes!  Talk to you later.”  Tracey hung up.

I turned up the music so I wouldn’t be able to hear my own thoughts.  One word kept running through my mind: stupid.  I was just so stupid.

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