Packed to the brim, Dee’s lime green clunker, Bessie, chugged its way through the fifteen-acre maze of the Thunderbird Apartments, a colossal complex of 672 rental units housed in 56 buildings interspersed with multiple laundry rooms, four swimming pools, a clubhouse, and an on-site gym. Only a year old and still sparkling clean, with immaculate grounds replete with shade trees and colorful flower beds, the complex excited Dee, in spite of the extensive police call history. This place was heaven on earth compared to where she and Tad had been living since arriving in Phoenix four months ago: A cramped and dingy, roach-infested studio apartment on West Van Buren called the Sandman Motel, an ancient relic of the fifties and sixties when weary desert travelers took refuge in the many neon-lit auto courts and motor lodges that garishly lined both East and West Van Buren Street.
Dee steered Bessie one-handed while the other fumbled with a map of the complex. Deep into the bowels of it, a grey stucco, two-story building loomed ahead. It looked like all the other buildings except for a placard on its façade that read ‘Building 27’. Dee reached over and gently shook her son, who was slumped down in the passenger seat, sound asleep.
“Wake up, Tad.”
Tad roused and rubbed his eyes. Groggy, he looked about the car, disoriented.
“Hey, sleepy-head. Guess what? We’re home!”
Tad scrambled to his knees to look out the car window. “A slide!” he cried, pointing to an orange painted children’s slide in a playground area across the parking lot. “Can I go play?”
“We’ve got to get the car unpacked first,” said Dee as she yawned and stretched in her car seat. She’d gotten up before dawn to pack all their belongings and clean the motel studio. Their first stop upon leaving the motel was CORT Furniture Rental, where thirty-five dollars a month bought you a one-bedroom package, the cheapest they offered, that included a bed and dresser for Tad’s bedroom, a dining table and chairs, and a living room set—end tables, coffee table, chair, lamps, and a couch. For an extra five dollars, Dee upgraded the couch to a hide-a-bed which would serve as her bed, a bed she couldn’t wait to collapse into as soon as they got settled.
After CORT, the duo next hit FedMart, a discount store, where Dee spent hours shopping for the various essentials she needed to make the new place minimally functional: Bed linens, towels, pots and pans, kitchen utensils, a vacuum.
Next, it was off to AJ Bayless for groceries—real groceries, no more hot dogs and boxed mac and cheese. It was late afternoon before the two finally made it to their final destination: Their new home. Both she and Tad were exhausted by the long, physically demanding day…of which there was still no end in sight.
Dee helped Tad out of the car and pulled him along with her.
“C’mon, Tad, we need to get the keys from the manager before the phone guy and furniture delivery van get here.”
“What about all our stuff?” he asked, looking back at the rusted Corona.
“We’ll come back for it after we get the keys.”
After retrieving the keys, she and Tad returned to the car just as the CORT van pulled in.
“Our furniture!” cried Dee, excited by the reality of having her own, honest-to-god furniture, even if it was just rented.
Dee waved down the van’s occupants. “Follow me!” she shouted, “Apartment 128!” She felt like she did when she was little, on Christmas morning, giddy and over-the-moon happy. She pulled Tad past the Corona, leading the way to their newly-leased apartment.
“Our stuff!” cried Tad, pointing at the car behind him.
“It’ll be fine. We’ll get it later,” replied Deidre.
Entering into the apartment, Dee thought she might burst with joy. The place looked brand-spanking new. New appliances. New carpet. New blinds and fixtures with fresh paint everywhere. She and Tad finally had the home they deserved, a real home, not like the depressing single-wide trailer Newt had rented for them back home in Hope, Arkansas, nor the decaying one-room dump at the Sandman Motel. For the first time in her adult life, Dee felt optimistic about her and Tad’s future. A sense of hope mushroomed within her.
An hour later, the CORT men were gone and the furniture they delivered had been dumped into the middle of each appropriate room. In the case of the bed, they left the mattress and headboard leaning upright against the bedroom walls, and the bed frame was but a pile of unassembled parts lying in a heap on the floor. Even the kitchen table was dismembered—its legs piled in a corner in the dining area while the upended tabletop rested against a wall. They had snuck out while Dee was busy in the parking lot rescuing the bags of groceries from spoiling in the late afternoon sun. When she got back to the apartment, she found the chaos left behind by the deliverymen. What the hell? she thought. It never occurred to her, while shopping at FedMart, to buy tools. She didn’t own a single tool, not even a screwdriver.
Dee stood with Tad in the middle of the bedroom, assessing their predicament.
“Daddy has tools,” said Tad.
“Well, Daddy’s not here,” Dee replied, too tired to hide her bitterness. “C’mon,” she told Tad, “Let’s go get the rest of our stuff from the car. We’ll deal with this mess later.”
Out in the parking lot, Dee and Tad began the process of unloading the Corona’s trunk and back seat, both jam-packed with shopping bags and large plastic trash liners stuffed full of clothes, toys, books and the odds and ends of everyday living. Dead on her feet, Dee struggled to lift the heavy, bulky bags from the car, and Tad was little help—most of the bags weighed more than he did.
“Need some help with those?”
The voice sang out like a heavenly choir. To Deidre, it was the sound of trumpeting fanfare, as if the cavalry had just arrived. She fully expected to turn and see a knight in shining armor astride a pawing white horse.
“Oh, do I ever,” she said, turning around to face her chivalrous knight.
“Great! Let me get those for you,” said a scruffy dude wearing Levi cutoffs and a Grateful Dead t-shirt.
He was young—no more than nineteen or twenty—and scrawny, not exactly knight material. But the skinny volunteer had two perfectly good arms with which to haul bags. He’ll do, thought Dee. To her surprise, he was anything but the 98-pound-weakling he had appeared to be. She watched, open-mouthed, as he easily lifted four of the weighty bags, two in each fist, and flung them over his shoulders.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Uh…” she stammered, taken aback by his surprising show of strength. “Apartment 128.”
“Cool, we’re neighbors. I’m on the floor above you, in 228. Joe Mageen, at your service.”
Dee smiled and reciprocated. “I’m Dee, and this young man here,” she said, taking her son’s hand, “Is Tad.”
“Hey, little man! How’s it hanging?”
Tad turned his head away and ducked behind his mother’s leg. Dee apologized: “He’s a little shy.”
“That’s cool,” said Joe, with a shrug, before starting off towards Building 27. “Let’s get this party started!”
As it was, Joe did turn out to be Dee’s shining knight. He refused to let her do any of the heavy lifting; insisted on unloading the car himself, making multiple trips to and from the parking lot while she and Tad stayed put in the apartment to unpack the bags as they arrived.
“That’s all of them,” Joe said, as he dropped off the last load of bags from the Corona.
“Thank you so much! I can’t tell you how much I—”
“Don’t mention it,” Joe said. “Anything else you need help with?”
“You’ve already helped so much. I hate to ask, but…” Dee’s gaze fell on the dismembered dining table. “Do you happen to have a screwdriver?”
Joe’s face lit up. “Be right back!” he said, then sprinted out the door.
Before Dee knew it, he was back, a massive toolbox in hand.
“Like I said, ‘at your service’,” he teased. “What needs fixin’?”
Dee directed him to the dining table. “Piece of cake!” he said, setting down his toolbox.
In no time, Dee had a fully-assembled table. She arranged the four dining chairs around it and said to Tad, who was lying on the kitchen floor, busy with a box of crayons and a coloring book, “Tad, honey, come on up off the floor. You can color at the table now.”
“What’s next?” Joe asked, brandishing his screwdriver.
Dee ushered him to the bedroom. “The bed frame and headboard need to be put together. Oh, and can you attach the mirror to the dresser?”
A knock on the front door sounded from the living room. “Hello?” a man’s voice called in through the entry door Joe had left ajar. In an instant, Tad appeared in the bedroom doorway. “Mommy, there’s a man at the door!”
Dee excused herself as Joe got to work on the bed frame.
In the living room doorway stood a brawny but tired-looking man in a work jumpsuit that bore a bell logo over his heart. A heavy leather tool belt hung from his hips.
“Mountain Bell. I’m here for the phone installation,” he said.
Dee looked at her watch. It was late and getting dark outside. “I was worried you weren’t coming.”
“You’re my fifteenth customer today, all of them here, in the same complex,” he replied. “Where do you want it?”
Dee looked around, unsure. “I don’t know,” she said. “Where do you suggest?”
“Most people put it in the kitchen.”
“Wall-mount or desk model?”
“Desk model?” said Dee, again unsure.
“Standard or Trimline?”
“Most people prefer the Trimline design,” he offered.
“Rotary dial or touch-tone?”
Dee rolled her eyes and laughed.
“It’s the last question; I promise,” the installer said.
“Touch-tone,” she said, this time with confidence.
“Okay, let me pull the inventory from my truck. I’ll be right back.”
Dee’s brain was fried and her body ached. She was ready to crawl into a bed, any bed, and fall asleep for a week but, alas, there was still no bed to crawl into. The hide-a-bed sofa, along with the end tables, coffee table, and chairs, were all still wrapped in plastic and piled together in the middle of the living room. The thought of climbing into a bed reminded her to check on Joe, who was still working in the bedroom.
“Wow!” she exclaimed, upon entering the room. The dresser mirror was attached and the bed fully assembled, including the mattress.
“Just tell me where you want everything,” Joe said.
Dee issued directions as Joe pushed and pulled the furniture into place. In a matter of minutes, with the exception of the bed linens, the bedroom looked complete and inviting—the bed, especially, thought Dee.
“Mommy, the man’s back!” yelled Tad from the dining table.
“Thank you so much, Joe,” said Deidre, her words followed by a big yawn. “Do you mind helping me with the living room?”
The pair headed into the living room. Tad was still coloring at the dining table and the phone installer was busy running wires into a phone jack in the kitchen. Together, Dee and Joe stripped the plastic from the furniture and began putting pieces into place.
“Where do you want the couch?” asked Joe.
“Centered on the far wall is fine,” said Dee.
Joe tried to move the couch. “Damn, that’s one heavy mutha. What’s it made of, cement?”
“It’s a hide-a-bed,” explained Dee.
The phone installer abandoned the phone jack and rushed to Joe’s rescue, taking the other end of the sofa. Once in place, he returned to his installation duties while Joe and Dee quickly arranged the remaining furniture pieces. Finished, they both took a step back to admire their work.
“Not bad,” said Joe.
“Yeah,” agreed Dee, pleased with how her new home was shaping up. “Not bad at all.”
Dee looked down to find Tad tugging on her pant leg.
“I’m hungry,” he said, his brown eyes big and begging.
“I’ll fix you something in a little while, as soon as we’re done,” she replied.
“I’m hungry now,” he pleaded.
Joe jumped at the suggestion. “How ‘bout I get a pizza?”
Tad nodded in agreement. “Pizza!” he cried, tugging yet harder on Dee’s pants.
Dee was too exhausted to entertain, even if it was just paper plates and pizza. Searching for an excuse, she motioned to the piles of bags still waiting to be unpacked.
“The apartment’s still a mess,” she said.
“No problem, we can take the party upstairs to my place—the pizza’s on me!” countered Joe. “And we could watch some TV.”
Dee hemmed and hawed.
Joe leaned down to Tad’s eye level. “Hey, little man, how would you like to watch Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk on a big, twenty-five-inch color TV?” Straightening, he excitedly told Dee, “I just got it last week. A Sylvania console. Cost me almost two months’ rent.”
Tad started yanking on Dee’s pants. “Can we? Can we?”
Dee tried again to beg off. “I can’t leave while the phone guy’s here.”
“All done!” said the phone installer. He slipped his tools back into his belt and slapped a piece of paper onto the kitchen counter. “Your new phone number is on the receipt.” With a ragged smile and weary wave of his hand, Dee’s excuse walked out the door.
Joe and Tad stared at Dee with childlike expectation. Tad again tugged her pant leg.
Too tired to resist, she caved. “Sure. Pizza at your place, it is.”
Joe and Tad both erupted into happy dances, the sight of which elicited a weary laugh from Dee. “I just need a few minutes to freshen up.”
Joe was already halfway out the door. “Come up in thirty minutes.” He then pointed skyward to remind her: “Apartment 228.”
In a dark alley, Diana Prince whirled around in a circle, transforming herself into Wonder Woman. Swinging herself from a window eave, her red and white, knee-high boots kicked through a window, shattering the glass and landing her inside a sketchy-looking laboratory. A bespectacled Professor Brubaker made for the lab’s door, attempting to flee, but he didn’t get far, as Wonder Woman’s trusty golden Lasso of Truth quickly ensnared him.
“Please, I’ll give the money back,” pleaded Brubaker. “I just needed new equipment for my experiments.”
Wonder Woman’s glacial blue eyes drilled a hole through the sniveling professor. “So you used your invention to change the outcome of football games and you bet against the teams you tampered with.”
Across the room, Dee and Joe stared at the big mahogany box housing a twenty-five-inch CRT color screen on which Wonder Woman ran, jumped, flew, and lassoed. An empty Gino’s pizza box and several crumpled Coors beer cans littered the coffee table before them. On the carpeted floor between the coffee table and the Sylvania lay Tad, softly snoring, his belly full of cheesy pie crust and pepperoni.
“Another beer?” Joe asked Dee.
“Thanks, but no. I shouldn’t have had the second one,” she replied. “I can barely keep my eyes open as it is.”
Joe sunk a hand into his front pocket and pulled out a joint. He waved it about, in a tempting fashion. “I’ll bet you can’t say no to this. It’s Columbian.”
“A Columbian cigarette?” asked Dee, confused.
Joe laughed. “Grass, silly”
Dee shrugged, still not fully comprehending.
The blank stare on Dee’s face frustrated Joe.
“Marijuana!” he shouted.
“Oh!” said Dee, finally understanding “Thanks, but no. That could get me fired.”
“What are you, a cop or something?”
“No, but I do work for the city and they’re pretty strict about drugs.”
“It’s not like they’d ever find out. C’mon,” Joe urged.
“No, really, I can’t. Besides, I should get going.”
“Do you mind if I have some?” he asked. Before she could answer, he fished a Bic lighter from his pocket and lit up.
A deep-in-her bones, full-body yawn overtook Dee. She shook her head to wake herself. “I really need to go. I’ve got to get Tad into bed…which still needs to be made,” she sighed, then struggled to extricate herself from the overstuffed sofa. “Thanks for all your help today…and the pizza.”
“No problem,” said Joe, disappointed. He sucked in a long drag from the joint and swallowed the smoke. “If you can wait just a couple of minutes for me to hit the john, I’ll help you carry Tad down the stairs.”
Dee yawned again. “Okay, but please hurry, I don’t know how much longer I can stay awake.”
As Joe stumbled off to the bathroom, Dee wondered if he was too drunk to make it down the stairs, carrying Tad or not. But she told him she’d wait—after everything he’d done for her, she owed him that much, at least. She sat back down and let the sofa reclaim her tired body. The long day had finally caught up with her and drained her of every ounce of energy she had. She let her body sink deeper and deeper into the sofa’s soft velour cushions as her eyelids descended, slowly shutting out the light. The voices on the television began to fade away, growing more and more distant until all she heard was silence, a silence that beckoned her into the black abyss of sleep. She began to dream.
In her dream, she was floating in a vast sea of darkness. The only awareness she had of her body was the vague sense of weight settling onto her chest, and a warm wetness, like waves of foamy seawater lapping over her naked skin, then slowly receding. The dream offered her an unidentifiable pleasure that lulled her, like a gently rocking cradle, further into the abyss. A sound, long and low, vibrated within her core, a sound that gradually evolved into a resonant, almost imperceptible moan before it was shattered by an unexpected shriek—a shriek that jerked Dee from her dream, a shriek that was coming from her own mouth, a shriek triggered by the sharp, stinging pain she felt in her chest. Dee’s eyes were now wide open and staring down at the top of Joe’s shaggy head. The weight she’d so dreamily felt in her slumber was, in fact, Joe, on top of her, and the warm wetness, the sticky drool from his mouth on her exposed right nipple, a mouth that alternated between sucking and biting, sucking and…biting.
“Ow!” Dee shrieked.
Lost in inebriated lust, Joe couldn’t hear, see, or think of anything except the nipple in his mouth and the pounding of his cock. He pushed up the other side of her bra to free her left breast and shifted his slobbering mouth to it as he plunged his hand down between their two bodies to unzip Dee’s jeans.
“No!” cried Dee, as she pushed his mouth from her breast. “Tad!” she yelled, in an instant of panic. She looked frantically to the living room floor where, to her relief, he still lay sleeping.
“It’s okay; he’s asleep,” slurred Joe, who was now hard at work yanking down Deidre’s pants.
“It’s not okay!” cried Dee, who was equally hard at work pulling her pants back up.
Joe’s mouth again found Dee’s nipple and, again, Dee pushed him away.
Joe raised his head, eyes huge. “Your tits are so tiny, like two perfect little cherries! Look, I can fit the whole thing in my mouth—” and down went his head to demonstrate.
Get off!” Dee slapped him across the head, but to avail. She raised her hand to slap him a second time when the apartment door opened. A clean-cut, twenty-something who looked like a door-to-door Mormon missionary in his white dress shirt and clip-on tie, stood in the threshold, frozen.
“Oh, gosh, sorry!” he said.
Joe lifted his head at the sound of the voice. “Jesus, roomie, your timing sucks!” Turning back to Dee, “Say hi to Markie, my roommate.”
“I didn’t know you had company. I’m so sorry. I can come back later,” Markie said, fumbling for the doorknob, face red with embarrassment.
Dee gave Joe a mighty shove and pushed him off the couch, then jumped to her feet. “We were just leaving,” she bristled as she zipped up her pants, adjusted her bra, buttoned her blouse, and rushed over to Tad, all in one seamless motion.
“Don’t go!” whined Joe.
“No, really, I can come back later,” said Markie.
Dee swept Tad up into her arms, waking him.
“Inkwedubble Hulk!” he shouted, pointing at the TV.
Dee made for the door, where she and Markie did an awkward little dance before Dee finally pushed past him and made her escape down the stairwell.
With genuine contrition in his eyes, Markie called after the fleeing woman. “I’m really, really sorry!”