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At first Charlie didn't pay all that much attention to her. As any man at the bar will tell you, real hotties arrive in town about as often as real circuses, and stay about as long. They'll pass on this information with a shrug, and tell you with a pained smile that there's no use getting worked up over nothing. But the fifth or sixth time Charlie spotted her cruising down Main in her sporty, slightly dented convertible, blonde hair streaming in the wind, her oversize sunglasses lending her an air of intrigue, he thought this one might be an exception. He tailed her.

"Discreetly, of course. I parked across the street and gave her time to settle into the crowd at the art opening."

Then he pounced. She stood alone in front of a seascape, plastic cup of punch in hand, still wearing her shades. He guessed by her posture that she was an artist herself, that she found the painting tiresome and hackneyed, so he used the tiresome and hackneyed line as an opening gambit.

"She was right. The painting was tiresome and hackneyed. And close up, she was something else."

Half an hour later he knew her name, her sign, her favorite flavor of ice cream and current marital status. He wasn't sure if the blonde was all natural, and the color of her eyes remained a mystery, as well as how Janis the divorcee could squeeze into her designer jeans without generous gobs of lubricant. But his heart boom-boomed when she suggested she might need a lift home. Was something wrong with her car? Trouble starting? Did she want him to take a quick peek under her hood?

No, she'd just been drinking a lot of insipid punch and felt utterly, hopelessly, dangerously sober. She never drove in that condition, not even the half mile to her house. It made her way too nervous.

I watch a hummingbird slip its long bill into the orange bell of a penstemon, deft as a pickpocket. I recall a town in Mexico where the cops pull you over if you drive in a straight line. The roads are so riddled with potholes, the only sober motorists are those weaving madly to avoid them.

"When I pulled the convertible in at her place and she asked me up to see her organs," says Charlie, shifting his chair out of the direct sunlight, "I knew I was really getting somewhere."


Charlie assures me they were extremely well done, painted in what was amazing and probably anatomically accurate detail—hearts, kidneys, a pancreas, a gall bladder or two—all diseased. Much larger than life, they could've been portraits for a lecture at a medical school. Each organ somehow had its own personality, each had its unique pathology.

That's how Janis began talking about her ex mother-in-law. As she leaned forward to point out the fine brushstrokes on a suspicious-looking ovarian cyst, Charlie got a peek down her loose black sweater. What he glimpsed took his breath away.

Stinginess was genetic. It ran in her former husband's family. As his mother was wheeled into the operating room for what the doctors agreed was a slim hope, a desperate gamble against stacked odds to remove the cancer ravaging her womb, she gave her only son a final, tender glance.

"Be sure to clip the coupons in the Sunday paper," she wheezed as the gurney trundled through the swinging steel doors.

Like mother, like son. The only time in three years of marriage her parsimonious spouse assented to host a dinner party was after he smacked into a doe on the highway. Janis had to admit the road-kill barbecue was the highlight of a dull summer, though one neighbor did complain about the venison being stringy and another cut the inside of his mouth on a headlight shard. Good thing her husband was an attorney, or they might've gotten the pants sued off them.

The beer at the barbecue, by the way, was generic. Cans without labels. Cheap? Her ex-husband the big shot lawyer would already be dead instead of trying to screw her out of the red sports car if he weren't so cheap.

Janis never could figure out how she hooked up with him in the first place. Her taste ran more towards free souls, you know, drifters, bikers, sailors. Maybe because of the tattoos. Art and pain. He did have some freckles, which are sort of like natural tattoos. As in modern painting, freckles can be whatever you want them to be. It was just like her ex to buy the bargain rope at the hardware store.

Her rambling was beginning to make Charlie uneasy. Also her sunglasses, which gave her the look of a blind sibyl. And the rope. He asked about the rope.

For a couple bucks more, he could've had the real thing to kill himself. Of course, if he'd opted for a simple, straightforward hanging, the chintzy rope might've done the trick. Lawyers, though, have too much fine print and Latin embedded in the cerebral cortex to do anything the easy way. Her husband tied one end of the rope to a telephone pole, climbed into the convertible and strapped himself in securely with the seat belt and shoulder harness. Then he looped the noose end around his neck, fired up all two hundred horses in the engine, jammed the car into gear and slammed the accelerator to the floor.

The rope apparently snapped almost as soon as it began to tug Janis' ex towards Limbo. Her loser of a mate would have to be prepared to spend a small fortune on chiropractors, but other than a few misaligned vertebra, he was in miraculously good shape. The car, of course, which had come gently to rest against a privet hedge after he passed out, would need some body work.

That was the last straw for Janis. First the dings from the doe which he wouldn't fix because he couldn't bear to fork over the deductible, and now new dents and scratches from some hare-brain scheme that hadn't even worked.

One of Muhammed Ali's favorite tricks was to lean back against the ropes and let his opponent expend his energy pummeling him with useless punches. He called it playing "rope-a-dope." Charlie, who thought he finally had learned the score, who had lost interest in scoring, used a similar tactic with Janis. He let her talk till her throat was dry. The moment she disappeared into the kitchen, he scooted.

"It's what saved me," he says. "I mean, I could already feel sisal burning the skin under my shirt collar."

Another hummingbird drops by to purloin pollen. It hovers in the air a moment, drinking, then flits away with preposterous speed, about the same velocity at which Charlie would've fled, if he had wings, if he could beat them that fast.

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