“No musicians, no golfers,” he said, ticking these off on his fingers. “What’s left? Lion tamers? Accountants?”
I just looked at him, then put my foot on the gas. He had to jump out of the way to avoid my tire flattening his foot.
“Wait,” he said, putting his hand on my open window, “in all seriousness. Can you give me a ride?” I must have looked skeptical, because he added quickly, “We have a band meeting in fifteen minutes. And we instituted this new policy, so the repercussions for being late are brutal. Seriously.”
“I’m late too,” I said, which was a lie, but I wasn’t a freaking taxi service.
“Please.” He squatted down, so we were eye to eye. Then he lifted up his other hand, exposing a grease-stained bag from Double Burger. “I’ll share my fries with you.”
“No thanks,” I said, hitting the button to put up my window. “Besides, I have a no-food policy in my car. Repercussions are brutal.”
He smiled at this, stopping the window with his hand. “I’ll behave,” he said. “I promise.” And then, he started around the front of the car, as if I had said yes, grabbing the picture off my windshield and tucking it into his back pocket. The next thing I knew he was sliding in beside me, settling into the seat, the door swinging shut behind him.
What was it about this guy? Resistance was futile. Or maybe I was just too tired and hot to pursue another argument.
“One ride,” I told him in my stern voice. “That’s it. And if you get even a speck of food in this car you’re out. And I won’t slow down to do it, either.”
“Oh, please,” he said, reaching for his seat belt, “you don’t have to coddle me, really. Be blunt. Don’t hold back.”
I ignored this as I pulled out of the shopping center and onto the road. We weren’t half a block when I caught him sneaking a French fry. He thought he was being slick, cupping it in his hand and faking a yawn, but I was a pro at this. Lissa was always testing my limits.
“What did I say about food?” I said, hitting the brake for a red light.
“I’m hmphrgy,” he mumbled, then swallowed. “I’m hungry,” he repeated.
“I don’t care. No food in the car, period. I’m trying to keep it nice.”
He turned around, glancing at the backseat, then at the dashboard and floor mats. “Nice?” he said. “This thing is like a museum. It still smells new.”
“Exactly,” I said as the light changed.
“Take this left here.” He pointed, and I changed lanes, glancing behind me. “I bet you’re a real control freak.”
“You are, I can tell.” He ran a finger across the dash, then glanced at it. “No dust,” he reported. “And you’ve cleaned this windshield from the inside, haven’t you?”
“Hah!” he hooted. “I bet it would drive you crazy if something was out of place.”
“Wrong,” I told him.
“Let’s see.” He reached into the bag, carefully withdrawing a French fry. It was long and rubbery looking, bending as he held it between two fingers. “In the interest of science,” he said, waving it at me, “a little experiment.”
“No food in the car,” I repeated, like a mantra. God, how far away was his house? We were back over near the hotel where we’d had the reception, so it had to be close.
“Left here,” he said, and I hooked us onto the street, scaring a couple of squirrels into the trees. When I next glanced over at him, his hands were empty and the French fry, now straightened, was lying on the gearshift console. “Now, don’t panic,” he said, putting his hand on my arm. “Breathe. And just appreciate, for a minute, the freedom in this chaos.”
I moved my arm out from under his hand. “Which house is yours?”
“It’s not messy at all, see? It’s beautiful. It’s nature in all its simplicity…”
Then I saw it: the white van, parked crookedly in the front yard of a little yellow house about a hundred feet up. The porch light was on, even though it was broad daylight, and I could see the redheaded drummer, Ringo, coffee shop employee, sitting on the front steps with a dog beside him. He was reading a newspaper; the dog was just panting, its tongue out.
“… the natural state of things, which is, in fact, utter imperfection,” he finished as we jerked into the driveway, spraying gravel. The French fry slid off the console, leaving a grease trail like a slug, and landed in my lap. “Whoops,” he said, grabbing it. “Now, see? That was a first, good step in conquering-”
I looked at him, then moved my hand, hitting the automatic lock: click, and the button on his door shot up.
“-your problem,” he finished. He opened the door and got out, taking his bag o’ grease with him. Then he bent down, poking his head back in quickly, so that we were almost face-to-face. “Thanks for the ride. Really.”
“Sure,” I said. He didn’t move for a second, which threw me off: just us, there together, eye to eye. Then he blinked and pulled away, ducking out of the car and shutting the door. I watched as the dog on the porch suddenly got up and made its way down the steps, tail wagging wildly, when it saw Dexter coming. Meanwhile, I was noticing that my car now stank of grease, another bonus. I put down the window, hoping the air freshener hanging from my rearview was up to the job.
“Finally,” the drummer said, folding his newspaper. I put the car in reverse, then made sure Dexter’s back was still turned before brushing my finger over the gearshift console, checking for grease. My dirty little secret.
“It’s not six yet,” Dexter said, reaching down to pet the dog, who was now circling him, tail thwacking against the back of his legs. He had a white muzzle and moved kind of creakily, in that old-dog way.
“Yeah, but I don’t have my key,” the drummer said, standing up.
“Neither do I,” Dexter told him. I started to back out then had to stop to let a bunch of cars pass. “What about the back door?”
“Locked. Plus you know Ted moved that bookcase in front of it last night.”
Dexter stuck his hands in his pockets, pulling them out. Nothing. “Well, I guess we just have to break a window.”
“What?” the drummer said.
“Don’t panic,” Dexter said in that offhand way I already recognized. “We’ll pick a small one. Then you can wriggle through it.”