93 Punch Line

It was reprise of the previous Sunday afternoon. Bert was having a deja-vu moment as he led a flagging Pocano up the POPS drive – it was only for the third time in a row in his afternoon charade – and saw Gina’s car near the front door. This time, the pile of stuff was exiting, not entering her car, and was in the process of being handed, in bucket brigade fashion hand over hand, in through the wedged open front door.Chapter 93 Punch Line

“Ah, look, it’s Mr. Steinhardt, right on time for a canine cooking class.” Gina was already in form.

“Hello, girls. Gina.” Bert approached her with one of his best dog combos. “So, what do you get when you cross a Bloodhound with a Labrador?”

“OK, Bert. What do you get?”

“A Blabador.” This didn’t sound so good as it looked in print. He could see her thinking, amongst other things.

“This would be a dog -wait, wait, I’ll get it – that talks too much?”

“Hey, you’re quick! Got one for me?”

“Mr. Steinhardt?” Poppy piped in. “How do bees get to school?”

“I give up.”

“They take the buzz.” Poppy was triumphant.

“My turn.” Pansy, not to be left out, had one too. “What do you do if you break all of the little piggies on your foot?”

“Tell me.”

“You call a toe truck!”

“Runs in the family, I see.” Bert addressed them all.

“I’m training them.” Gina flashed a grin. “My turn. Two hydrogen atoms meet, and one says, ‘I’ve lost my electron!’ The other one asks, ‘Are you sure?’ And the first one says…?”

Mrs. James emerged, inventory foremost in her mind, from the lobby, “I’m positive that…”

“Yes! That’s it! Well done, Mrs James.” Gina exclaimed, while everyone else was simply bewildered.

“I was going to say,” Mrs. James continued, “that I was sure that I’d seen only one backpack taken inside. Good, here’s the other one. There’s homework this weekend, remember?” The girls harbored a hope that she hadn’t known. They didn’t comprehend this new vigilance in their collective of caregivers.

“If that’s everything out of the car, then, I’ll be off.  Poppy, Pansy, enjoyed your concert. You were fantastic. It was all great. Can’t wait ’til the next one.” Gina hugged them, and turned to go. “Nice to see you again, Bert.”

“Wait, please. Could I have yours again, your joke, one more time?” Bert, floundering, wasn’t accustomed to the rapid pace of child-timed turnovers. Mrs. James had already ushered her charges indoors. Bert, Pocano, and Gina owned the drive, temporarily. Gina paused, attentively. “Unless,” Bert plunged, “you’d like to share some of your best jokes in a slightly more adult setting, over a few drinks?”

“How about without dogs, as well?” Gina had never seen Bert without his dog attached. Some guys were like that. She was skeptical of them.

“Oh, of course. Just taking Pocano upstairs.” For this self-serving abandonment, Bert received a baleful glance from his faithful but badly used companion, who would undoubtedly revisit this infraction at a later date. “Let’s go in my car.” he suggested. “I’ve got an extra parking space downstairs. If you’d like to pull around the ramp, I’ll let you in the garage.”

“When is a car no longer a car?”

For a split second, Bert thought she was serious. He would have to keep on his toes to be able to tell the difference. Toe truck, ha!

“Um…”

“When it turns into a driveway. Sorry, it’s the one we always tell, when we arrive here.” She pulled into his extra space.

“Glad to hear that our building is such a source of amusement. Makes a change for us these days. If you could just wait for me in the lobby, I’ll be right back.”

Many larger associations offer a dedicated, decorated lobby, with seating for residents and their guests.

Many larger associations offer a dedicated, decorated lobby, with seating for residents and their guests.

“Depending on the elevator.”

“Oh that, yes. There are a few novels on a shelf there, if it gets long.” The POPS had one of those communal bookshelves where residents left books they had read, to share theirs, and in turn, to pick up others’ discards. Gina’s department at work had one of these little collections, too, but it mostly housed police procedurals, true crime, and murder mystery. Conversation in the break room often turned on the glaring inaccuracies in these books, as noted by the scoffing experts of the force. Not quite sure what she’d just let herself in for, she reasoned that, as they had been introduced by Mrs. James, how bad could Bert be? Gina left a message for Georgia, explaining where and with whom she’d been waylaid, then turned for a quick browse; she had ample time.

“It’s a bit early to drink. Take a spin, first?” Bert proposed. He had returned, a little more formally dressed, and they were exiting the drive in his black BMW.

“That sounds nice but you don’t ever have to wait for me to have a drink. It must be five o’clock someplace, I always say.” Bert hopped on the ramp to Hwy. 41 and headed north-west. It was the route to Asphodel Meadows, not that he intended to take her there, not yet. As far as he knew she knew, he was just some schlub with a big dog, who lived somewhere in the building. He wanted to take the drive to see how he felt about being that, a man without a reputation, without wealth, and how she might respond to just him.  Anyway, there were some decent places up that way, for drinks, and for supper, if things went well. As he drove out into Washington County, he was surprised to see Gina relax back into the seat.

“I can tell a competent driver when I see one.” Gina offered into the quiet of the space. “And your lovely car is purring, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just take in the ride. Don’t often get a run this far out of town.” She simply watched out the windows, radiating contentment.

Bert reflected that here was this stranger, no longer intangible, worth knowing, and so tantalizing, quite suddenly in his life, although a mostly unknown and unexamined stranger, with some flimsy, or unstated, perhaps even ultimately unfortunate, connection with which he’d later have to contend. He found himself asking what he might discover about himself too, a subject effectively proven uninteresting and a closed book to him for as long as he could remember, now as intriguing to him as what he’d find out about her official source.

The only self-examination he’d attempted of late was his own interpretation of recent events in the building, and his own retiring role in them. Out here, heading north by northwest, that all seemed so exquisitely far away. He’d certainly given his daughter a complete pass, for any responsibility for any of that nastiness. For himself, he understood finally, he’d done the expedient thing. Would it be the same with Gina? Would he do an expedient thing, even aware of the attraction he was so palpably feeling, even in this moment, as she rode beside him. Perhaps her diffidence and his expediency would prove excellent companions.

He pulled into the lot of a favored supper club; she came back to life.

“Is this a live music place?”

“I believe so, but I think we’re a bit early. It should be pretty quiet in there.”

“Good. It’s hard to hear jokes over a live band.”

“I guess I’ve never tried but I see what you mean. You’d be having to shout out punch lines. Embarrassing when the music stops.”