With gentle hands, Leslie Scott clutched the arms of Howard Pike's big leather chair. Pike was late, and welling tears revealed Leslie's gloom, blue and red neon pulsating through the open window as she imagined footsteps at the door. She longed for Howard's contagious smile and booming voice but knew in her heart he wasn't going to show. She continued to wait anyway.
Snow was falling in sooty clumps on the sidewalk when Leslie remembered brave little Billy, waiting alone for his mother to return home and cook supper. Having no more time for tears, she grabbed her coat and started for the door just as Howard's phone rang. Leslie answered in a rush.
"Pike and Scull."
"Leslie. Why are you working so late?"
"Carla, is that you?"
"Yes, dear is Howard there?"
"Gone for the day."
"That rat. I wanted to remind him about the party tonight."
"Sorry, Carla. I'm the only one here."
"Poor dear, why don't you turn off your computer and come to the party?"
"Oh, I really couldn't."
"Sure you can. Bern is here and Howard will show up before the night is over. You know how lively things get when those two party together. "Anyway, there's someone here I'd like you to meet."
"I don't have a sitter."
"Find one, Darling." Carla hung up the phone.
Leslie stared at the dead receiver. Maybe Mildred, the janitor's wife, would watch Billy for her. After finding Mildred alone in her one-room basement hovel, she gave the slovenly old woman half of her remaining weekly wages to sit with Billy. Forcing the guilt from her mind, she changed into her best blue party dress as Billy finished the half-cold hamburger purchased on her way home.
No buses traversed the Scull's fashionable neighborhood, so Leslie took a cab she could little afford. Waiting on the front porch, shawl pulled tightly around her neck, she listened as
violins created a beautiful melody, just beyond the door, feeling very much like an uninvited intruder. Blocking the entrance as if she were, the maid frowned when she opened the door.
"May I help you?"
"I'm Leslie Scott. The Scull's invited me."
"May I see your invitation?"
A woman in a thin party dress tapped the maid's shoulder, then stood shivering, her arms hugged tightly to her chest. "Leslie's my special guest, Margaret." Margaret nodded and disappeared into the house. "Leslie," she said, touching the younger woman's shoulder. "Come in. Don't mind Margaret."
Instantly immersed in the noisy party going on around her, Leslie followed her into the house. Carla hurried through the crowd, grabbing champagne for herself and Leslie from a passing waiter.
"I simply must discuss something with you, Les," she said, leading her to an upstairs bedroom.
Leslie asked, "Have you seen Howard?"
Lighting a cigarette, Carla only stared. Leslie noticed her faded green eyes, strangely incongruous with her short-cropped, bleached hair, but somehow complementary to her anorexic figure and pale complexion. Raising her chin, she blew a wisp of smoke toward the ceiling.
"You look lovely Leslie, but you really should do something about your wardrobe. Baby blue isn't your color."
Leslie ignored her remark. "Your party's lovely, Carla. What did you want to talk to me about?"
Still staring, Carla said, "You should see my hairdresser. You're lovely, but there's so much he could add."
Leslie felt uneasy, forehead flushing and a red flush spreading down her face as Carla eyed her like a butcher sizing up a cut of beef. Carla finally asked, "Are you warm, Dear?"
"Maybe, but your tits just turned the color of a boiled lobster."
Leslie put her hand over her plunging neckline, smiling weakly when she realized Carla's joke. Carla continued, unabashed, to stare, finally turning, puffing the cigarette as she gazed listlessly out the window.
"There's someone I want you to meet," Carla said.
"My brother Joe. He's young and has a law degree. Most important, he's single."
Carla glanced around for an ashtray. Finding none, she deposited the butt into a vase and sat her empty champagne glass carelessly on the dresser. Grabbing Leslie's hand, she led her from the door. At the base of the stairs, they found Carla's husband Bern with an attractive middle-aged blonde woman. Leslie saw him touch the woman's leg, but Carla didn't. Pinching her smiling confidante before strutting away, the woman left Bern to peck Carla's cheek and plant a much too friendly kiss on Leslie.
Carla asked, "Who was she?"
Bern motioned a waiter for another drink. "Richard's - our banker's - wife."
Without commenting further on her husband's overly friendly companion, Carla also grabbed a fresh drink and asked, "Have you seen Joe?"
Bern pointed to the far wall. "Mr. Holier-than-thou is standing by himself in the corner."
"Come, Leslie," Carla ordered, dismissing her errant husband without another word.
As Leslie edged passed Bern on the stairs, he blatantly stroked her backside, causing her neck to flush. Pretending not to notice, she hurried after Carla.
"Joe, Darling," Carla said, embracing her younger brother. "Why aren't you mingling?"
With a shrug, the young man said, "Not my style, Carly."
Carla gave him the same visual once-over Leslie had received in the bedroom. Leslie sipped her champagne to avoid his embarrassing stare when the man's eyes caught hers.
"-- this is Leslie." Hearing the last part of Carla's sentence, she smiled, realizing she was being introduced. "Leslie, this is my handsome brother Joe."
Joe shook Leslie's hand, holding it a moment too long. Self-consciously, she pulled it away a bit too fast.
Carla edged away into the crowd. "Can you entertain this pretty-young-thing while I hobnob with the other guests?"
"My pleasure," Joe said.
Leslie glanced around the crowded room.
Joe asked, "Looking for someone?"
"Just seeing who's here."
"How do you know Carla?"
"Bern's my boss - and his partner Howard. You know Howard?"
"Is he here?"
"Haven't seen him, but I haven't done much mingling."
Again, Leslie glanced around the room, this time seeing Howard and his wife Cynthia enter the party through the front door. Margaret took their coats and they disappeared into another part of the house.
"If you'll excuse, me I have to go to the bathroom," Leslie said, barely glancing at Joe as she departed to find Howard.
Joe waited alone for ten minutes before abandoning his drink on a coffee table and starting after her. Halfway through the crowded room, he bumped into Howard Pike's wife Cynthia.
Cynthia draped her slender arms around his neck and said, "You weren't trying to avoid me were you, Joe?"
Unwinding her arms, Joe pushed her gently but firmly away. "How are you, Cyn?"
"Much better." Hiccupping, she grinned foolishly, hand at her mouth.
"I'm looking for someone," he said, moving away.
"Wait," she said, grabbing his elbow. "Another drink?"
Cynthia had already had more than one, but Joe asked, "What are you drinking?"
"You know what I drink."
With a drunken attempt at seduction, she kissed her fingers and touched them to his lips. Joe grabbed the wobbly woman's shoulders, maneuvering her against the wall for support. Then, shaking his head, he looked around for the nearest bartender.
"You all right, Cyn?"
Cynthia nodded, eyelids drooping. After patting her cheek, he started to the bar. When he handed Cynthia the fresh drink, she greedily savored it, the half swallow of straight scotch reviving her. When she answered, her words were slurred.
"Who are you looking for?"
"One of your wonderful husband's employee's."
Confused, Joe's eyes narrowed inquisitively and he asked,
"How did you know?"
"Wives know. Besides, she found us when we got here, wanting to discuss company business with Howard."
"Funny business is more like it." Draining her scotch, she pleaded, "One more, Joe?"
Again, Joe took Cynthia's glass, her words playing through his mind as he returned to the bar to refresh her drink.
When he returned, he asked, "Where did they go?"
"Probably to the nearest toilet with a lock on the door."
Grinning impishly, Cynthia explained. "That's where he made love to me the first time - at a New Year's party, both of us butt-naked on a toilet seat."
"You're incorrigible, Cyn."
"Maybe," she said, putting her arm around his waist and hugging him to her delicate breasts. "It was fun. Let's find a bathroom so I can relive old memories."
"Why don't you just browse through some photo albums," he said, backing away.
"The photos I'd like to see are in your apartment."
Joe winked and started through the crowd as Cynthia finished her drink and wobbled to the bar for another. True to Cynthia's prediction, Howard and Leslie had found a secluded upstairs bathroom. Leslie sat on the toilet stool, skirt hiked to her thighs and pantyhose rolled down around her ankles. Her unbuttoned blouse revealed an ample expanse of bosom radiating an embarrassed shade of pink. Howard stood primping in front of the mirror.
"Please come home with me, Howard."
"Can't," he said his voice booming and distinctive. "I have business."
Leslie watched him comb his hair and preen his mustache with his little finger. "You haven't seen Billy in a week."
"Busy, busy," he said, turning around. "Besides, we've already made love."
Averting her gaze, Leslie stared sullenly at the tile floor. "When are you going to tell Cynthia about us?"
Caressing her bare breast, Howard bent forward and kissed her full on the mouth.
Howard patted her head like a pet dog and opened the bathroom door.
Without bothering to close the door, Howard hurried away. Leslie shut and locked the door, then stumbled to the mirror. Hair a mess and dress torn and mauled, she began to cry.
Joe searched the party for Leslie with no success, soon completing the loop and finding the intoxicated Cynthia propped against the same wall where he had left her. Spotting him, she held up her empty drink glass.
"Please, daddy. One more."
Nodding, Joe returned with a fresh scotch for her and a tall bourbon for himself. With one hand on his shoulder for support, she tapped his glass and choked down everything but the ice.
"Drinking away your troubles, Darling?"
Joe glanced over his shoulder as Carla Scull approached through the crowded room.
Cynthia said, "You don't have enough booze for that."
"Someone knocking my booze?" Bern Scull said, appearing through the crowd behind Carla. From his wobbly gait, Bern was also suffering from alcoholic indulgence.
"Bern, baby," Cynthia said. "I wondered where you were."
Bern laughed, stumbled to Cynthia's side and grabbed her by the waist. Both leaned against the wall for support.
Carla ignored their obvious groping and asked, "Where is Leslie."
"The bathroom," Joe said.
"There she is," Bern said, pulling away from Cynthia and pointing.
Joe saw her, moving aimlessly through the crowded room.
"Leslie, over here."
In a haze, Leslie drifted toward them without a smile, or look of recognition.
"Leslie," he said, taking her hand.
Suddenly smiling at everyone as if in a trance Leslie looked at Joe and asked, "Can I have a sip of your drink?"
Joe handed her the drink laced with extra ice and she thrust it to her lips with both hands.
Bern, again, pulled Cynthia toward him, asking, "Where's that no good partner of mine?"
"Haven't seen him," she said, numbly.
"He left the party with Jim O'Brien and his long-legged, puff-brained secretary,” Carla answered.
Leslie's body stiffened. Her hands trembled and she dropped the glass. It exploded into flying ice and shards of crystal against the hardwood floor. Leslie sank to her knees to pick up the mess but Joe touched her shoulders and held her.
"No harm," Bern said, waving across the room for Margaret. "Let’s go to the living room."
Without waiting, Carla, Bern, and Cynthia walked away. Joe helped Leslie to her feet.
"Don't worry," he said. "Carla will never miss it."
"I have to make a phone call."
Joe pointed, through the crowd, at a closed door. "There's a phone in the den. I'll show you."
After leading Leslie to the empty den, Joe switched on the lamp beside the couch and handed her the phone. When no one answered, she put her finger on the button and dialed another number.
"Calling for a taxi?"
Taking the receiver from her, Joe said, "My car is outside. I'll take you home."
Remembering she'd spent her last five dollars getting to the party, Leslie accepted his offer but remained passively silent during their icy trip to her apartment. Joe walked her to the door, watching her shiver as she fished in her purse for the keys. After opening the door a crack, she took his hand.
"Thank you," she said.
Slipping inside, Leslie shut the door behind her, leaving Joe to briefly stare at the peeling paint before starting back down the icy sidewalk. Before he reached the car, raspy hinges creaked behind him and the door opened once again. Leslie called to him, as if in shock.
"Wait. I need your help."
Disturbed by Leslie's voice, Joe returned up the walk and followed her into the squalid, cold-water flat, watching as she shook an incognizant old woman, lying on the couch.
Leslie demanded, "Where is Billy?"
After snorting loudly and rolling over, the old woman covered her head with her arm and dropped an empty bottle to the floor. It dribbled whiskey on the threadbare rug. Leslie's impassioned question went unanswered and she glanced up at Joe, tears forming in her eyes.
Hurrying back outside, Joe searched the shadow-cloaked sidewalk which was faintly illuminated by the feeble light of the porch lamp. "I see some footprints in the snow."
Pushing past him, Leslie ran through the ankle-deep mire,
still wearing her baby-blue party dress. Joe stalked the tiny footprints by the light of the full moon. Before reaching the surrounding chain-link fence, the flat ground around the apartment sloped suddenly downward. There they found Billy, foot caught beneath the wire. After releasing his foot, Leslie hugged him to her breast.
"Mommy," he said weakly. "I slid down the hill."
Draping his coat around the boy, Joe helped them back up the slope. Returning to the warmth of Leslie's apartment, they got Billy out of his wet clothes, dried him off and warmed him up, and soon learned he was more frightened than hurt.
Leslie knelt beside his bed, holding his hand, and asked, "Why did you go outside?"
"I saw a white rabbit through the window and chased him."
Granting them a moment of privacy, Joe vacated the bedroom and woke Mildred, still asleep on the couch. After ushering her out the front door, he poured a glass of water from the rusty kitchen tap as the ripple of soft fabric behind him interrupted his thoughts. It was Leslie, watching him from the bedroom doorway.
He asked, "Billy all right?"
Leslie started to answer but hesitated. Hearing the metallic rattle of keys in the lock, she wheeled around with startled disbelief. As Howard Pike opened the door and entered, eyes unfocused and dilated, she smiled weakly and her lower lip began to tremble.
Unmindful of Joe's presence, Pike removed his overcoat and went to Leslie, drifting forward in a drunken, exaggerated gait. Twirling her once in the air, he let her slide slowly through his arms to the floor. Joe waited for Leslie's negative reaction. Instead, her trembling lip magnified her smile. Enraptured by Pike's sudden appearance, she wrapped her willowy arms around his ruddy neck.
Feeling suddenly like an unwelcome voyeur as painful reality encompassed his soul, he watched Leslie unbutton Pike's shirt and cover his bare chest with passionate kisses. Opening the front door he stepped out into the cold then turned for one last look before plodding away through the snow.
Bathed in dim light filtering from the single remaining bare bulb in a corroded light fixture on the ceiling, Leslie's brown eyes registered some indeterminate emotion far beyond Joe's ability to fathom.
Blinking away his confusion, he backed slowly away and shut the door behind him. Two steps from the door he began whistling a broken tune. Without looking back he trudged through the snow to his car and drove away.