He noticed how she watched him circle the plaza fountain. Her head tilted slightly skyward, as if she wanted him to think that she didn’t notice him at all. But he was aware of her glances. She took a drink when she looked. She peeked past the curve of her soda bottle.
He circled twice, hesitating when he was on her side of the fountain to bring the stub of a cigarette to his lips, his head raised over chattering students on their way to class. Smoke drifted from his mouth as he peered dumbly at the names stamped on distant buildings. He shook his head then circled the fountain again, patting the pockets of his jean jacket. A green messenger bag hung off his shoulder.
She watched breathlessly the third time he circled toward her, when he was holding it out in front of himself. She leaned forward on her bench to look, forgetting to be inconspicuous because he’d been swallowed into a crowd. He stepped clumsily in front of bicycles and edged between groups of women in conversation. Then he bent suddenly over to look at it and was obscured by bodies. It was a ring, he lifted it in the sunlight when he knew she was watching, a wedding band that held some foreign inscription, maybe, but looked familiar to anyone, in the thickness of the metal, in the way the silver glinted in the light.
He made his way to her then and grinned pathetically, searching the faces of others before picking her out—her, of course, because it couldn’t have happened any other way. She looked stunned when he smiled at her. She was braless under a sundress, hair hanging untied to her shoulders. The ring was between his fingers but he slid it into his jeans before speaking. Her eyes followed somewhat desperately as the band disappeared into his fob pocket.
“Excuse me,” he said. He pulled a digital camera from his messenger bag. “Do you mind if I take your picture?”
This is how it happened with Jessica Harding.
He told her to call him Aaron.
The sports bar waitress was named Kim Boettcher. She was a blonde and had a soft round stomach she liked to show off. She wore her jeans low on her hips. Aaron met her outside a grocery store, where her bank was. They were parked next to each other and she rapped on his window to complain after he took her photo. She was still wearing the apron she kept her tips in at work.
“You can’t do that,” Kim told him. She wanted to be a broadcast journalist and enlightened him on consent laws. Aaron was happy to listen.
She lived with a couple friends in a south Omaha duplex. It was a single-story house with four garage doors on the street side. Her room was in the back, with a washer and dryer in the closet. Aaron slept there for three days.
Kim lay face down while he massaged her with baby oil every morning, her eyes closed. When he put his weight on her body, Aaron could smell fryer grease in the sheets.
Lorna Chaplin flashed her cleavage over the orange formica counter when she rang up his total. Aaron was buying a microwavable Rueben and a Diet Pepsi. She worked at a filling station near the interstate in Ralston and had blond hair with dark freckles around her neck. She wore low rise stonewashed jeans without a belt. When Aaron looked at her midriff he noticed a thick pink scar across her navel. She said, “My eyes are up here.”
He came back the next night to ask her out to the burger and gyro place down the road.
She lived in a small white house not far from the filling station. It had been her parents’ house, the place she grew up in. All of the old furnishings were still there, worn sofas, porcelain knickknacks on the wall. There were small wooden cups that Lorna’s father made in his basement workshop when he was still alive. Her eyes pinched nearly closed when she smiled. It was a nice smile, one that made Aaron think that she’d been very pretty when she was in high school.
Aaron liked talking to Lorna about her life. He laughed at the way she spoke when nostalgic and teary, muttering “son of a bitch” through dry nicotine lips as something sad emerged from her memory.
She told him how most of her life was documented in the public record, in court cases and various judgments levied against her, in smarmy newspaper articles. There was a string of charges that ended with a conviction for transporting a minor across state lines—a fifteen-year-old boy listed in the record as N.S. And that’s what she called the boy too, when she told Aaron about it, even though N.S. would be close to thirty by then, a man off living somewhere, with a family probably. “I was pregnant by him when they picked us up,” Lorna admitted. “But I don’t have children of my own.”
Betsy Updike ran away across a parking lot when Aaron took her picture, holding her hands in front of her face. She was heavy and short and stomped when she ran. She wore horn-rimmed glasses. Aaron chased after to tell her he meant no harm. This was outside the Von Maur. It was a cold, breezy day.
“I love your hair,” he said. “That’s why I was shooting a photo of you.”
Betsy wore a green cardigan and had black hair that washed over her shoulders. She showed her teeth when she smiled.
When they got back to her house, Aaron brushed her hair and they watched movies she’d recorded on a cassette. He liked sitting behind her on the couch, his legs wrapped around hers, smelling the fruit of her shampoo. Betsy was a sweet girl. She was so eager to be loved that she nearly knocked Aaron over when they hugged.
He introduced himself to Carrie Rehbein at a karaoke bar by the freeway. She was from Ashland and had come to Omaha that day to go shopping with her sisters. She had green eyes and red hair, wore a tight yellow tee shirt under her coat and two small gold necklaces around her neck. Her engagement had been broken off the month before, just after Thanksgiving.
It was obvious that her sisters were the ones who really wanted Carrie to go home with Aaron. All of them drank tumblers of white wine.
The sisters sang raunchy lyrics they’d improvised until the DJ refused to let them go on again. They got Carrie too drunk to drive home and made Aaron promise he’d take care of her.
Carrie was nervous to be alone with him, once they were in his car. She turned and looked out the window, watching for her sisters as he drove her away.
The girl said, “My name’s Emily.”
She didn’t mind that Aaron hung his messenger bag on the stool next to her. In fact, she leaned over and talked to him while he did it, flashing the freckles of her chest. This was in a small town called Jackson.
Aaron fixed his eyes on different parts of her face while they drank. He was intense in this way. She tried turning away, but she couldn’t stop looking at him while he was looking at her, while he was smiling. It made Emily visibly nervous, half-smiling herself, her eyes swelling. His hand latched to her thigh and she let it stay there. He understood how these things worked.
“You know,” he said, “you’re kind of a pretty girl.”
“I doubt that,” she said, blushing.
“Would it be too much to take a photograph?”
“What do you mean? You and me take a picture together?”
“Of course,” Aaron said. He fingered the strap on his shoulder, ready to pull out his camera and snap a shot of her.
“You can’t take it here,” she objected. “Who in the world would want to be remembered like this?”
“Okay,” he said, slouching back into the stool. “But we’ll snap one later. Promise me that.”
“Sure,” she said, and then she laughed to herself. “We’ll drink a few Long Islands and then take some portraits for the Christmas card.”
She would apologize for saying this later, because all the other people in the bar laughed long and hard at how she’d put him down. She was sorry for it, even though he never quit smiling at her the whole time. He never let on if he was mad.
They were driving on the brick roads around town when she apologized. They circled the town square and the Jackson County Courthouse, its moss-covered spires. There was a slumping old lumber yard, stacks of boards and plywood housed in open, side-less buildings enclosed by chain-link fence. There were shops for farm goods, for implements, for rock candy and candles, for baby clothes. At the edge of town was a towering Co-Op silo, plaster white and ominous.
She suggested they stop.
“I live around here,” she said, and they went inside.
Aaron met Tamara Jones outside a liquor store in Omaha. It was just a come on. She walked out and Aaron took her picture. That’s how it started.
She kept a room in a boarding house and that’s where they went to drink. They had some beers and screwed. It wasn’t anything special.
Tamara sang along with the albums she played the whole time he was there. She only ever stood up to use the bathroom at the end of the hall, or to flip a record. She wailed disconsolate incantations, tilted at different keys, half-notes, trying to exorcise the slow undulations of her blues.
It really bothered Aaron the way she did it. Tamara Jones laid naked on her bed, swilling, singing, falling asleep.
Elisabeth Hindmarsh lived on the second floor of a partitioned Victorian in Lincoln. There was an inside stairway to get to her door. Aaron just walked in off the street but she didn’t care. It was after a party and he was going to help her finish the gin.
It was a tiny place, a living room, a kitchenette, a bathroom with black and white checker-board tile. Red paper lanterns hung on wires sheathed in cloth insulators. Elisabeth was thick-bodied, athletic, and her hair was dyed a bluish shade of black. She wore a dress over jeans to hide her porcine legs. Aaron was dressed like Charles Starkweather, a plain tee shirt tight over his weakling chest, blue jeans fitting loose on his skinny hips. He hoped his wispy blond mustache and brown felt hat made him look like the singer of a band.
Elisabeth was in the bathroom, peeing in that start and stop way people do when they don’t want to be heard, but Aaron talked to her from the adjacent room anyway, reciting the records in her collection that he approved of. She laughed at him when she returned.
“You know I wasn’t standing behind you anymore.”
Aaron was good at being laughed at, it didn’t bother him.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
It felt safe there, warm in a boozy way.
“Would you dance with me?” he asked, stepping into her space.
The LP was a live recording of Piaf. It was warped and scratchy, and Elisabeth blushed when it started playing. She was surprised that he’d picked her favorite.
Theodore Wheeler is an author living in Nebraska. His fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Best New American Voices, The Kenyon Review, Boulevard, as prize-winner of their Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, The Cincinnati Review, as winner of their Schiff Prize in Prose, Flatmancrooked and fugue, among others. He is a Senior Fiction Reader for Prairie Schooner.