Empty Chair, Full Heart

Minnie bit into a sugar cookie. Her guests chatted around her dining room table. Five of her dining chairs sat occupied. When had that happened last? A fine warmth radiated from these folks. Minnie closed her eyes and smiled. She opened them. The end chair sat vacant. Three months now. As of yesterday. She set the remainder of the cookie onto her plate and wiped her lips with her napkin.

Her sister, Barbara and her brother-in-law Wilmer spoke to their daughter and Minnie’s niece, Jennifer, about what she needed to look for in a new house. Jennifer had finally saved up the money to get a loan all on her own. At thirty with two children and no husband or father in the picture, she hadn’t made the best choices. However, she’d earned her nursing degree and worked long enough that she had some money and could get out of her crumby apartment. Not that there’s anything wrong with an apartment. Some great men work hard so their wives can live in a nice apartment. Jennifer’s was just run down. The other guest present sat there peering at the China cabinet. Sy-Jennifer’s boyfriend.

Sy smiled at Minnie and had used no cuss words so far. He wore a turtle-neck sweater and kakis. According to Jennifer, Sy worked as a bank teller and looked to be manager. He looked like he stepped out of GQ. Barbara and Wilmer loved him. Wilmer had played golf with Sy’s Dad and uncle for years. “Good fellows” he called them. Minnie had no reason to not like him…except for that.

Sy’s eyes drifted around the room toward the china cabinet and then to Minnie and then quickly away. That’s the third time. This guy would snatch something from here before the night ended. Her Moe would have known it, too.

Minnie said, “Well, let’s move to the living room. What do you say?”

The others nodded and started to stand.

Jennifer said, “Oh, Aunt Minnie.”

Minnie smiled. “Yes, dear?”

“Well,” Jennifer said. “I hoped you would…um…show Sy here…around your apartment?”

Minnie bit her lip. Barbara and Wilmer smiled toward her. Jennifer watched her. Sy looked at the china cabinet. And then he looked away.

Minnie said, “Y-yes. Yes. Of course. What am I thinking? Young man, you come right with me.”

Minnie walked to the kitchen entrance. Sy coughed behind her. She turned back to Sy. He smiled. She stepped around him. Barbara and Wilmer resumed the house discussion with Jennifer. They were in their own world without Sy. They could have fit into a snow globe. Sy could have fit into a prison cell. She sighed and turned. “Follow me.”

Minnie showed Sy her living room. He smiled the whole time. The TV and the Blu Ray player and the laptop and the little robot vacuum cleaner. Sure, add up all the potential loot in my home, you filth.

Minnie showed him her kitchen and the study. She returned to the hall and walked toward the living room where Jennifer approached. Minnie stopped. Sy said, “What’s this room back here?”

Jennifer smiled at Sy. Then she turned to Minnie. “Aren’t you going to show Sy your room, Aunt Minnie?”

Minnie said, “Um…”

Barbara and Wilmer walked up behind Jennifer. Wilmer said, “Who’s ready for a Sam Adams? Sy, old man. How about it?”

Barbara watched Minnie. Jennifer glanced at her mother and back at Minnie. Wilmer said, “What’s going on?”

Minnie exhaled. “I’ll show him. Of course, dear.”

Jennifer said, “Oh good.”

Jennifer blew a kiss to Sy who returned the favor. Then she went to the bathroom.

Minnie walked toward Sy who stood by her bedroom door. He wore that smile, too. Wilmer asked him about the beer again. Sy gave him a nod. That’s right. You don’t talk. Just keep plotting out the robbery.

Minnie showed Sy her bedroom. He looked at the bed and the walls. She reached for the light switch. Sy said, “My, my. This reminds me of my mother’s room.”

Minnie stepped back. “Oh really?”

And what mental hospital does she inhabit?

“Yeah,” Sy said. “She had the same color on the walls. That quilt is similar, too. Her mother made it for her. She made one for me, too. It’s good to pass things down.”

“That’s sweet, Sy.”

When she reached for the light switch, he said, “Oh, hold up!”

Minnie stepped back and balled up her right fist. “What?”

He stared into the aquarium on her dresser. “These guys. Oh my God. African Pancake Tortoises. Right?”

“Oh,” she said. “Right.”

“When did you get them?”

She picked at her blouse. “I…um. They belonged to my husband.”

He stared into her eyes. Was that a tear on the edge of his eyelash?

He said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

How did he do that? Did he carry a bottle of Visine in his pocket? Surely he couldn’t really feel sorry for another person, being a low down rat. “That’s all right, Sy.”

Sy tapped on the aquarium but he did so in a gentle way, like Moe used to do. He didn’t want to alarm them-just get their attention.

She pointed to the aquarium. “He liked them a lot. I’ve been feeding them since he…I never really liked reptiles. Or are they amphibians?”

Sy said, “Reptiles.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Sy rubbed his index finger across his lip. “I can give you a hundred bucks for them. Right here and right now.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s very generous. But I don’t think so. I’ll keep looking after the little stinkers. Moe would have want me to.”

He scratched his forehead. She turned the light off and stepped forward. He didn’t move. She said, “Well…we should get up front.”

He flipped the light back on. She took a step back. He said, “A hundred bucks is a fair price. Believe me. I know.”

She stared him in the eyes. He held the stare as if he’d just given her some fatherly advice. God, the stare lasted ten seconds. No, twenty seconds! She looked away and said, “I’m sure it is. I’m not interested, though. Let’s go on back up front now.”

She reached for the light switch. He covered it with his hand. Her heart thoomp-thoomped. Oh, Moe. If only you could be here and take care of this punk…

Jennifer popped her head in the doorway. “Hey, hon. What’re you guys doing?”

Sy fell into a big smile. Geez, those teeth. Her last boyfriend had held onto three or four teeth in his twenty-five years. Sy looked like he had fifty chicklets in there. Oh, the things the world does for a pretty face.

They enjoyed beers and wine over several hands of Uno in the living room for the next three hours while a Titans game played in the background. Minnie watched Sy but he kept his eyes on Jennifer for the rest of the evening. She could tell Jennifer what she thought of Sy but her poor mother warned her about them all. Jennifer never listened. Maybe they would break up. If fate can be awful and take Moe away, maybe it can be kind and kick Sy out of their lives.

***

A week later, Minnie lay in her bed at eight-thirty. She had broken plans to meet Barbara at Chile’s for their weekly margarita with chips and salsa. She didn’t know why. She closed her eyes.

The door handle rattled.

She slid out of bed and drew her robe from the hook on the bathroom door. She wiped her eyes and tied her robe around her. Then she slid under her bed and grabbed Moe’s .22 Remington five-shot revolver. She slid the cylinder out. Five chambers and five bullets. She shut it and tip-toed out of the bedroom. She kept low and stopped by her kitchen counter. From there, she peered around at the door.

The handle rattled again.

Someone wanted in. Minnie had her cell phone in the pocket of her robe. Moe would want her to call the police. But folks just think odd these days. They want to call somebody who’ll take care of them. Why not take care of yourself?

The door handle rattled again. Minnie pulled the hammer back on the Remington. Come on through. Just come on through and try to rob a defenseless widow, you big upstanding citizen. Bring everything you’ve got.

The would-be intruder ran.

The front door of the building slammed.

Minnie stood. “Aha!”

Something had spooked her intruder.

She pulled out her cell phone and keyed into the app that showed her doorbell camera feed on her phone. The guy wore plain black clothes but that face could not be denied. Sy had come back. He’d spotted that doorbell camera and fled. He was the dirty scoundrel she knew him to be.

***

Fairfax sat at the table beneath the park pavilion. He munched on a Barbecue sandwich but he sure took his time. Minne smiled. Moe’s tortoises moved with more speed. She stepped out of her car and walked over to him. He said, “Minnie,” before she got close enough for him to see her. She stopped. “Wow, that’s creepy, George.”

Fairfax wiped his mouth and held up a thick finger. “Is it creepy that I knew you were there or is it even creepier that you sat there watching me and waited seven and a half minutes before you approached me?”

Minnie slapped his shoulder. “Hush up, now. I have something to tell you. Something in your line of work.”

“My work? Roofing? At least, that’s what I’m doing this week.”

She poked his arm. “Just finish that sandwich and listen to me.”

She told him about Sy and the attempted break-in. He finished the sandwich. He removed his sunglasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Who told you about me and Glew?”

“My sister, Barbara. I couldn’t believe it at first. She told me about you two getting her jewelry back. I thought ‘My lord.’ I could not picture old George Fairfax doing anything like that.”

“What am I? Satan?”

She coughed and giggled. “No, you goof. You just, I don’t know. I didn’t think you hardly even talked to anybody. Now you’re going around and helping damsels in distress. It threw me for a loop. I thought you would be a quiet hermit from here on out. Does your mother know what you do?”

He replaced the sunglasses on his face. “When did you say you’re going out of town?”

“This weekend. He’ll try to get those tortoises. I told Jennifer. So I know she told him and he’ll try.”

He grinned. “You told her on purpose. Huh?”

She handed him an apartment key.

***

Fairfax pulled into the apartment complex at six o’clock. He carried some takeout food up the steps to the second floor and found number 224. He inserted the key in the door and opened it up. Minnie said, “Freeze.”

He stopped.

She held a Remington revolver although she didn’t point it at him. He said, “Easy, now.”

She giggled and held it out to him. “For your protection this weekend. Where’s your partner? Lou?”

Fairfax set the Remington on the coffee table. “It’s Glew. We work in shifts. He’ll relieve me sometime tomorrow unless I need his assistance first.”

She picked up her purse. “I’m off then. I’ll be back Sunday night at eight o’clock and not a minute later.”

“Have fun,” Fairfax said.

Minnie kissed his jaw and then left, locking the door after herself. Fairfax leaned back and listened to the sounds of the apartment settling. Come on, Sy. Come on and bite, little fish.

***

Glew walked up the apartment steps, counting each one as he did so. A wiff of something tickled his nostrils. He looked up. Nothing. He looked down. In between one of the steps, a vision gave him tingles. The young lady stopped and looked up at him. “Wally?”

He smiled. “Well, well.”

The young lady said, “Oh my God.” She clapped her high heels up the steps. Glew embraced her and inhaled the vanilla perfume. Then he buried his face into her hair. She tapped his arm. “You can let go now.”

“Oh.” He stepped back but kept his hands on her arms. She did not protest. “Cindy. Where have you been?”

“I live here. You don’t remember. Do you?”

“Yes, of course,” Glew said. “Through a rum haze, I recall that you lived in an apartment. Not sure it was this complex, though. What can I say? They all look alike to me.”

She toyed with his shirt. “What are you doing here, anyway? Coming back for round two? Only took you two and a half months.”

He opened his mouth.

“Get up here, you sumbitch!” Fairfax said.

Glew looked up. His partner stood on the balcony. The bags wore heavy under his eyes, even from down here. He turned to Cindy. “I’m sorry but I have some work to do.” He leaned down to her ear. “I can’t tell you which apartment I’m in but stay away from 224. Do not go in 224. Okay?”

She ran her tongue across her teeth. Then she took off. Glew galloped up the steps. Fairfax passed him and trotted down the stairs. Glew said, Okay, partner. See you!”

He strolled into 224.

An hour later, Cindy met Glew at the door. He picked her up in his arms and then carried her down the hall to the bedroom. Once he got the door open, he carried her inside and tossed her onto the queen-sized bed. She squealed. Then she sat up. “Wow, I think my mom has a quilt like this.”

He switched off the light and lit a candle. “Every mom has one of those.”

She kicked off her high heels. He jumped onto the bed beside her. She said, “And what does every private detective have?”

“A secret,” he said. “And the answer is always right here.” He steered her hand down low. She giggled and licked his lips. Then the explorations began. Glew groped and moaned and gripped and squeezed until Cindy shoved him over. He stared at her.

“AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!”

He turned to the door. The aquarium with the turtles. Where had it gone? No. Oh no. That quick? How was that possible?

He sprang up. She grabbed his arm. He slung free of her grip. “Sorry!” he said. He ran through the apartment.

When he reached the steps, he slowed down and hobbled as best he could. The guy wore a black jumpsuit. He jumped into a red sedan and sped out of the lot. Glew tripped over his pants around his ankles. He smacked the ground. “Shit!”

Fairfax’s ugly truck pulled up beside him.

“Stud!” Glew said. He scrambled up inside the beast. Fairfax took off after the sedan. “Pull your damn pants up.”

Glew looked down. “Oh right. Sorry. I was watching but-

“I know and I will say, she is a looker but damn, man. Why didn’t you lock the bedroom door?”

“I guess my urges just took me over.”

They followed the sedan through lots of traffic on out to the highway and through curvy roads until Sy pulled the sedan into a gravel driveway that led to a trailer. Fairfax pulled over onto the side of the road out of view of the trailer. He stepped out, followed by Glew. Sy carried the aquarium up to the front door and knocked.

A woman answered the door. She placed her hands to her cheeks. “You found them?!? Oh thank you!”

She closed the door. Sy stepped off her tiny porch and wore a wide smile. Who was this guy’s dentist? Glew might have to pay him a visit.

The woman returned with a boy by her side. The little guy looked like he was around ten years old. He wore glasses and looked a bit chubby. However, he probably didn’t get picked on in a physical way. He could handle himself.

The woman handed over a wad of bills to Sy.

Fairfax tapped Glew’s shoulder. “Let’s go.”

***

Sy handed the aquarium over to the woman. She thanked him. He walked straight toward the sedan. Glew stepped in front of his door. Fairfax grabbed him by the collar and shoved him back onto the hood. His smile vanished. “Hey, what is this?”

The woman set the aquarium down. “What do you two think you’re doing? Get your hands off of him!”

The boy watched the scene, grinning. He threw a few punches at the air.

Fairfax turned to the woman. Sy punched Fairfax in the lip. The woman gasped. Fairfax dragged Sy off the hood. Sy said, “I’m sorry” five times. Fairfax got Sy on his knees and then placed his foot into the center of his back. From there, he shoved him forward until Sy’s face was pressed into the sedan’s fender. Fairfax kept his boot on his back, holding him there. Glew turned away and chuckled.

The woman said, “Take your boot off of him.”

“Ma’am, do you try to teach your son right from wrong?”

She placed her hands on her hips. “Yes, sir, I do.”

“This guy stole those turtles.”

“Do what?” she said.

The boy said, “Tortoises. Not turtles.”

“He stole them from a widow.”

“What?” She looked at Sy. “Is that true?”

Fairfax dug the boot into Sy’s spine. Sy groaned and said, “Yes!”

The woman kicked Sy in the butt. Glew walked away laughing. Fairfax let Sy fall to the ground. Then he turned him over and pulled the woman’s money from his pocket. He handed her money back to her. He said, “Six hundred bucks. Good lord. Those are some pricey turtles.”

The boy said, “Tortoises.”

The woman took her money back. She pointed to her son. “Oh they’re worth it. He loves them. He’s been looking for some forever.”

Fairfax said, “Uh-huh.”

She looked at him. “So? I just pay you and then you pay the widow?”

Glew walked up beside Fairfax. He said, “That sounds like a good deal.” He looked at the boy. “Ready to play with your new turtles son?”

The boy smiled and said, “Tortoises! I’m ready!”

The woman held the money toward Fairfax who held up his hand. “Now, I can’t say.”

Glew and the woman stared at Fairfax.

He said, “The widow didn’t tell me that she would sell them. So, I’m afraid I can’t let you have them.”
The woman frowned. Glew looked at Fairfax. “Hey, come on, stud. I think the boy should get them. Just look.”

The boy hung his head and stuck out his bottom lip. Fairfax looked at Glew. “It ain’t that simple. Get in the truck.”
Glew said, “Look, man.”
Fairfax stepped closer to him. “Get in the truck.”

Glew walked away. After kicking Sy in the back, he got into the truck.

Fairfax turned back to the woman. “Listen, the widow woman is returning tomorrow night at eight o’clock. You come by with your money and make her the offer. She’ll probably say ‘yes’.”

The boy let go of a tear. The woman hugged him and wiped his eyes. She studied Fairfax who picked up the aquarium. “You think she will?”

Fairfax said, “I do. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

On his way back to the truck, Fairfax kicked Sy in the ribs. Sy crawled into his sedan.

They pulled on down the road. Glew shook his head. “That kid looked so sad. We should have just let him have them.”
Fairfax said, “We’ll see tomorrow night.”

“At least one of us cares.”

“Yeah, you sure cared all the way down the steps with your pants around your ankles.”

Glew didn’t say much for the rest of the way back. When Fairfax dropped him off he said, “And you can stay until seven tomorrow night.”

Glew reached for the aquarium. Fairfax swatted his hand. “Yeah, right.”

“What am I staying for, then?”

“That’s a good question. Why are you staying? In fact, why did you even come over to begin with?”

Glew swallowed.

Fairfax drove away.

***

Minnie knocked on her own front door and waited. A voice spoke through the door. “Who goes there?”

She deepened her voice. “The master of the house.”

The voice (also deeper) said, “This is an apartment.”

Minnie shook her head. Then she cleared her throat and got into her deepest voice. “Open the door before I break it down.”

The door opened. A man stood there, eating Goober candies. Minnie looked him up and down. “So you’re the famous Glew?”

“Infamous,” he said.

“Wonderful.”

She stepped inside and set her purse on the kitchen counter. She took in a deep breath. Then she turned back to him. “So-

The toilet flushed in the bathroom. Glew chuckled. Fairfax stepped out. “Oh. Howdy, Minnie. About time you made it back.”

She said, “I had a little traffic delay. So how did everything go? Did Sy stop by for a discount on some turtles?”

Fairfax motioned to Glew who told Minnie the tale. At the end, he said, “Now you think the boy should have the turtles. Right?”

Minnie’s smile faded. She looked at Fairfax. He watched her with steady eyes while seated at her dining table.

The doorbell clanged. Minnie blinked a few times. Fairfax nodded to her. She answered her front door. The woman from the trailer stood there with her son by her side. Minnie invited them inside. The woman confirmed Glew’s story. The boy hugged Minnie’s waist. Minnie turned red. She hugged the boy back. The mom said, “So, name your price and we’ll work something out.”

Minnie looked back at Fairfax. He kept those steady eyes on her. She said, “Does your mama know what’s best for you?”

Fairfax grinned.

She said, “Did it ever make you mad that she knew best and denied you things?”

Fairfax shrugged.

She said, “You got over it, though. Right?”

“I did. And if I didn’t, who cares? That’s my problem.”

She turned back and took a seat at the table. She looked at the boy and said, “I won’t sell you the tortoises.”

The woman said, “What? Hold on, now. Why not?”

“You see, I have-

The boy stomped Minnie’s foot. Minnie drew back and yelled. The boy shook his fist toward her. “You give me those tortoises or else! Or else, grandma! You hear me? Or else!”

The woman stared at her son. Could eyes get that big without bursting?

Fairfax stood. “Don’t you ever be hitting a lady, son. Back up.”

The boy raised his other fist.

Fairfax said, “Back up.”

The boy drew his fist back.

The mother grabbed the boy’s fist and yanked him toward her. Tears collapsed down his cheeks. His mother hunkered down and pointed in his face, warning him with a low voice that escaped the others’ ears. She pulled him to the door, moving like the boy was a whip in her lion tamer grip. She turned back to Minnie. “My apologies, ma’am.”

Minnie massaged her toe. “That’s all right.”

The woman looked at Fairfax and then at Glew. She shook her head and looked back at Fairfax and said, “You a father?”

Fairfax said, “Not yet.”

“You should be.”

Then she left.

Minnie looked at Fairfax. “I think she’s right. Moe and I talked about having kids. We tried but I guess it just wasn’t in the cards for me.”

Fairfax motioned for Glew to sit down. Glew sat. Fairfax sat next to Minnie. He took her hand in his and said, “Who says you’re not a mother?”

Minnie laughed and hugged him. Fairfax pulled Glew into the hug. He dropped a Goober onto the floor.

***

At ten o’clock that night, Minnie’s phone rang. She wiped the sleep from her eyes and answered.

“Aunt Minnie?”

She said, “Hello, Jennifer.”
“Um, what is this Sy has been telling me about you hiring some thugs to beat him up? Are you out of your mind? And don’t think I didn’t notice you giving him the cold shoulder at your apartment that night. I have to tell you-

“Jennifer, get your butt over here.”

“Do what?” she said. Her voice shook.

Minnie rose up in bed. “Get over here. I’m going to talk. You’re going to listen. Then we’re never going to talk about this again.”

“I don’t-

“And if you don’t listen, fine, but I can say I tried.”

Minnie hung up on her. Then she made herself a cup of coffee in the kitchen. She blew the steam off the top and took a sip. Then she pulled the package of sugar cookies from the cabinet. She ate one whole and smiled at the chair at the end of the table.

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