Baxter

ROBERT BOUCHERON

Baxter was born with a full head of hair. The baby was healthy, a bit undersized, and no trouble at all, his mother said. The hair grew thick, black and glossy.

The boy developed into a slender young man, rather short, with a winning smile and an easy manner. Despite a lack of athletic prowess, he was a favourite with girls. Curious about sex, they let him do what he wanted with their bodies. In this way, he discovered his great talent in life—Baxter knew how to please a woman.

On graduation from high school, he took a job as a truck driver for Bailey Freight, short hauls and local deliveries. He had quick reflexes, good eyesight, and a habit of showing up when and where he was expected, with cargo intact.

Wherever he went, Baxter attracted women. They fawned over him at lunch counters, in drugstores, at offices where he presented bills of lading, and on Saturday at the laundromat, where they offered to wash his clothes. Later, he met up with one of these women. He would charm his way into her bed, then drive her to distraction with his technique.

In his twenties, Baxter filled out a little. He grew a mustache, thick and black like his hair. Sensing a cliché, he shaved. He smoked and drank in moderation. The women he met in bars also smoked and drank.

“I like all kinds,” he said, “and I know how to make a woman feel special.” This, they had to admit, was true. After the second or third encounter, though, the women grew impatient.

“The sex is fabulous,” one said, refusing another date. “But you have no follow-up, no ambition.”

As he neared age thirty, living in furnished rooms, Baxter wondered if he had slipped into a rut. Easy conquests and a string of brief affairs—was this was all life had to offer? What about a real home, with a wife and children?

In this frame of mind, he stood nursing a plastic cup of beer at the Hickory Pit. It was a Friday in summer, and the air was hot and sticky. Smoke from the barbecue drifted across a concrete patio, where nobody danced despite the efforts of three musicians. Low in the sky, the sun was a hazy, orange blob.

A woman with a good figure and a magnificent head of auburn hair also stood holding a cup. Wearing a dark skirt, she must have come from work, an office job. Baxter had gone home to clean up and change to slacks and a dress shirt. He approached.

“Care to dance?”

“Not to this lame ensemble.” She sized him up at a glance, lingering on his hair, which at this stage was long and swept back like a mane.

“Baxter here.” He smiled.

“Yolanda.” She also smiled. “So, what do you do?”

“I drive a truck. You know that sign on the back about report bad driving with a telephone number? Not one call.”

“Amazing. I work for a car dealer in accounts receivable.”

“Sounds tough.”

“It’s a living.”

“Another drink?” He pointed at her empty cup.

“Better not. But thanks for asking.”

“What do you say we ditch this hell hole?” Baxter deftly slipped an arm around her waist. Her hips swayed toward him.

“My thoughts exactly.”

In their respective vehicles, Baxter followed Yolanda to a garden apartment complex with an azure pool and numbered parking spaces. She let him into a ground floor unit that was pleasantly cool, with a scent of potpourri. In the bedroom, a sliding glass door offered a view of flowering shrubs. They threw the coverlet in a corner, fell on the bed, and devoured each other.

On their one-month anniversary, which was also his birthday, Yolanda filled a bubble bath, and Baxter brought a bottle of champagne. They splashed outrageously and emptied the tub on the tile floor.

In the twilight, they lay side-by-side and stared up at the ceiling, which had a plaster pattern like windshield wipers in snow. Baxter smoked a cigarette.

“So that’s it?” Yolanda asked. “No small talk?”

Baxter exhaled, and a stream of smoke rose lazily.

“Not that I’m complaining,” she added.

“Some women find me boring. Afterward.”

“On the contrary. I think you have what it takes.”

“What it takes for what?” He rose on one elbow, curious.

“Marry me.”

He collapsed on the bed and groaned for effect.

“You’re ready. God knows I am.” She reached for the cigarette. He passed it to her.

“What do I have to do?”

“Just show up at the county clerk’s office. Leave the rest to me.”

Yolanda was as good as her word. In a matter of weeks, they emerged from the courthouse as man and wife. Baxter threw his belongings in a suitcase, slapped a parking decal on his personal truck, and moved into the garden apartment.

As a married couple, they attended the annual Bailey Freight picnic at Bluenose Lake, where people floated on inner tubes and ate too many hotdogs. They went to the Christmas party in the Herndon Motors showroom, where Mr. Herndon raffled off a car that hadn’t sold. Baxter kept up with his bowling league, and Yolanda met friends now and then for a girls’ night out.

At parties, Baxter drew a circle of female admirers. He reminded them of someone they had seen on television. They ignored the wedding ring. Since he was not much of a talker, they chattered and giggled and basked in his presence. Men watched sourly from the sidelines.

“What’s he got?” they muttered.

When it was time to leave, Yolanda came to the rescue.

“My husband,” she said. They elbowed their way through the crowd, leaving a trail of broken hearts. She never mentioned the other women. Baxter never cheated.

When Yolanda found that she was pregnant, she looked for a house to buy. They settled on a cottage on a busy street, with a chain link fence around the yard. They moved in just before the baby came. They named the girl Mabel after Yolanda’s mother, but they called her Tootsie. A few years later, they produced a boy.

“I always liked the name Jack,” Baxter said.

As she juggled the demands of housekeeping, raising children, and a full-time job, Yolanda enlisted Baxter’s help. His work schedule was more flexible. He pitched in without complaint and doted on the babies. To everyone’s surprise, he was a natural in the kitchen. He took over the food shopping. Yolanda was amazed at how little he spent.

“Where did you learn to cook?” she asked.

“I didn’t. I try things and see what works.”

As part of an Arbor Day program to increase urban leaf canopy, the town offered free tree saplings. Baxter, Yolanda and Tootsie planted a red maple in the bare front yard. Jack, who was too little to help, sat in a stroller a few feet away and watched.

As the children grew up, Yolanda assigned chores. Tootsie helped inside the house, and Jack worked in the yard. Baxter relished his role as father. When the red maple was big enough, he hung a swing from a branch. Tootsie and Jack took turns. A boy delivering newspapers on his bicycle saw them and paused in the street.

“I wish my father played with me like that,” he said.

Baxter thickened in the waist and slowed in middle age. With a spotless record and years of service, he was a named a Valued Employee, with a metal sign on his parking space. Mr. Bailey asked him to train younger drivers. Then he shifted Baxter to a desk job tracking the fleet of trucks—mileage, maintenance and repairs. When Baxter suggested buying new vehicles from Herndon Motors, Mr. Bailey listened politely.

Baxter’s hair grayed at the temples, lending him a distinguished look. At a routine medical checkup, a nurse who was thrilled to be holding his arm said he had high blood pressure. The doctor suggested that he stop smoking. Baxter did so and noticed an overall improvement. The ladies kept an eye on him.

Yolanda was not so lucky. She became stout and uncertain on her feet. She dyed her hair, but nothing could match the glory of the original. One year, she let the gray take over. After that she wore it in a bun.

In high school, Tootsie took a dislike to her nickname. By her senior year, she was Mabel, and as such she left for college. She wanted to go into teaching, though she had doubts about children. Jack fell in with a bad group. He graduated, barely. After an incident that involved alcohol, a crash, and a car that may or may not have been stolen, he enlisted in the Navy.

Baxter proudly told complete strangers what school his daughter attended, where his son was deployed, and as many details as they cared to hear. Mabel landed her first job as an elementary school teacher, then moved to administration. After a few years aboard ships, Jack left to work in a restaurant kitchen. Both children married and started families of their own. They lived out of state and visited. Baxter played with his grandchildren as happily as he had played twenty-five years before.

The maple tree in the front yard grew so large that branches hung over the house. The shaded grass became thin and sparse. They replaced the roof and installed a gutter that kept out leaves.

“How about a kitchen makeover?” Yolanda asked.

“No thanks,” Baxter said. “This way, I know where everything is.”

In retirement, Baxter slimmed to his weight as a young man. He volunteered to deliver Meals on Wheels. Spry and dapper, with a full head of iron-gray hair, he was a favourite with elderly shut-ins, whom he called “my girls.” They coaxed him to stay, but he had a route to finish. He drove Yolanda to doctor appointments, and he opened the passenger door for her. She tactfully ignored the stares he received.

At home, through the picture window, Yolanda watched traffic go by on the street. On radio and television, she followed current events, and she issued bulletins to Baxter. She criticized declining standards in manufactured items. But she never faulted her husband.

“Baxter has a perfect driving record.”

A little about ROBERT: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are B. A. 1974, Harvard University, and M. Arch. 1978, Yale University. His stories, essays, poems and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, Bloodstone Review, Conclave, Digital Americana, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Milo Review, NewPages, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Poydras Review, Sheepshead Review, Short Fiction, The Tishman Review.

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