Rent A Husband

By: Sally Mason






6





Poor Billy Bigelow is having one of those uncomfortable conversations with his dead father again.

Big Ben saying, “I can’t believe I have such a yellow-bellied, chicken-livered coward for a son.”

“Shut up, Dad,” Billy says, which he’d never been able to say when the old bully was alive.

Billy walks away from the depressing living room of the apartment above the bookstore, an apartment he’d shared with his father after the deaths of his mother and sister twenty years ago.

The deaths that Big Ben Bigelow had blamed on Poor Billy.

Billy shuts down that stream of thought and then he does something very, very dangerous.

He finds a bottle of his father’s Wild Turkey in the closet above the sink in the kitchen and pours himself a solid jolt.

For Dutch courage.

Whatever that means.

Now, a clumsy man like Billy has enough trouble negotiating the world sober, so he has never been tempted to drink.

Has never been drunk, in fact.

But these are desperate times and desperate times call for desperate measures.

So he throws the drink back, coughs and wheezes as it burns, tears in his eyes.

He controls the coughing jag, pours himself another and belts that back, too.

Almost losing his balance he grabs at the kitchen table and knocks the bottle to the floor where it shatters, the dark liquid spreading across the linoleum.

Just as well.

Poor Billy’s ears are ringing and his vision is just slightly blurred.

But he feels a strange kind of calm.

And with the calm comes an unfamiliar bravery.

By God, he’s going to do it.

Before he loses this bottled courage and before Big Ben can talk him out of it, Poor Billy Bigelow heads for the door, stumbles down the stairs—banging his knee painfully on the banister—and hurries out to where his car is still parked hard against the fire hydrant, the warm breeze flapping the bouquet of pink parking tickets wedged under the wiper.

Poor Billy—no, make that Bill, Bill Bigelow—gets behind the wheel and fires up the station wagon, clicking on the windshield wipers, laughing as the pink tickets fly away into the night, ignoring the squeal of his fender as he bumps past the hydrant, swerving around a car that is perfectly within its rights to be driving right at him, and takes off toward Darcy Pringle’s house, where he intends to bang assertively on her door and invite her to the Spring Ball tomorrow night.





7





He’s not bad looking, Darcy has to concede.

Come on, girl, he’s smokin’ hot.

Too much reality TV, Darcy, she tells herself.

It’s starting to erode your vocabulary like candy rots teeth.

She stands up from the couch and walks across to the sideboard, holding up the bottle of wine.

“Can I top you up?”

Forrest Forbes rises and holds out his glass.

“Please.”

Darcy smiles at Forrest and as she pours the wine she feels Eric’s eyes on her.

When she looks his way he winks.

He’s reading her like an open book.

Darcy dims the wattage of her smile and pulls herself together.

Yes, the man in good looking.

Yes, he is well-spoken and polite.

But he is a failed actor, and this is a sham, and she has to put an end to it, right now.

Eric says, “Tell Darcy about when you trained to be a mahout, Forrest.”

Darcy looks daggers at Eric, who pretends not to see her, sipping at his wine.

He knows her too well.

Knows her embarrassing fascination with colonial India.

Once, when she was a little tipsy she made the mistake of telling Eric that she was convinced she was the reincarnation one of those wan British girls who ended up going native in the heat and dust of the sub-Continent.

Forrest Forbes is saying, “Oh, when I was a kid I had a pal, Bolly Singh.”

“That would be Prince Balachandra Singh of Jaipur?” Eric says.

“Yes, Bolly. They lived in a rundown old palace that dated back to the Moguls. They’ve always kept elephants and when I spent a few months with them one summer during the monsoon their old mahout showed me a few tricks. I got quite close to a young bull elephant named Kipling. It was silly, really. But fun.”

He smiles at Darcy and she can’t deny that she enjoys listening to this man’s self-deprecating tales, his throwaway tone making them all the more exotic, and suddenly she has a real sense of how limited her life with Porter was.

How sterile.

How provincial.

Always staying at new, impersonal hotels that all looked the same no matter if they were in St. Louis or St. Tropez.

No run down palaces in Jaipur for Darcy and Porter Pringle.

She wonders how Forrest sees her house.

Is it nouveau riche?

Is it kitsch?

Forrest Forbes is smiling at her even more warmly and she can feel the muscles of her face stretching in reply.

She bites down on her teeth, killing the smile.

Darcy stands, thumping her wine glass down hard enough to spill liquid onto the marble table top.

“Mr. Forbes,” she says.

“Please, call me Forrest.”

“Forrest, I really do appreciate you traveling all the way up here.”

“Oh, not at all.”

She feels Eric kicking her ankle, so she steps away.

“But really, I can’t—”

And as she’s about to send him packing, with his Bollys and his mahouts and his perfect profile, the doorbell rings.