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                                                        SCHEHERAZADE

 

      His switchblade glittered as he waved it at her. "Okay, lady, gimme your money!" 

     In the tiny foyer of her Manhattan tenement building, the door lock broken as usual, Shelley stared, wide-eyed, in surprise. In all of her twenty-three years she'd never been robbed! She should have been more alert, instead of remembering the stories heard that day while working at the New You Beauty Parlor. Plopping the groceries on the cracked linoleum, she backed toward the wall with its peeling paint. She clasped her mother's cross, suspended against her ruffled blouse that emphasized her generous bosom.

     "Well, I ain't got much cash," she said. "I use my ATM card or charge it. Saves lots of time, not like before, as Momma said, when you had to run around, begging friends to cash a check--"

     "I don't give a damn about what your mother said!" the man growled and nervously glanced through the glass-topped front door that had closed behind her. "Just gimme the money and credit cards--quick!"

     He was surprisingly good-looking with brown curly hair and brown eyes, and neatly dressed: clean blue jeans and plaid sport shirt open at the throat. His full lower lip curled upward, like an adorable child.

     She might have avoided the robbery had she looked through the glass before entering, but it was a real shame, she thought, that people had to rob others to pay their bills. At least she had a job. Maybe the robber couldn't get one, although it didn't look as if--

     "Come on, hurry it up!"

     "Well, I guess if you need it that bad..." Shelley fished in her enormous leather shoulderbag with the wide straps and heavy buckle. "Gee, this reminds me of poor Roz getting robbed in the Bronx. Just had a total hip replacement, was up to her eyeballs in debt, and she cried that she wouldn't even be able to pay her rent. Well, her attacker was so touched-"

     "Gimme the money!" the robber said. He dropped the knife as a chatting couple strolled past the outside stoop. "Damn!" Hand shaking, he bent to retrieve it and pointed it at her, the blade wobbly.

     Shelley exclaimed, "I talk a lot but please stay calm, don't do nothing rash!" She rummaged again in her bag, her glance shifting toward the knife. "I got so much stuff in here, I never can find anything." She pulled out wadded tissues, lipstick, and compact, and set them on the radiator cover. "My wallet's in there somewhere...Funny thing when Fran got robbed, she knew the guy. She told him she wanted to break it off because of his drinking, and he had the nerve..." Her hand touched leather. "Here it is."

     "Let me have it." The robber grabbed the worn clutch wallet and rifled through receipts and paper scraps with scribbled names and addresses. "Where's the money and bank cards?"

     "I'd better do it, it's such a mess." She took the wallet and unzipped the back pouch, but it stuck. She tugged at it.

     "So, what happened with Fran?" the robber said, waiting.

     "Oh, she made him promise that if she gave him the money, he wouldn't bother her no more. But the problem was that Fran still loved him."

     "Sounds like a movie." The robber glanced through the glass as a plump, gray-haired woman approached the stoop. "Damn it!" He hastily slipped the folded knife into a jeans pocket.

     "Don't worry," Shelley said. "My neighbor wouldn't hurt a flea. Too bad, though, about her husband dying of pneumonia." She smiled at the neighbor opening the door. "Hi, Mrs. Cascara. How do you like this beautiful May day, huh?"

     Mrs. Cascara nodded and looked quizzically at the young man.

     "This is my new boyfriend, Tom."

     The robber forced a smile. "Hi." 

     "Well, I hope you realize that you've got the nicest girl in New York," Mrs. Cascara told him. "When my husband got sick, Shelley dropped by every evening with hot chicken soup, aspirin, and hot water bottles. She's wonderful!"

     The robber nodded and watched Mrs. Cascara lumber up the creaking stairs, beneath the dim ceiling fluorescent, until she turned the hallway bend. Then, he whispered to Shelley still holding her wallet, "Better gimme those cards before anybody else shows up!"

     She handed him her Master Card.

     The robber glanced at it and then at her. "What kind of name is this? Vish-vish-ni...?

     "Vishniyaskaya--Russian. The problem is that nobody can pronounce it! When Cousin Bertie married a South Carolina girl, the preacher down there kept trying and got so embarrassed he turned beet-red! Finally stopped the ceremony to ask. The bridesmaids burst out giggling and both families ended up splitting their sides, and finally the preacher laughed, too. Aunt Irma said it was a sign that the marriage would be happy. And she was right! After ten years they still hold hands like honeymooners."

     Shelley paused as the robber studied her face and then her slim figure in the tight jeans. 

     "You're cute," he said. "All that red hair and dark eyes. You don't look Russian."
     She smiled at his sudden interest, as if he regretted his earlier rudeness and wanted to be friendly despite the awful thing he had to do. Maybe he'd change his mind about robbing her.

     "Oh, I look like Momma," she said. "Irish. Daddy's Russian. My parents met on a singles cruise to the Bahamas. Daddy's sweet, worked as a bartender on the boat, and Momma knew right away he was the one by the way he kept staring at her and sighing but was too shy to approach her and finally he got up enough nerve to ask for her telephone number. Well, after dating Daddy, she couldn't get interested in nobody else, not even the vice president of the public relations company where she worked as a secretary. He was rotten to the staff, but fell hard for Momma, a real beauty. He bought her presents that she refused and he begged to take her to fancy restaurants, but she told him that loving a sweet man mattered more to her then money and she never regretted marrying Daddy. They still hold hands, like Cousin Bertie and his wife."

     "Irish and Russian," the robber murmured. "A pretty girl like you must have a million boyfriends."

     "Well, I just broke up with somebody, almost as nice as Daddy, and real smart..." She frowned. "The trouble was that Sean didn't want to get married. I mean, gee, I'd like to have kids while I'm still young, you know? But Sean wanted to be a doctor and save his money for college. His father's a house painter, thinks Sean should do the same and forget about bettering himself. I told him to follow his dream. I mean, people should try to make themselves happy, as long as it don't hurt

nobody--"  

     "Yeah..." the robber interrupted. He smiled like a little boy, his full lower lip overlapping the upper. 

     Shelley smiled back.

     There was a moment of silence.

     "Gee, why are you robbing people?" she said finally. "You don't look like a bum."

     "I need the bread." His fingers plowed through his curls. He laughed self-consciously. "It's my first time--I feel like a virgin!" His lips crunched up, making him look sheepish. "Could you tell?"

     "Sort of. I mean, when Roz got robbed, she figured it was his first time because he acted nervous--like you--and didn't know what to do next. Actually he turned out to be a real gentleman, returned the money with apologies and even offered to treat her to dinner--" Shelley paused as a couple approched the stoop. 

     "More neighbors," she whispered.

     He nodded. "But I don't like the name, Tom. Call me Jared."

     "Jared--that's unusual." She giggled. "You're the first Jared I've ever met, and a cosmetician hears just about everything." She smiled at the couple opening the door. "Hi, nice day, ain't it?"

     The pimply-faced blonde girl, whose heavy perfume displaced the foyer's mustiness, nodded and hurried upstairs, followed by her short, plump male companion who carried a bag of groceries.

     Shelley, wrinkling her nose, whispered again. "She's got a string of guys--I think she's a prostitute."

     The robber laughed. "With that complexion?"

     Shelley joined his laughter. "Ain't that something? Myra eats tons of ice cream but never gains an ounce!" She sighed. "Her business gives our building a bad reputation. The landlord would turn purple if he knew, but him and his wife got a fabulous house out in Westchester and don't bother about the tenants." She pointed toward a wall. "I complained and complained so many times about the peeling paint, but the landlord just tells me to mind my own business and stop tying up his phone. Probably wants to spend all his time with his second wife. His first one died on account of a bad appendix operation. Anyway, his second wife used to live below my apartment --a gorgeous blonde--and the landlord started dating her. Well, you wouldn't believe how great the building looked then. He wallpapered the halls and put in that glass panel for security so we could see who's outside before opening the door. Naturally, it wouldn't be right to complain about the neighbors..."

     She paused, startled, as the robber stroked her fingers with the long, scarlet nails.

     "Would you go out with me?"

     "What?" She stared at his big brown eyes and smooth complexion, at the way he leaned over her, not towering, just the right height, and his tingling aftershave lotion that she hadn't noticed, reminding her of the pine forest near Cousin Bertie's, but did she want to date a thief? "Gee, I don't know. I'm real busy. I got a big family and lots of friends."

     Jared's cold hand pressed her fingers. "I'm sorry I tried to rob you. It was crazy. See, my sister's pregnant and wants the baby but she's got no place to go. The guy who knocked her up was my best friend. They lived together for a while and then he took off. Now she can't work and can't pay the rent."

     "What about your folks?"

     "Nah, Ma died when I was a kid and Pop's been drinking ever since. I take care of him, but the garage don't pay enough for added costs. Before this happened, I was trying to save for college, maybe become an accountant.'

     "Gosh, I'm sorry about all your troubles," Shelley said. She gently removed his hand, rummaged in her bag, and held out a crumpled twenty-dollar bill. "Wish I had more. I don't make much either, so it's a good thing my apartment is rent-stabilized. Otherwise, I'd be living in a ghetto with robberies every week. I could write you a check?"

     Jared shook his head. "You're too nice to rob, not like the bimbos I meet in bars. How about a movie?" He gazed at her intensely, the brown eyes pleading.

     "Will you promise not to rob anybody else?"

     He nodded solemnly.

     "Okay, but I gotta put away my groceries, I hope the chicken potpie didn't defrost, and I want to change clothes." She paused and added, "I'll meet you at the corner movie theater in an hour."

     His eyes narrowed "You ain't thinking of calling the police?"

     She fisted her hands on hips and exclaimed indignantly, "I wouldn't rat on nobody!" Then, picking up her twin bags of groceries, she said, "Well, see you later."

     "I'm looking forward to our date!"

     She smiled and he left, the door slamming shut behind him.

     Sighing, she paused to finger the cross. "Gee, that was a close call!" She climbed the stairs to the musty, fourth-floor landing, set down her groceries on the worn tile flooring, and unlocked her apartment door. She paused to catch her breath, her heart pounding from the excitement. Then she remembered his curly hair and full lips, and she smiled. Actually, when you think about it, Jared was adorable. She couldn't meet any guys in the beauty parlor. She shook her head in reproach. Momma wouldn't like her dating a thief! But she could encourage him to become an accountant...

     Inside her apartment, she rushed to the bedroom closet. He'd like the tight red dress that matched the color of her hair.

                                                      --THE END--