by Randy Money
Layla's short, dark brown hair fringed her forehead and ears, framing a tapering face with high cheek bones, a short, straight nose and a generous mouth with full lips. Her dress flowed over a muscular belly, a tiny waist, and a firm, round butt, ending high on brown stockinged legs straight out of a Legg's ad. There was something wrong with the picture, though. Her dress looked expensive, but her brown purse and high-heels looked plastic.
As we sat, she watched Chuck and I watched her jaw's slow circular motion, her concentration on clenching and releasing her teeth. I imagined some other slow motions she might concentrate that hard on and had to shift to accommodate a sudden tightness in my pants.
"My name's Joe," I repeated.
Her eyes focused on mine for the first time and I was jolted. I've never met a woman who seemed so settled in her own skin. I hadn't realized I was tense until then. I hadn't realized I was lonely, either, but it only lasted a moment as her calmness reached out, scooped me up and swaddled me. That's not to say I felt any less horny; I was placid, not flaccid.
"Hi, Joe," her voice tingled through me, again. "This is probably rude, and I'm sorry, but I'm real curious. What's Chuck like?"
My daydream clicked off. "Most anything. Blondes, brunettes, red-heads."
She slowly smiled. "I'd guessed that. But what's he like."
"A nice guy. He's not house-broken, though. He says he doesn't want marriage and kids, the nine to five. Keep it in mind. You've been warned."
The guys at the bar were glancing at us and nudging Chuck. He just smiled and stepped away while the drinks were being poured. He dropped change in the jukebox and hit some numbers. Eric Clapton started playing "Layla" and Layla smiled.
"He's your friend?"
"Does it bother him that you say stuff like that?"
"Nah. No one listens to me. If anything, it seems to encourage 'em."
She smiled and I decided to change the subject. "You must be new here. I'd remember if I'd seen you before."
"No, I've lived here for years," she said. "But I don't get out much."
"Really? Thought I knew everyone around here. Work in the area?"
"Up at the University."
"S. U.? I went there a semester. What do you do?"
"Secretary at the library. But I'm taking lit. courses. I'm studying to become a teacher."
I hadn't thought she'd recognize a book, much less study them; I hadn't expected her to be endowed with brains, too. I chased away an image of her lying on her back in bed, binoculars at her eyes, reading a book resting on her chest, planted there and steadied by Sir Edmund Hillary. I also ignored that thinking of her reading made me feel I knew her. "Huh. I was a student worker there. Does Mrs. Lefritz still head up technical services?"
"Yeah. Until next month, when she retires."
"Geez, yeah, she was getting up there back then."
"You work at that garage, the one a couple of blocks from here, right? And Chuck works with you?"
"Worse. I own it. Chuck started working for me after I bought it from my dad."
"Your dad retired?"
I shook my head. "Got Alzheimers. That's why I dropped out. He's in a home, now, and the garage keeps me fed and clothed and pays hiswell, tuition."
"That's sad. I mean, not just your dad but you having to drop out."
"Nah. Dad used to say, when something doesn't work for you, try something else. I took what he taught me and I'm making a living."
"My folks used to go to him."
"Yeah? He was good."
"Maybe I'll switch my business. I've been going to Sears."
"Great. It's been slow for months."
She pointed at my jacket. "What're you reading?" she asked.
I'd stuck a book in my pocket in case the guys were late. "The Land of Laughs."
"Jonathan Carroll! Oh, I love him. All that weird stuff, and his characters' seemseem"
"Like you might find see them around campus?"
"Yeah." She smiled again, her eyes on mine.
That was my chance for a witty remark, or even an intelligent one. That was when Chuck slopped beer in front of me, sat down and conversation stopped. Our eyeball connection cut, their's resumed, him smiling with the high voltage he reserved for women he intended to bed. I thought about running to my truck for a ground wire, but doubted they'd appreciate the joke. Or notice it.
I don't know how long we sat there, him smiling, her occasionally wetting her lips and running a forefinger around the rim of her glass, but about half way through my beer they stood simultaneously and headed out. Just before they reached the door, Layla turned back to me and said, "I'll be seeing you." She said something else, too, something that sounded like, "May your grass be green and your milk run pure and plentiful."
I pushed my mug aside. I'd had too much.
That's the first time I remember ever feeling jealous of Chuck, and I didn't like it. I didn't even understand it; I'd only talked to her a few minutes. I consoled myself that I hadn't found out where her car was and didn't have to mess with it.
On Sunday I was at the garage tinkering with a '75 Dodge Dart when Chuck dropped in.
"Figured you'd be here," he said.
"You're always here. Hasn't the boss told you this dump's closed on Sunday?"
"Nope. Don't talk to him more'n I have to.What's up?" I asked, with my friendliest leer.
"Ain't me." He grinned and dropped into an old office chair we kept in the garage. His eyes were red and almost closed, his cheeks drawn in and his clothes wrinkled. I started fussing with the electric system, again.
"Still want to help Layla with her car?"
Not really. "Sure," I said. "How'd it go?"
He didn't answer and I turned, wondering if he'd dozed off, but his eyes were still open and he looked dazed, shocked even.
"Good. Real good," he said. "I don't know, Joe, she might be the one. I don't know. I've never met anyone like her."
"Yeah. Makes two of us," I muttered, but he didn't hear me.
He rubbed his eyes and said, "I've never been so dog tired, Joe. I've never been soridden. She was like a champion driver. She knew just when to break, when to shift gears, when to pop the clutch. She may be the one for me, Joe. I just don't know if I can survive her."
"After one night?"
"And all day yesterday."
I whistled. "Jesus."
"Yeah. She's different, Joe. She's well, didn't you feel it?"
"I felt something. I mean, I wanted to jump her--," he glared at me, "but I wanted to talk to her more, too. She's nice."
"Yeah. That's it. Nice. And sleeping with her didn't change that. She's so so peaceful."
" 'Sleeping with her'? That's not what you usually call it."
"It's still only two nights, Chuck."
"Yeah. But I think it was enough."
This was a first so I grabbed a stool and sat across from him. "Then why're you here? You got somethin' special, you don't leave it lyin' 'round."
He looked uneasy. "She'sshe's doing herdevotions, she calls 'em. Layla's sorta religious. She's home, praying.I don't know. It's kinda weird. I mean, it's nothin', but it's kinda weird."
"Oh, hell, no. Just her religion is kinda weird."
He stopped and looked at his boots like he was deciding whether to talk and what to say. "We went to her apartment. Hardly got in the door before she started stripping me. But slow, Joe. Everything slow and relaxed. Never felt anything like it. She worked me over, head to toe. Rubbed me, kissed me, licked me up and down, had me naked and nuts, and she didn't even have her dress off. And when she was naked, Joe, those tits stood up and out like the little bitty ones do. Lord, I never felt anything like them --."
He held out his hands, his fingers clenching and unclenching. Then he looked at me and turned red. Also a first. "Yeah, well, anyway. Sometime this morning we stopped long enough that I dozed off. I woke up when I heard something like praying. She wasn't in bed so I got up and followed the praying to her other bedroom. The door wasn't closed so I peeked around it and there was Layla, sitting naked and cross-legged in front of a altar."
"So? Lots of Catholics deck out card tables to look like altars."
"Uh, uh. Not Catholic."
"Yup. Big thing hanging down from the ceiling, looks like a giant white plastic glove, but it's supposed to be an udder. Pictures of big eyed cows on either side of the altar. And there was Layla, praying, even though it sounded more like mooing."
"Wait a minute." I scrambled off the stool and ran out to the waiting room. I came back with an old New Times, a local weekly.
"Yeah," I said. "I thought that sounded familiar. They had an article here about animal cults that've been springing up. Most of them start in California."
"Says the Cow and Cat Goddesses mostly attract women, and the Bear and Bull Gods mostly attract men. Then there's deer and elephant deities that attract all sorts of people. Says a few of the cults hate each other, that there's even been some fighting. Says the Cow Goddess cult was founded by Mona Moorne and is attracting a lot of women from the entertainment field, mostly starlets and strippers. Weird, but not like it's Satanism."
"You ain't heard weird. She told me later that she read up on the cult and got hooked. Anyway, there at the alter she got up on her knees, prayingbut more like mooing"
"Lowing. That's what they call it. Lowing."
"Yeah. Okay. Anyway, she made this noise, this lowing, then she took a bit of hay from a dish on the altar and ate it, and then took something that looked like dried clover from another dish and chewed on that awhile."
He paused and I thought he was done. "California fads, Chuck. Really odd shit."
"But that's not all, Joe. I've been out with girls that did weirder shit." He squirmed, shifting, sitting up straighter. "While wey'knowI worked her tit. I kept getting a mouthful of milk. And while I watched her praying, she took a pitcher off the altar and held it up to her chest. Now, her back was to me so I'm not sure, but I think she was milking herself."
"Oh." I just nodded and, since I couldn't think of anything better, asked, "What'd she do with it? --The pitcher."
"Put it in the fridge. I mean, hell, you can't keep milk out in July."
"Right." I stood and stretched. "So, where's her car?"
Chuck started spending his nights with Layla. Each morning he came in more tired than the day before and did less work. He said she was killing him and he loved it. I tried to be patient, figuring they'd eventually slow down or wear out.
Meanwhile, I learned a little about Layla. Her last name was Kowalski and her folks lived a few blocks east of the garage. She loved cooking and camping, and constantly beat Chuck bowlinghe made a point of telling me her shoes and bag were vinyl, not leather, and he swore he didn't let her win. She'd found the Cow Goddess a little over a year before, and her daily devotions included a couple of hours of exercise; when Chuck told me about them his safety goggles steamed up. She was half done with her B.A. and already planning her Masters.
Chuck had two complaints about her: first, because of her vegetarianism he was suffering beef withdrawal. But then, later, he'd rave about her cooking and sometimes he meant what she made in the kitchen. Second, he hated the time she spent at her church: the Cow Goddess was being pressured to merge with the Church of the Bull God, which meant emergency meetings followed by prayer sessions. He didn't know the differences between the churches and, since the subject upset Layla, he avoided it.
One day Chuck told me he'd almost had dinner with Layla's family the night before. Layla's old man was sarcastic at first, assuming Chuck was another Cow Goddess disciple, but when he found Chuck was a regular guy who liked football and beer, they started talking. Out of Layla's hearing, Mr. Kowalski said he and the family hated what Layla had become. He grudgingly admired her new confidence and self-respect but, "Goddamn it, what was wrong with the name, Jane? My granma was a Jane and so was her ma. An' why the hell'd she get those tits? Not like she's a goddamn topless dancer or nothin'. An' 'nother thing, my folks were Baptists and we're Baptists. It was good enough for them an' me. What the hell does she want, anyway? Jesus!"
A few beers later, Mr. Kowalski started ragging Layla directly about the goddamn cows and how they goddamn well better stay in the goddamn pastures and out of the goddamn church. Layla took it for a while, but then left the dinner table and the house. Chuck followed and in the car she started crying: "He doesn't understand. He just doesn't get it. I'm happy, I have my Goddess, I have a life, and he doesn't care because it's not what he is."
Chuck tried to calm her. He said he'd talk to her old man if she wanted, but she said, no. She said she'd stay away from the old fart if he couldn't accept her like she was.
I was surprised that Chuck visited Layla's parents: he never met a girl's parents. But mostly I was surprised that Layla was Jane Kowalski.
I remembered Jane from high school. I hadn't been much into school except for the football team, a few science classes and the English class with Miss Fitch: if Miss Fitch had asked, a teenage boy would have mown her lawn with his teeth. When I wasn't with the team, I'd hang out in the library reading Popular Mechanics or whatever I could find by the writers Miss Fitch recommended, hoping to impress her. Jane was usually there, up to her eyebrows in books. Sometimes, figuring she knew the library as well as the librarians, I asked her where things were and she'd tell me. We never struck up a conversation, though, and I couldn't remember her face except for large brown eyes that looked a littlewell, cowed.
Over the next couple of months, Layla helped Chuck clean his apartment and buy new clothes. He spent so much time at her apartment that he left the clothes there and she started washing his laundry as well as feeding him. In the past that kind of attention meant he'd soon light out, but there was no sign of that now.
The garage wasn't far from the UniversityRoute 81 was five minutes from her parking lot and the garage was two minutes from an exitso when work and classes allowed, Layla brought us lunch. Usually Chuck ate in silence, listening to us chatter about books. I caught her enthusiasm for her class readings and started borrowing some of her books, like Heart of Darkness and The Grapes of Wrath, among others.
One day when Chuck was out getting parts, I heard someone in the office. Layla stood there, holding a book in her hands, in front of the picture window. I saw her outline through her sundress and my knees went rubbery. I'd been spending too much time in the garage.
"Hi, Layla." I managed to keep my voice from skipping up an octave. "Chuck's out today, y'know."
"Oh, yeah. But it's slow at work and I had a book I thought you'd like."
She handed me The Werewolf of Paris, by Guy Endore.
"Thanks.This can't be a class book."
She laughed. "No. Just something I read and thought you'd like."
"Great. Maybe I can start it tonight."
She looked at the floor a minute, then blurted, "I have a picnic lunch in the car. Would you like to eat with me?"
Business was still slow. All I had in the garage was that damned '75 Dart back on the lift. A Dart or Layla? Layla or--? I ditched my overalls, washed and locked up faster than that Dart would ever move.
There's a schoolyard half a block away. We went there and sat on the lawn, watching some grade schoolers play tag.
Layla handed me a pita bread sandwich stuffed with diced veggies and soybean patties. That I liked it enough to eat another surprised me, but the real shock was when Layla pulled out the Twinkies. She laughed at the look on my face and said, "Guilty pleasures."
She offered me milk from her thermos but I said no, remembering Chuck's pitcher. Never drink another man's milk, I thought, and by holding my breath managed not to laugh.
"You know," she said, screwing the top back on the thermos, "I feel like weChuck, me, and youwere meant to meet. There I was, heading for a congregation meeting, when my car stalled. And suddenly, there I was with you two. The Goddess must have had something to do with it."
I nodded and looked around like I was searching for my napkin.
"It's okay. You don't have to believe for us to be friends. Ifif you want to be friends."
"What? Have I done something to make you think I don't want to be friends?"
"Well, you run hot and cold. We'll sit and talk and you're all friendly, then you clam up.Joe, do youwell, do you like me?"
I didn't know what to say so I blurted: "Hell, yes, Layla! I like you a lot. It's justwell"
"It's justI don't invade another guy's territory"
"Territory? --Joe, I'm not a pasture. Chuck doesn't own me."
I still hadn't really been looking at her, but her tone made me look up. She seemed hurt, even a little angry.
"That's not what I meant, Layla. I meant, there's enough that can go wrong between people without someone else butting in. If you and Chuck hadn't worked out so far, I'd already have knocked on your door. But your doing fine, so I back off becausewell, because I don't need to torture myself. I like you just fine, Layla."
She looked thoughtful, like she wanted to say more. Now I wonder if she had a bad feeling for the way things were going even then but, if so, it wasn't very strong and conversation dead ended. After a couple of minutes we picked up and walked back to the garage. As I stepped inside I thought she made a point of making eye contact when she said, "I'll be seeing you."
In early September Chuck invited me to dinner. The dinner was to celebrate him moving in with Layla, the catch was that I had to help him move. I wasn't surprised.
Chuck said he didn't own enough to need a lot of help, so it was just him, Layla and me lugging stuff down from his third floor apartment and up to Layla's second floor apartment. That woman was strong. She carried loads up and down stairs that would have staggered me. But she was slow; I'd have moved twice as much twice as fast if I hadn't been waiting for her on the stairs or in doorways. Sometimes I passed her standing outside, chewing gum as she ruminated on passing clouds like they were her thoughts creeping past with vegetable slowness. Once, as Chuck and I came out, her great brown eyes were fixed on the sky as a beefy, mean looking guy passed. Layla's nose twitched like she'd caught a bad scent and she turned away as he nodded to Chuck, who nodded back. She frowned but didn't say anything.
I finally saw the altar. Chuck said Layla had prayed and afterward told him the goddess didn't mind him or his stuff being in the altar room as long as the altar wasn't touched. Chuck said the Goddess was pretty mellow.
The altar was a long metal folding table draped with a brown and white table cloth. It looked like Chuck had described it, except he hadn't mentioned that the giant udder looked full. I sneezed the moment I walked in the room. It smelled of mown grass and something else, something like milk.
A second altar stood against an adjoining wall. It had everything the first one did except the pitcher.
Chuck followed me in. Pointing at the second altar, I asked, "New?"
"It's for me. I've decided I need some changes, too. I've been beat lately, not doing good at work 'cause Layla wears me out"
He grunted as Layla, coming up from behind, poked his ribs and giggled.
"Anyway, lots of guys have been joining. And I thought I'd try some of the things Layla does, like long walks, exercise, vegetarianism. See if maybe I can get back on track. Besides, the Goddess is a big part of her life, and I want to find out what she sees in Her."
I almost gagged, especially when he put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her. Jealous, I guess. If I could have snuck out, I would have: they didn't need me around and I felt like an intruder.
"I'm going to my second meeting Tuesday," Chuck said.
"Meeting? I thought this cult"
"Religion," Layla said.
"Sorry. I thought this religion was mostly on the west coast. How many of you are there?"
"About thirty. Maybe thirty-five," she said. "We meet once a week. Like to come along?"
"Uh, I don't know. I don't mean any disrespect, but I'm not into religion."
"That's okay. Most of us in the group weren't when we joined. So, why not? You can see what we're about and meet some of the members. It's not like you have to join. Just come and see us. I know you're curious."
The only team I had ever joined was the football team, and that because a guy said I was too chicken to play, so my first reflex was to say, nah, thanks anyway. But I was curious.
"Okay," I said. "Maybe I will."
That was the first time I ever saw dawn twice in one day. The slow rising delight I saw when Layla met Chuck glowed again, but this time for me. Right then I'd have become a cow for her.
Chuck kissed her again then headed back to the truck. Layla and I followed.
Layla knocked off around four to start dinner. Chuck and I finished around six. He barged into the kitchen, then popped back out long enough to toss me a beer and mutter something about checking the grub. I plopped down on Layla's couch next to her bookcase, opened the beer and started browsing titles.
A Stevenson was laying face up on one shelf. When I picked it up to look at it, I saw a copy of our yearbook underneath. Murmuring and a soft giggle from the kitchen told me I'd be alone awhile.
I meandered through the pages. There was Charlie Kelso, our best half-back, now my accountant, and Francie Poppola, my first date and my first drive-in backseat-dance partner, who had moved to California; I saw her occasionally in commercials. And there was Clarence Webb; eligible for the last draft, he'd died in 'Nam his second day there.
There were only two pictures of Jane. The first was the usual full-face shot in the senior gallery. Jane had longer hair and a rounder face than Layla, but the features were alike. The original caption said, "Shy .... quiet .... avid reader .... Jane's ambition is to become a teacher, find a man to love and marry, and have a flock of kids." I snickered: the word, flock, had been crossed out and hand-written beneath was, herd. Then I felt guilty and wondered who was more pathetic, her for writing such corn or me for laughing at her.
The second picture showed Jane walking down a hall. She hadn't been skinny or fat, short or tall, pretty or ugly. She hadn't measured up to Layla. I wondered how a Jane became a Layla.
I looked up as they came out of the kitchen and set the table. Layla was mussed and Chuck was grinning. When she saw what I was holding, she looked at me a little shyly.
"Chuck was telling me awhile ago that we went to high school together," I said, looking back at the yearbook. "I knew I'd seen you before. I remember we talked once in a while."
"Yeah. I remember, too."
She didn't say anything more, so I glanced up. She was looking at me expectantly, smiling a little.
"Okay. I admit I'm curious as hell. Why the name change?"
She laughed; I guess she was satisfied with getting me to ask. "I did that a few months ago. I was tired of being Jane: Jane with a boring job in a plumbing supply store, Jane without an education, Jane without a boyfriend. Shy, dull, lonely Jane. When I found the Goddess, I found the courage to get a new job and start classes. When I heard the song, 'Layla', I decided that was the name I wanted, the name that fit the new woman. I even got boobs. Maybe too much boobs, but that's the way of the Goddess. Her gifts are plentiful. Like Chuck. I had no reason to think I'd meet a guy. I hadn't since high school; not any guy who paid attention and really cared. And there I met Chuck and you both. All that quick, that easy. And y'know, there's not a woman in the Church who doesn't have a similar story."
I felt like an asshole for creating mysteries.
"If you'd like to borrow Jekyll and Hyde you can," she said, and I took it to mean she forgave me for being a jerk.
We stuffed ourselves with eggplant parmesan and garlic bread, with strawberry short cake and whipped cream for desert. After that we sat on the sofa and watched Layla's favorite movie, It's a Wonderful Life. While it rewound, she unwrapped an old movie she'd just bought: The Cat People. I hate horror movies. All special effects and no imagination. So, as she stuck it in, I picked up the Stevenson and said so long.
"We'll be seeing you," Layla said.