Short Cuts

Short Cuts

" You said:

'You're not like the rest'

And I nodded

'No one understands me'

You said,

And I nodded once again,

As if to agree that,

All men are indeed the same:

'Somehow,' you said,

I was different."

-- William Shatner and Ben Folds, 'In Love'

Part Two: So We Meet Again

It wasn't the right kind of day for a funeral. Arnold stood at his grandmother's fresh grave with Phil beside him, somber and silent, his eyes lowered respectfully to the ground. A couple of the old tenants had shown up, too – Suzy, who had long ago divorced her dead-beat husband Oscar, showed up with her boyfriend, and Ernie and Mr. Hyuh also came to pay their respects.

It was late afternoon and the summer sun was still in the sky, casting sweet, beautiful shadows across the tombstones. Arnold had never been to a funeral – he'd always expected dark skies and thunder in the distance. Now, he could only hear the bells of the ice cream truck in the distance, and feel the warm rays of sun on his cheeks. He felt cheated, he wanted gloom for such a mournful day.

Arnold looked across the landscape of the small burrow cemetery. Rolling hills gave way to a pond toward the back, where he and Gerald had gone as kids to feed the ducks that resided there. His eyes found a woman kneeling at a grave near the pond in the distance, and he wondered which relative or loved one of hers had died.

The priest finished his short blessing of Gertie's grave, and Phil knelt down to touch the dirt that covered her coffin.

" Goodbye, Pookie," he whispered, and tears filled Arnold's eyes. He had to look away, to let the dipping orange sun burn his eyes clear. Phil looked up and placed a hand on Arnold's leg. The boarders that had attended the funeral were respectfully backing away, letting Gertie's family members be the last to leave.

" Could I get a second alone, short man?" Arnold's grandfather asked, and he nodded silently, pushing back more tears. He reminded himself that his grandmother had been very old, and suffered from Alzheimer's for the past three years, maybe longer. It was her time. Arnold couldn't help feeling, though, as if he'd lost another mother.

He walked off toward the pond with his hands in his pockets. He'd gotten into town last night and still hadn't gone to see any of his friends. He knew he should go visit Gerald, but he wasn't sure he was up to it, yet. Either way, he was glad to be out of California. He stopped near the kneeling woman he'd seen before, pretending to admire a nearby mausoleum. She was pretty, with short blond hair that fell around her face in shiny chunks. She had a very far away look in her eyes – she watched the tombstone she knelt at with visible angst.

God, Arnold, he thought, walking on, what are you trying to do, pick up a woman at your grandmother's funeral service? He shook his head at himself.

" Arnold?" a harsh voice called, and he turned back to the woman. She stood shakily, squinting her eyes at him. " Is that you?" she asked. Arnold tried to place her face. She looked vaguely familiar, but then, he knew most everyone in this neighborhood.

Something about the careful shape of her dark eyebrows made him remember her in a rush: " Helga!" he said, walking back to her with a grin, " How the hell are you? God, what has it been – ten years?"

" 'Bout that," Helga said, smiling slowly. Arnold stood before her, awkwardly for a moment, before reaching out and embracing her. She seemed taken by surprise, and she gingerly patted his back and returned his hug.

" You look great," he told her honestly, surprised. The last time he'd seen her was graduation, he remembered her in the parking lot as he was leaving, leaning against her mother's car and smoking a cigarette, fighting with her father. He glanced down at the tombstone she'd been kneeling at: Robert G. Patacki, it read, Beloved Father, Brother, Husband.

" Your father," he said out loud without meaning to. He thought of his own parents' memorial, which sat out in front of the science museum in town. They could have no grave, there were no remains to fill it with. Helga nodded.

" He died a couple of years ago," she told him. " During heart surgery. He never . . . took care of himself. He was supposed to take these stress management classes but –" she stopped herself and looked up at Arnold. " I can't believe I'm talking to you," she admitted. He grinned.

" You're the first person from school that I've seen since I've been back," he told her, not sure what else to say. He'd always felt something for Helga, that she held some significance in the great scheme of his life that he couldn't quite put his finger on. He remembered bits of a drunken fling they'd once had – his mind had been elsewhere, but he'd saved an image of her, thrown back against the rose-covered wallpaper in the bathroom of Nadine's parents house, her eyes burning into his and then pinched shut with passion. He pushed his lips together now, remembering it. Maybe he'd missed something in Helga, a bit of his fate ignored.

" So tell me about what I've missed," Helga said, walking away from her father's grave, " What are you doing hanging out in the cemetery, anyway?"

" My grandmother," Arnold said in a sigh, gesturing the place where Phil still knelt. " Died a few days ago. We had her service today."

" I'm-"

" Don't apologize," he cut her off quickly. Helga raised an eyebrow – he hadn't meant to sound so severe, but he was tired of empty, self-conscious apologies. The same bull he got whenever someone in L.A. asked what his parents did, the same response to his answer that had him taking to lying and telling people they were accountants in Vermont.

She eyed his fingers, " You're not married?" He shook his head and gave her the same once over: no rings.

" Divorced?" they both asked of each other at the same time, and then laughed nervously. Helga shook her head.

" You'd think so, wouldn't you?" she said, as they started walking back toward Gertie's grave. " That Helga Patacki, black widow, would have left several men in her wake . . . but no. I've never worn white." Arnold shrugged.

" You've probably come closer than I have," he said.

" Oh, so we're moving already to the sob story portion of the conversation?" Helga asked, hiding a smile, amused.

" Its not quite that dramatic," Arnold said, giving her a look. Helga bit her bottom lip.

" You always had a great voice," she said quietly, casting a look at his grandfather, who was now slowly standing. " I guess I'll see you around."

" Right," Arnold said, annoyed with her again. She was always so damned smug, so falsely sure of herself for the sake of appearances. Nothing changes, I guess, he thought. " Why don't you come to the Blue Marlina tonight?" he asked,

" Gerald plays on Sunday nights – we could all hang out. Like old times."

" I don't know," Helga said, " I'm supposed to be selling my mother's house. We'll see." Arnold nodded, and touched her shoulder before walking back to his grandfather. He thought he felt her trembling.

" Can you believe we were children here?" he heard her call, and turned back, only to see her walking away. Maybe I'm hearing things, he thought, looking back to Phil. His grandfather managed a smile when their eyes met.

" Ready to go, short man?" he asked. Arnold nodded.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Helga huffed and puffed her way out of the graveyard. Is this your punishment for my trying to be a good daughter and spying on your grave, Bob? she thought angrily as storm clouds gathered overhead. She remembered Arnold's last words to her before today – not that she'd ever forgotten them:

" You were my little dark cloud, Helga," he'd told her that night in the bathroom, his breath coming in exhausted puffs, his forehead resting on hers, more of a necessity than a motive of affection, " Always there to burst my bubble. I think I'll miss you. You were my foil."

Damn you, Bob, I know this was your doing, she thought in a mental snarl. Throwing Arnold in my face as soon as I stepped outside in this blasted neighborhood. She wasn't ready to see him yet. And now he wanted her to show up at some dive where Gerald played – ha! Gerald had always hated her with a passion, and thwarted Arnold's odd, masochistic acceptance of her whenever he could.

Helga walked quickly from the graveyard and to her small car – she couldn't wait to get back to the brownstone. I'll crawl under the covers and eat canned soup, she decided, depressed regrets rising in her stomach. I'll sell the house tomorrow and get out of town. This was a bad idea. I can't handle this place again.

She threw herself into the driver's seat and collapsed against the wheel, catching her breath. Maybe it wasn't that bad. It wasn't like he was happily married to Lila or anything. She turned on the radio and blasted the old 70's rock anthem that was playing on the classic rock station.

I should have told him I was married, she decided. If worse came to worse she could always get Duncan to masquerade as her husband.

Helga considered calling Duncan as she drove home. She reached into her purse and fingered her cell phone. Maybe she'd call Olga, instead. Maybe she'd admit to everything! She laughed at the idea and tossed the little phone back into her purse. Miriam would probably answer, anyway.

So Arnold was still a looker - that was comforting. She wouldn't have been able to stand a chubby, balding version of her childhood love. But he would never again look so beautiful as he did the night she thought he was dead. They had been fifteen, swimming at night during a camping trip that Phoebe had arranged. Helga had been looking forward to the trip for months – to be semi-alone in the woods with Arnold, with no Lila or Ruth McDougal in sight.

The swimming accident was a careless jump taken over shallow water. He'd landed with a thump instead of a splash, and Helga was the only one who noticed – Gerald and Phoebe had been smooching in the deep end of the lagoon. She'd thrashed frantically through the water until she came up with him, a limp and unconscious armful of dead weight, and she'd dragged him, sobbing, to the shore.

He had a small bump on the back of his head, and his breathing had stopped due to the water he'd swallowed after going under. His lips were purple. Helga knew what she had to do. To finally press her lips to his again, to breathe life in to him like she'd mimicked during their Babewatch scene together on the beach as kids.

But she was frozen. All she could do was stare at him. He was the perfect, crystal vision of himself that appeared in all her fantasies – silent, sleeping, black and blue. He's dying, Helga had thought, unmoving. Part of her was screaming for her body to take action, to help him, even to call for Phoebe. But she seemed to have lost all control, all she could do was watch the glow of his life fade with the seconds, all she could feel was the salty tears on her cheeks mingling with the water from the lagoon that had already dampened them.

Finally she felt Phoebe push her out of the way. Her friend lowered her mouth to Arnold's and preformed the CPR like a pro, while Gerald grabbed her shoulders and shook her, asked her why she hadn't done anything. Helga snapped back to life as he shouted, and turned to see Arnold coughing up water, alive. All she could do was cry.

She couldn't shake the feeling all night, and went to bed early in their four-person tent, curled into her sleeping bag, crying quietly while the other three made s'mores around a small fire. She could hear Arnold's voice from the nearby campfire, alive and oblivious to what had taken place in the precious seconds since he'd gone under.

He always had a great voice.

As she was drifting to sleep, she heard Gerald and Phoebe go for another dip in the lagoon. She wished Gerald the same injury, the bastard. He'd never understood what she felt for Arnold – probably thought she'd wanted him to die.

Lapsing into another tiny fit of tears, she didn't even hear Arnold climb into the tent. But she felt his hand on her shoulder, and tried to stop trembling under his touch.

" What's the big idea?" she managed to choke out.

He silenced her with, " Its okay, Helga," and her guilt was gone. He slipped an arm around her waist and she fell asleep with her hand in his, though when she woke up the next morning it was gone.

So that was the closest she'd gotten to a 'romantic encounter' with Arnold. Unless she counted the incident in Nadine's bathroom, which was anything but romantic.

Still, she thought, systematically reaching up to the sun visor for her cigarettes, it was quite a memory. She pulled her hand out, empty. So she'd quit. She kept forgetting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Phoebe followed her mother down the hallway to her old room. Curly was behind her, apologizing when the suitcase he carried brushed her legs in the narrow hallway. He was extra careful with her, lately. She hated when he got this way – as if he was handling a twice-broken china doll that he had been entrusted with.

" Here you go," her mother grinned brightly, unmindful of the circumstances and simply glad to have her daughter home. " Just as you left it," she said, like always. It was true – Phoebe's room was still a carbon copy of the one she'd left when she went off to MIT at 18. She smiled, remembering Helga telling her during their first Christmas back from college that Miriam and Bob had already turned her room into a trophy showcase of Olga's accomplishments/beeper storage facility.

" Hey mom," she said, opening the suitcase after Curly laid it on the bed,

" How are the Patackis doing? I haven't seen Helga in years . . ."

" Oh, honey," her mother said, leaning in the doorway and sweeping her long, orange bangs off her face, " I'm afraid Bob Patacki passed on a few years ago. Something about a heart transplant? I haven't seen much of Miriam around here lately – I think she spends a lot of time in the city, with the older daughter."

" Ah, Olga," Phoebe said. Curly turned from the window.

" I saw her on the news the other day," he said, " I think she was saving pandas or something."

" Yeah, she's in the Senate now," Phoebe muttered, " Mrs. Charity. I bet she's hiding a lot of dirty business under all of that good will and panda fostering. Just wait – someday they'll do a Hard Copy special on Olga Patacki's ties to the mafia." Curly laughed, and Phoebe's mom clucked her tongue.

" Pheebs," she scolded, " Actually," she then said, " Your dad said he saw a 'For Sale' sign on the Patacki house the other day."

" Oh, no!" Phoebe said, surprised with the sadness she felt when imagining the neighborhood without Patacki influence, " I hope I'll get a chance to see her while I'm home, anyway."

Her mother nodded, " Are you going to visit your dad while you're here, Curly?" she asked. Phoebe and Curly glanced at each other. His father lived out by the pier, sad and broken since his wife had left him when Curly was just beginning college. Now Thaddeus Gamelthrope II was more of a burden than the kindly old fisherman Curly had introduced her to in high school. He drank too much. He sat on his porch and looked at the sea, muttering.

" I don't know," Curly said, rubbing his neck. " Depends on how busy he is . . ." he trailed off. Phoebe made a mental note to later tell her mother not to mention Curly's father again – his family was a real sore spot.

When Phoebe's mother ducked out of the room to go help her father make dinner, Curly sat down heavily on the bed. Phoebe joined him, and put her arms around her husband's shoulders, kissed his left ear lightly. She knew lately he was afraid he'd end up like his old man, abandoned, lost, his hands rough from years of working to keep his wife happy. Phoebe darkened when she remembered that, either way, this would be his fate – be it of her own free will or not, she wouldn't even be of this earth for another five years.

He cleared his throat.

" Did you let the lab know that you were leaving?" he asked. He'd put in his own request for time off at the cancer research lab he worked for – they were more than happy to let him have the vacation - given his situation, they of all people had sympathy for his wishes to spend as much time as he could with his wife.

" No," she answered quietly, " I'm not really allowed to leave."

" Phoebe!" he exclaimed, " Why not? And won't you lose your job?"

" I don't care," she said, hopping up and beginning to pull their clothes out of the suitcase and put them into her old dresser, " I don't want to work there anymore."

" Oh yeah?" Curly asked, leaning back onto her small bed and putting his hands behind his head, " Well, I never would have guessed you were unhappy there. You sure spend a lot of extra time at the lab."

" Its all-encompassing work," she divulged, hoping he'd ask her now what she'd been doing there, " Its – hard to get away from."

" I guess you should thank me, then," he said, rolling onto his side, " For dragging you back here."

" You didn't have to drag me."

" I guess not," he relented quietly. Phoebe felt bad for him – she knew she should throw him a bone and stop being so secretive. But she needed him to ask. It didn't count if he wouldn't bother to ask.

" Would you like to see the old gang while we're here?" she asked, sitting back down beside him. " Stinky, or Arnold? I'm not sure if they still live here – but it seems like the right time for a reunion, somehow."
Curly nodded slowly, " Sure, I guess," he said, " And Gerald?" he asked, looking up at her, his gray eyes fiery. Phoebe frowned. He'd always been insanely, unrelentingly jealous of Gerald, and for no reason. Phoebe had never loved Gerald like she loved Curly – other things had been stronger – but only because she was more innocent then, and she didn't know what to expect from boys, from men.

" Why would I want to see him?" she asked, equally harsh, " I haven't had anything to do with him since tenth grade."

" Right," Curly said, " But before then – I don't know, you were friends for awhile. I'm sure there are a lot of people you'd like to see, Pheebs. But the truth is, other than you, I didn't have too many friends in high school. I'd rather just spend time with you."

Phoebe's resolve melted, and she laid back onto her pillows, reaching for Curly. He melted into her arms, a truce was called.

" Its been awhile since we were together in this bed," she said, stroking his slick, black hair into place. He nodded against her chest:

" Our first time together was in this bed," he said, giggling. " That's weird. Sometimes I can barely remember that – that we had a beginning. It seems like we've just always been together like this."

" Yeah," Phoebe said quietly, and he propped himself up over her, looking down into her eyes.

" I remember, you used to put your glasses there," he said, pointing to the small cherry-wood table by her bed, " And I'd put my watch, wallet and keys in a pile there," he gestured to a place on the floor, " And we'd hide my boots under your old jacket in the closet downstairs, just in case."

Phoebe laughed out loud, remembering, and he bent to kiss her. Her father was truly Japanese in the sense that he required all guests to leave their shoes by the front door. When she and Curly came home from school she would place her shoes in their usual spot – but as an extra precaution they'd put Curly's into hiding under the jacket with the rabbit-fur lining that she refused to wear, out of apology to bunnies everywhere.

" Pheebs," he whispered, kissing her neck gently. The memory of the feeling of making love to a young Curly in this bed came rushing back to her in a flash while his lips moved over her skin. The anticipation was nearly the best part – deciding in the morning that again they would take the chance of getting caught, setting a time to meet at the flagpole after school, and looking forward all day to finally walking home, arm and arm, giggling about their secret, about this private life that they'd created together.

Sneaking into the house was always terrifying – there was the chance that her father might have come home from work early, and would rise quietly from somewhere in the living room to catch them together. They would do away with their shoes and then creep up the stairs, as if they were sneaking around a sleeping dog, keeping themselves silent for the empty house itself, perhaps. When the door to her room finally closed, they would let out their breath, and fall together.

Sometimes they tried to have a normal conversation while undressing, to save themselves the awkwardness that came with the brand new feeling of being unclothed in front of another person.

" What did you think of Peterson's test today?" Curly would ask, his red cheeks giving his casual tone away. Phoebe would shrug and play along with the façade:

" I was pretty prepared for it," she'd answer, " But those essay questions always get me. The bastard. What chemistry teacher gives essay questions on his test?"

Then, inexplicably and without warning, talk would cease and they'd be lost in each other – the warm feeling of skin on skin that they'd nearly forgotten during lonely adolescence, the annoying yet comforting presence of the sheets that twisted around their limbs in unpolished movement, and, finally, the collapse afterward. Phoebe always loved the feeling of being pressed beneath his greater weight – even if she was a feminist, she felt so protected. Curly never forgot to tell her that he loved her before their nervous hands found their clothes again.

Filled with memories and empowered by a sense of familiarity that she'd gained over years of going to bed every night with Curly, Phoebe flipped herself over and pounced on top of him. Curly smiled hugely.

" But your parents will hear," he said, winking.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

" Here," Gerald said, showing Rhonda where to place her hands on the piano keys,

" Like this." He thought of the many times he'd used 'piano lessons' to seduce the woman of the week – or night – and realized how abruptly those days had ended.

" Hang on, hang on," Rhonda said, impatiently pushing his hands away. " I can do it." Rhonda was a far cry from the giggly girls he used to instruct on this bench, though sometimes he was afraid she learned as little as they did while trying harder.

" Well, we don't have much time," he said, glancing at his watch while she tried to pound out 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' with some difficulty. They were on stage at the Blue Marlina, and the bar opened to customers in thirty minutes. A few regulars had already snuck in and struck up a conversation with Mark.

" Oh, its hopeless," she declared, slapping the keys clumsily and folding her arms over her chest. She looked at Gerald with a petulant frown, and he couldn't help laughing at her expression. " What??" she demanded.

" You're such a brat!" he said, grinning. She whacked him on the shoulder and he laughed harder.

" Its not funny, Gerald!" she whined, somewhat sincere. " I'm not good at anything."

" Come on," he said, rolling his eyes. He heard thunder outside and cursed the summer storms – he needed a big crowd tonight, needed the money to make his car payment at the end of the month. Bad weather tended to keep people away.

" Well, I suppose I'm pretty good at accessorizing," Rhonda sniffed, " But so what? I can't be some rich woman's personal shopper – I can't keep answering the 'Aren't you the girl from Kamikaze Angels?' questions, they're dragging on me."

Gerald nodded, " Good movie," he said, blankly. Rhonda whacked him again.

" Hey!" he said, " What was that for?"

" You're not listening to me!" she said, " I need a career change." He put his finger on her forehead.

" Let me think." She slapped his hand away.

" What about something out of the country?" she suggested, kicking the toe of her boot on the floor. " I could like . . . translate for some French countess or something."

" Do you speak French?" Gerald asked. Rhonda made a face.

" See!" she said, " There's nothing."

" What's the matter with waiting tables here?" he asked. " You make good money. You're popular with the customers."

" No offense," Rhonda scoffed, " But it isn't that hard to be popular with this kind of clientele."

" Well, whatever," Gerald muttered, tired of her leftover snobbism raring its ugly head, " Hey, remember when we were talking about Arnold the other night?" She nodded. " You're not going to believe it," he said, " But he's in town! He's coming to the club tonight. I thought you'd like to see him - maybe we'll all have a few drinks when we're on break, okay?"

" Oh, great," Rhonda said, fluffing up her hair, " Throw an ex-lover in my face when I'm feeling low."

" Come on, Rhonda," Gerald scolded, " His grandmother just died." Arnold had called him that afternoon, said he'd seen Helga at the graveyard and it made him itch for a little get together. Gerald wasn't exactly thrilled about the idea of seeing Helga Patacki, but he did want to see Arnold again – the last time he'd really talked to him was on the phone, while Phoebe was off on some Italian honeymoon with Curly, Arnold had called to tell him she'd gotten married.

His call had come only a few weeks after he'd found out Anna was pregnant with Timberly – and the news of Phoebe's marriage to Curly didn't exactly sweeten the deal. Of course, Arnold couldn't have known that his life was already somewhat and recently wrecked. He had just wanted to the be one to break it to him gently. Only Arnold knew what a hard time Gerald had breaking it off with Phoebe, even while he acted as if he were doing himself a favor.

" Shit man," Gerald remembered sitting on the end of his ratty old sofa, chain smoking with the phone pressed between his ear and shoulder. The ashtray was over flowing, the record player was skipping.

" I went to the wedding," Arnold admitted, " I'm sorry I didn't call you before. I just . . . wanted to make sure she actually went through with it?"

" Hey," Gerald scoffed, " Its no surprise to me. They were like Siamese twins ever since we were seventeen. The little science nerd buddies. Shit."

" Yeah . . ." Arnold had said, and Gerald could sense he was uncomfortable. They hadn't spoke in ages, he had been surprised as hell to hear his former best friend's voice on the other line. " I saw Helga at the wedding," he added.

" Oh hell," Gerald said with a laugh, " She the same nightmare she was in high school?"

" Not really," Arnold had said quietly, " She was sort of subdued. She came alone. I went over to talk to her at one point – she was a total smart ass, of course. She seemed . . . lonely, though."

" What about you, man?" Gerald had asked, hoping they could trade sob stories. " You got somebody?"

" Actually – maybe," Arnold had stuttered with a laugh, " I met someone at the wedding. A friend of Phoebe's named Wendy. She's a marine biologist. Real cute – no makeup, even."

" That's cool, Arnold," Gerald had muttered, the company-in-misery he was looking for lost, " That's real cool."

What about you? Arnold had asked. Gerald thought about telling him – I got some shrew waitress pregnant, and she wants to have the baby. Child support checks and visitation rights, no hoaky marriage required. I'm gonna be a father – sort of.

" I'm doing alright for myself," he'd bluffed, " Got a few prospects here and there – doing alright. You know how it goes."

" Okay," Gerald said, overcome by memories of his great downfall and trying to snap out of it, " Lessons over for the day. I gotta warm up." Rhonda scowled and went off to go tie on her apron and get ready to start her cocktail waitress stint.

" About Arnold," she said as she was walking off, " He's not some big time movie producer now, is he? He's not going to ironically offer me a pity role as an extra, right?"

" Hell no, girl," Gerald said, waving her off, " He's a starving artist, through and through. Waiting on the scum of the movie business, just like you waiting on the scum of Brooklyn here."

" Hey!" one of the customers called from the bar as Rhonda walked off, satisfied, " I resent that!" He and Mark burst into laughter.

Gerald got back to the piano bench, sat down and felt the familiar flush of air as his weight pushed the cushion into its usual groove.

Arnold hadn't found out about Timberly for another couple of years after that phone call. He'd been in town, visiting his grandparents, and passed by Gerald on one of his fatherly visits, pushing Timberly's swing in the park.

He'd walked over, knowingly, letting Gerald ignore him for a moment.

" Hey," he'd began, simply.

" Hey."

" She's cute," he'd said, " She looks like you." Gerald nodded, and continued to push his daughter. They left it at that. Arnold had always been good about that kind of stuff. He never rubbed it in.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Arnold was lying on his bed, looking up at the clouds. He remembered hours spent here as a kid, then as a teenager, dreaming up adventures, and then romantic fantasies. Man, his daydreams. Where had they gotten him? Maybe nowhere, but he did believe that they helped him maintain his sanity.

He had called Gerald and made plans to meet him that night at the bar where he worked. And Helga was coming – God. He couldn't believe he'd seen her like that in the cemetery. Maybe he'd imagined the whole thing.

Helga. He'd dreamt once as a kid that he had married her. Hmph. He felt sorry for any man who went to the altar with Helga Patacki. He rolled over onto his side, and heard a knock on his door.

" Come in," he called, figuring it was Phil calling him for dinner. Instead, in walked an Asian woman in a black t-shirt and jeans. She folded her arms across her chest and regarded him critically.

" You bum," she said.

" Where are your glasses?" he asked. He hadn't seen Phoebe since her wedding. And come to think of it – she hadn't been wearing them then, either. Heck, hadn't she gotten contacts in high school? But for some reason – in this room, a piece of the past, Phoebe Heyerdahl should be wearing glasses.

" Oh, I don't know," she said, walking across the room and eyeing the décor, " In a keepsake box of my mother's, somewhere."

" Pheebs," he said, starting to get up. She beat him to it and sat down on the bed next to him, hugged him from there. He squeezed her shoulders.

" You feel thin," he told her, sitting back and having a look at her.

" Yeah," she said, looking up at his skylights. " I'm dying."

" What?" he couldn't help laughing. Ludicrous.

" No, not at the moment actually," she said, " And I doubt my weight has anything to do with that, yet. But I am." She looked him in the eye, and then collapsed backwards onto his bed, folding her hands neatly on her small stomach, looking upward.

" Phoebe –"

" Actually, I don't want to talk about it," she said certainly, shutting her eyes. " I just wanted you to know, because no one else does."

" What about Curly?" he asked, still assuming that she was joking. Phoebe had grown a macabre sense of humor as they'd gotten older. " Where is he? What are you doing here, by the way?"

" In the order that you asked," she said with a half-smile, sitting up on her elbows, " Yes, he knows. Hell, me having cancer is the thematic statement of his life. And he's downstairs. Talking to your grandfather. I'm here because – well. Because he brought me."

" Cancer – what?"

" I'm sorry about your grandmother," she said, laying a hand on his.

" Don't apologize," he said. It was all he could come up with. Phoebe looked at him with her chocolate eyes, and he knew she was telling the truth. And so they both sat still and quiet for awhile, letting it sink in.

Arnold remembered watching Phoebe at her wedding, dancing with her father to 'Some Enchanted Evening'. Curly had been so taken with her that day, as always. Phoebe and her sleek, no frills gown, her non-denominational ceremony with the Buddhist monk's blessing, the magnolia bouquet imported from Georgia. He remembered her carefree laughter then, and the sad, mourning songs from the Japanese video games of his youth played in his mind.

Downstairs he could hear Curly's self-conscious laughter and Phil's voice, jaunty again. Above them the clouds still moved across the late afternoon sky, silent.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Helga was the last one to arrive. That was the way it was, with her. It was after ten o'clock, and the Blue Marlina was just beginning to get crowded on the balmy summer night. She carried with her a Sprite bottle filled with Vodka, a single, green jolly rancher stuck to the bottom.

She'd forgotten her purse. She pushed her way into the club and spotted Arnold and Phoebe sitting near the stage with – God, was that Curly Gamelthrope? She remembered in a flash that Phoebe had married him. But wait – Phoebe? Phoebe was here?

Gerald was on stage playing piano while a slightly-off key and more than slightly overweight woman in a white blouse sang.

" Nobody loves you like I do," she belted, trying to seem professional. Helga made a U-turn and escaped into the bathroom.

She put her hands on the counter near the sink and looked at herself in the huge vanity mirror. She wasn't looking too bad this evening. Duncan often told her she was beautiful, but she was reluctant to believe him. Her nose was a little too big. Her hair sometimes looked like straw. She pushed it off her face now, felt sweat gathering on her upper lip. Wondered why she was putting herself through this. Wondered if any of the others felt trapped again, just being in this town.

The door to the ladies room opened, and a woman with short black hair walked in with a serving tray. She set the tray on the counter near the sink and disappeared into a stall. Helga thought she looked familiar. She turned the cold water on and reached down into the sink, cupping it in her hands. About to splash it onto her face, she paused when she realized it would ruin her makeup. She un-cupped her hands and let the cool water fall back into the sink and run down the drain.

A toilet flushed and out came the black-haired woman. It was hard to tell in the dim light of the restroom, but Helga was almost sure that she knew her. She watched her out of the corner of her eye as she washed her hands. The woman shot Helga an annoyed look, and she realized with a short breath who she was looking at.

" Yes!" she exclaimed, grabbing her tray, " I'm Rhonda Lloyd. Behold – a former actress waiting tables in a dive. Ta-da! Don't you feel better about your own pathetic life now?" She glared.

" Rhonda?"

" Oh my God," she dropped her tray and clamped her hand over her mouth, her eyes bursting in saucer shapes. " Helga Patacki! Shit!"

" Well," Helga said, feeling cool relief sweep over her. Rhonda was right – she did feel better about herself, seeing the former prima donna in an apron and hoop earrings, taking drink orders at the bar her parents had once routinely shuddered at as they drove past. She smiled smugly, " I'll be God-dammed."

" You know," Rhonda said, picking up her tray and shooting back, " Arnold is out there. Arnold – from high school."

" No duh, Rhonda," Helga spat back, retreating to her fourth grade vernacular, " He invited me." She almost stuck out her tongue.

" Well, what are you waiting for?" Rhonda asked, raising an eyebrow, " He's right out there. I can show you," she offered.

" I'm just – powdering my nose," Helga mumbled. Rhonda looked at her in the mirror. Next to Rhonda – even this table-serving, poverty-stricken version of Rhonda, Helga wasn't sure she looked so great anymore.

" Nice shirt," she said, and Helga couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not. She just nodded, and stared at her reflection.

" So you're waiting tables," she said, stalling.

" And I guess you're a brain surgeon," Rhonda challenged fiercely.

" Kind of," Helga muttered, " I'm a psychologist."

" Well," Rhonda said, pursing her lips and admiring her still-beautiful reflection beside Helga's. " I guess I should call you Doctor Patacki, then."

" If you want," Helga said, touching her face and wondering if those were dark circles or just shadows under her eyes. " Not many people do. I don't think I exude that doctor-ish demand for respect."

" Too bad," Rhonda chided, " You must have been in school for a long time."

" I paid my dues."

" Good to know," Rhonda said, grabbing Helga's shoulders and turning her toward the door, " Now c'mon," she said, pressing the slightly damp tray to her back and pushing her forward, " Your party awaits."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Phoebe watched him onstage while Arnold talked to her about the merits of action films. Curly was specially conscious of this, and he paid more attention to her than usual in her admiration's wake, stroking her hand on the table. Phoebe pulled it into her lap, annoyed. She didn't want to be coaxed back. Who was to say that she was even straying? She was just looking.

Gerald wasn't singing, just quietly playing the piano. He wasn't looking at her, just the occasional glance toward the back of the bar. Phoebe had already checked his field of vision out and found no hussy waiting in the wings. Maybe he'd changed his ways. Ha.

" Phoebe!" she heard a squeal zoning toward her and looked up to see Rhonda Lloyd, life-size and grinning as if she were happy to see her, heading for their table with a frigid looking Helga in tow.

" Hey," Phoebe managed, standing and giving Rhonda an awkward hug. She felt Curly stiffen beside her – he hated stuff like this, reunions. Phoebe pretended to enjoy it, to spite him. " Helga," she said, shaking her head at her former best friend.

" Pheebs," Helga muttered with a suppressed smile, and the girls broke their stances and bent to embrace each other. Helga's hug felt more natural, and Phoebe squeezed her shoulder and smelled her hair. Same old watermelon kid's shampoo. The girl had sworn by it since tenth grade.

" God," Phoebe said, standing back, " You look great." Arnold stood behind her and put his hands neatly in his pockets.

" I already told her so," he said, giving Helga The Look. Phoebe sank back into her chair – here we go again, she thought. She looked at Curly, patted his shoulder. He managed a shaky smile.

" Same old song and dance," she whispered, gesturing to Arnold and Helga as they took their seats, eyes on each other like a couple of snakes about to strike, fighting for territory. Curly nodded silently, pretending to understand what she meant.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So Rhonda Lloyd was still hot, even in an apron and ridiculous hoop earrings. They weren't speaking to each other, so far – Arnold kept his eyes locked on Helga. He felt his insides quiver. He remembered that night in Hollywood, in the backseat of his old car. The stuff his teenage fantasies were made of. He could hardly believe it had happened, even now.

" He's good, isn't he?" she was saying to Phoebe. He snorted with laughter, looking at his lap. He knew she meant Gerald, his piano playing. He wondered, anyway, if he had been good. Rhonda must have had a thousand men. God – it wasn't like him to be attracted to someone like her. He looked again at Helga, who was chewing on her bottom lip.

" So what brings you back to town, anyway?" he asked.

" I see you've forgotten our conversation this morning," Helga said, narrowing her blue eyes at him, " I'm trying to sell my mother's house," she reminded him, making him feel like an idiot. Rhonda was standing, he couldn't see her expression without looking, and he definitely wasn't looking.

" And Rhonda, darling," Helga added, looking at her nails, " A glass of scotch, on the rocks. Make it a double. And try to keep your saliva out of it, if you don't mind." Arnold had to give her credit.

" Ah, you know me too well," Rhonda returned without missing a beat.

" Would you like anything, Arnold?" she asked, " You still haven't ordered a drink." He glanced around the table, taken off guard, and noticed Phoebe halfway through a vodka Collins, and Curly, of course, overcompensating for issues with his father the drunken seaman, sipping on a coke.

" Um," he said, " I'll have the same as Helga," he decided, excepting her challenge. The first one crawling home stone drunk wins? Maybe they'd even end up in bed together. He had no objection to that.

He watched Rhonda walking away. Did she know his eyes were on her? Rhonda freaking Lloyd. Waiting tables in Gerald's bar. Too good to be true.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Gerald couldn't concentrate, but that was an understatement. He felt out of body; someone else was making sure his fingers hit the right keys, surprised when they did. Meanwhile, his conscious self was floating above Phoebe, maybe touching her hair, pressing its face to her neck.

All he could think about was early high school, when they began to trust each other in small ways with intimacy. Gerald had never done more than kiss her, but somehow Phoebe's kisses were sexier and more exciting than the millions of pretzel shapes women had twisted themselves into in bed with him in his adult years. Sexier than the homecoming queen he'd left her for, and maybe even that one time with the Laker's cheerleader at the Halloween party.

Maybe what he missed most of all was the innocence. Walking with Phoebe to the movie theater through the bad part of town, knowing he would protect her, come what may. She always cried at certain movie moments, but not the sappy ones that got most people. No, Phoebe cried at the subtleties – a lone golden retriever walking lost through a corpse-strewn battle field, a child feeling remorse after squashing a lightening bug.

He finished his set and took his modest bow while the owner's daughter, chubby Patrice, waved graciously to the crowd. Gerald wanted to push her off the stage. Her voice was flat and self-important – he missed Laurel, the woman in her mid-forties who sang from her soul, who let her dead teenage son and wrecked marriage pour out subconsciously in every haunting blues lullaby. She'd left with the other talent when the place had started going under.

" Phoebe," he said casually, walking off the stage and nodding to her, " Hey, what's up?" He couldn't come up with anything better – not with Curly drilling a hole in his forehead with his glare. That Curly – who knew what he was capable of. Gerald knew he'd have to watch his step around ole' 'ball monitor', as they'd teasingly called him in junior high.

" Curly," he said, turning to her husband and pursing his lips, " You look good, man," he extended an arm and Curly briefly shook it.

" Yeah, you too," he lied. Gerald had meant what he'd said, though – Curly looked different, had ever since Phoebe gave him the time of day. She could do that to a man, old Heyerdahl. He looked back to her – she was dressed simply, as always, in a feminine t-shirt and jeans. No makeup, just those dark, almond eyes and that perfect little mouth, poised to strike. She still hadn't spoken.

" Gerald," she finally said, " Its been . . . awhile." She looked bored. He didn't blame her. She was probably rolling with laughter inside – he'd left her, genius scientist, to pursue a life here, in the dank corners of their childhood neighborhood? Ha. He nearly laughed himself.

" Yeah," he said, sitting in a chair Arnold offered and casually performing their old handshake. " When's the last time I saw you? High school?"

Phoebe nodded, " And barely even, then." She was drinking a beer, and there were a few glasses of melting ice sitting empty around her. Hmm. He never would have pegged her as a big drinker.

" I guess we all ran in different circles by the time high school was over," Arnold offered, always the peacemaker. Gerald looked at his old friend – they'd talked briefly before he'd started playing, Arnold was worried about what would happen to the Sunset Arms after his grandfather died. Gerald hadn't said anything, but he'd wanted to chime in, tell him that he only wished his biggest problem was what to do with his coming inheritance. He and Arnold didn't have much in common anymore, to say the least.

" That's true," Phoebe said, downing the last gulp from the bottle, " Where's Rhonda?" she asked, looking around. He saw Curly reach over and squeeze her hand fruitlessly, Phoebe swatted him away. He looked up at Helga, who, of course, had her eyes on Arnold's lap as she polished off a martini.

" Patacki," he shouted across the table, " How's life treatin' ya?" Helga looked up in surprise, as if she'd just now noticed he was there.

" Oh," she said, " Alright, I guess. You want to buy a house?"

" I wish I could."

Rhonda appeared at the table then, with a fresh beer for Phoebe. Curly pulled on his collar.

" Need anything?" she asked Arnold while leaning over him to collect Phoebe's empty glasses. Gerald saw his former best friend's eyes wandering over his currant best friend's body.

" Yeah," he heard Arnold mutter, scratching his head, " Another martini."

" Here, here," Helga chimed in, finishing hers in a dramatic swallow. They eyed each other across the table as Rhonda ran off to get their drinks. Always at each others throats – Gerald thought of the fourth grade spelling bee with a snort of laughter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So they weren't having the life-altering conversation she'd envisioned. Mostly they were having an all night drink-off, and she was proud to say that she was winning.

Helga looked over at Arnold. She saw a tiny smile play on his face as Rhonda returned with their drinks. Intrigued, Helga lifted her glass for a toast.

" To old friends," she said, and Arnold brought his glass to hers, the even 'clink' their meeting made sealing the deal.

Maybe the night would be interesting, after all. Helga felt drunk, but not in the sorry, lesser way that she did around Olga at her ceremonies. She felt alive, and pretty. He'd been staring at her all night. My, she thought, how the tables have turned. Phoebe tugged on her sleeve.

" Helga," she said with a smile, her black-brown eyes glossy. " What did you think of the music?" Helga eyed Gerald, who was pretending not to listen as he chatted with Curly about traffic in Manhattan or some nonsense.

" Oh, it was good," she bluffed for his sake. Gerald looked awful – haggard and downtrodden, and even she wasn't cold enough to admit that if she'd heard another note played while that whale belted out her song, she'd puke.

" Right," Phoebe said, looking at Curly, touching his chin. " Do you remember when we used to listen to Ronnie Matthews?" She giggled.

" We?" Helga said with a laugh, " You're the one that was obsessed with him. I couldn't have cared less about the guy." Phoebe laughed.

" I can't believe we met him."

" I was jealous," Gerald suddenly piped up, " Not that you got to meet him. But that – you know. You had a crush on him." He winked.

Some nerve, Helga thought, looking at Curly. But Phoebe's husband was just looking at his shoes, not prepared to fight back. To him, maybe, Gerald was still the enormous football star who could whoop him after school if he looked at him the wrong way in the hall. Poor Curly. Helga had always approved of him as Phoebe's mate, always hated Gerald.

" Ohhh," Phoebe said, looking at the table, " I didn't know. Sorry for the emotional trauma that must have caused," she rolled her eyes. Curly smirked. Helga briefly felt sorry for Gerald, then got over it.

" I thought you might have hard feelings –" he began, but Phoebe stood up before he could finish, pulling Curly with her.

" We should go," she said, pushing her dark hair off her forehead, " My mother is probably waiting up."

" Me too," Helga said, standing. She wasn't ready to be left alone with Arnold yet – their meeting in the cemetery had freaked her out enough.

" I'll walk you home," he offered suddenly, standing on wobbly legs. Helga grinned. On second thought . . .

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It had been awhile since she'd drank that much. Phoebe stumbled up the stairs toward her bedroom with Curly's help.

" Baby," she whined, leaning against the wall, " I don't feel so good."

" Alright," he whispered, " Don't talk so loud, you'll wake your folks." He helped her into the bathroom, and Phoebe flopped down over the toilet seat, ready for the inevitable. She'd never had a strong stomach.

" I haven't had that much to drink since our wedding night," she moaned, making the water in the bowl ripple slightly against her breath.

" My poor baby," he said, stroking her back, " You were sick that whole first night of our honeymoon." She could hear him smiling – it was still a good memory, for him. He'd gotten to take care of her.

" The plane ride was the worst," she said, remembering. " In that tiny bathroom the whole time, people knocking on the door, thinking we were trying to join the mile high club." Curly laughed.

" We got to the hotel and you just passed out," he said, " So much for a romantic wedding night."

" I'm sorry," she said, thinking back. No bed had ever felt so good. When they'd finally got to their room, she collapsed, let Curly take off her clothes and rub her back until she fell asleep, which didn't take long. In the morning, she'd had a headache. They finally made love in their honeymoon suite that afternoon, while the tropical sun was just starting to dip behind the ocean, while Phoebe's head was finally clearing.

" Curly," she cried, feeling guilty about her earlier thoughts about Gerald,

" Hold my hair?"

After she got sick, he helped her to bed, undressed her and put her under the covers. When she said she was hungry, he went downstairs and came back with a bag of Oreo's. They laid in bed, eating Oreo's and looking up at the ceiling.

" We should have a second honeymoon," she said. He sighed.

" What did you think of Gerald?" he couldn't help but ask. Phoebe rolled her eyes.

" Just a loser," she said, feeling a pang of guilt. " Nothing surprising."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

By the time he'd walked a few blocks with Helga, Arnold had forgotten all about Rhonda, who hadn't seemed as if she wanted to give him the time of day, anyway. Helga kept stumbling into him, probably on purpose, he kept grabbing her waist. She was a good-looking woman.

" Do you remember Romeo and Juliet?" she asked, laughing. He burst into laughter just thinking about it. They'd kissed. Their first kiss.

" Yeah," he said, laughing. " You were all over me."

" I was acting!" she said defensively, and they both cracked up. They rounded the corner near Green's Meats and Helga broke her heel.

" Shit," she said, pulling her shoes off. " Pieces of junk. I guess you'll have to carry me!" Calling her bluff, Arnold scooped her up in his arms. She laughed, and put her arms around his neck.

" My hero," she said, giggling. " Seriously, though. Put me down, I can do it." Arnold clucked his tongue at her.

" Always afraid to ask for help," he said, placing her down. She clung to his neck, and he knew what she'd had in mind all night.

" Not true," she said, looking up at him. He bent his head and kissed her, tired of the small talk. He felt her sigh into his mouth, and was taken by surprise by how good she felt, wrapped around him. He had a flashback, that prom party.

" Hey," she said, breaking their kiss, " Come home with me."

" Okay." She didn't have to ask him twice.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Somewhere in a more alert part of her brain, Helga was aware that she had Arnold's hand in hers, that they were heading back to her house. She would take off her hose and turn on some old seventies soft rock, they would make love and recover from their hangovers tomorrow morning. Was this why she came home? Was this really happening?

In the bigger, drunk part of her brain, she was only aware that she was feeling frisky and she needed to satisfy 'the urge'. They stumbled toward the brownstone, and Helga was vaguely aware of someone standing outside, looking up at the house.

" Its for sale," she called, " If you're interested." As they got closer, she realized who she was talking to.

" Brainy?" Arnold exclaimed before she had the chance. He laughed and dropped her hand. Sure enough, it was Brainy, from high school. Helga had forgotten his real name, apparently, so had Arnold.

Brainy grinned slowly, embarrassed. " Hey," he said in his weirdly deep voice.

" What are you doing here?" Helga asked, annoyed. Way to spoil the moment.

" Just walking," he said quietly, " I walk past here – sometimes." He looked at his shoes. " Hey, Arnold," he added, resentful.

" Oh my God," Helga said, " I'm going to throw up."

" Helga!" Arnold scolded.

" No," Helga said, putting a hand on her stomach, " I really am." She leaned over the railing that held the trashcans and puked.

Straightening up when she was finished, she turned to see the two boys starting at her. Well, men, to be technical. But they sure looked like boys, standing there, in the old neighborhood, watching her.

" Look, Arnold," she said, putting a hand on her forehead, " Why don't you just go home? I don't feel – so good."

" Alright," he said, sobering up a bit, " I'll see you later, Helga. Give me a call." She nodded, and looked to Brainy, who was looking at her with his hands in his jacket pockets. He still wore glasses, he was very tall and then with light blond hair. He gave her a sheepish smile.

" What are you waiting for?" she barked, " Me to invite you in? Ha!"

" Oh – you want me to go?" he asked. She groaned.

" Yeah!" she said, " Mr. Perceptive."

" OK, Helga," he said, with a small wave, " I'll see you around. I – I didn't know you were back in town. Will you be here for long?"

Helga sighed, and rubbed her eyes. I hope not, she thought.

" You never know," she said.

A/N: Ahhh. I don't really know how I feel about this story. Right now I feel like its just rambling on and it needs to be a lot shorter – that's how I meant to style it all along, with short burst of POV from each character (hence the name: 'short cuts') What do you guys think? ~ Mena