Voluntary Ineptitude

By Doug Van Hooser

Nick’s body gave him the cue. It was nicotine time. He turned off his workstation and headed for the side entrance. The cool evening air had its own intoxication, and he relished it almost as much as the cigarette. He leaned back against the wall, letting it support his bad habit. Someday he would have to quit, maybe if he met a girl who didn’t like it but liked him, an incentive to displace one pleasure for a better one. This part of the evening was relaxed, an exhale, the bustle of the daytime gone, the sounds of the city subdued, people at home letting the day drain. But it was also the best time for him to work, actually accomplish something other than going to meetings and reading emails.

Nick inhaled deeply and purveyed the windows of the building across the street. Would she be there? It had become an incentive to take his break after the dark had nestled around the buildings. Back-lit windows afforded a view of the interior of the apartments, the televisions and the occupants. Some closed their curtains, but many neglected to shut out the world until they prepared for sleep. He didn’t see her, but then a light came on. She was in the kitchen, headed for the refrigerator.

Debbie fumbled her keys, dropping them, clanging against her foot. She took a deep breath, another frustration to pile on her twelve-hour day. She should be happy. At least she had a job, and it paid well. But life as an attorney at the bottom of the pole left her with money and no time to enjoy it except for purchasing blouses, shoes, and swimsuits online. At least once a week, it allowed her to escape the office to deliver items for return to the UPS Store; half the blouses, most of the shoes, all but one too revealing bikini. She set the armload of work she would not look at down on the floor and picked the keys up so she wouldn’t fumble one-handed to find the right one. It was dark in the apartment. She missed the days when she left and arrived back home while the sun still shined. She turned on a light so she could find her way to the kitchen. She went to the refrigerator and got a Diet Coke. She popped the top and stepped over to the window, and looked down on the street. There was the glow of a cigarette and the outline of the smoker leaning against the building across the street. What a lousy habit, she thought, but it reminded her of her favourite films from the forties and fifties when cigarettes were cool: a prop, desirable men used. She could make out the man’s face when he inhaled. She watched him take another drag, then she turned and went to find the light switch. She opened the freezer, took out a frozen meal, put it in the oven, and set the temperature and timer. She looked again toward the window, but with the light on, she couldn’t see the man. She realized with the backlight he would now be able to see her, but she did not draw the blind. There was really nothing for him to see except an overworked, tired woman. At least someone saw her, noticed her.

She was getting her meal from the freezer as usual. Even from this distance, she looked tired. That stack of folders meant she didn’t leave work when she left work. She was probably an eight to eight-person. The only way he avoided twelve and fourteen-hour days was to come in after lunch. She should try that, but maybe she didn’t have a job that allowed it. She peered into the oven. Her eating habits were a step down from his, or maybe not? Eating at sub shops and fast-casual restaurants probably was less nutritious than frozen meals. He wondered if her place of employment, like his, had bowls of fruit?

She came to the window and peered out. Did she see him? Probably she could tell someone was there but wouldn’t be able to see him well enough to recognize him. Or point him out in a lineup if he was a criminal, someone who had assaulted her. Stolen that stack of folders as if they had some value. Then a sudden thought crossed Nick’s mind; could be standing on the street smoking a cigarette gazing through an apartment window make him a peeping Tom? Was he breaking some law?

Was it his imagination? Was she looking at him? She turned and sat at the table, shoved her work product out of the way and started punching her phone. Was she calling the police? There’s a strange man standing across the street smoking a cigarette? Nick threw his smoke to the sidewalk and crushed it. No, she wasn’t talking. She must be looking at email or some social media site. She had to have a better social life than he did.

Debbie gazed at her phone. It was like the phone had become her best friend, certainly a constant companion. How many times a day did she check it, hoping it would connect her with someone, something? But it was mostly banal. She was a voyeur. Looking at other people’s lives. At least they had things they wanted to relate even if they were just everyday occurrences. People found happiness in such mundane things. She had stopped “liking” things people posted. What did she have to post? A photo of the contract she hadn’t finished? Her five hundred calorie meal? The glowing cigarette of some man down on the street?

Debbie stood and looked out the window. Was he still there? She couldn’t see him. She brought her hand up to the top button of her blouse and idly ran her forefinger and thumb around it. Maybe she should change into her nightgown while her meal warmed up? She unbuttoned the top of her blouse and pressed her nose against the window. He was still there. She could feel it. There was an orange glow that brightened then faded. Her fingers found the next button and fondled it. She thought, I love the smell of burning tobacco, but it’s such a filthy habit. She turned and left the room.

Was she looking at him? Probably not, just idly looking out at the world, though God knows there was nothing to look at, just another building and a nearly empty street except for a guy with a bad habit. She had to be about his age. She looked attractive from this distance; he liked her hair, probably was intelligent judging from that stack of folders. But how do you meet someone like her? She had to enter and leave the building from the other side of the block. Go stand outside the building early in the morning and wait, try to catch her leaving for work? Coming home from work? That would be like stalking her. There was his second crime, the man charged with creepiness in the first degree, stalking and peeping.

What if he could take a photo of her? Maybe he could post it and tag it, and somehow, that would lead him to her social media? Get her name. But that would not get him her phone number. Try to friend her? No, that was really bizarre. Any woman with half a brain would run from that. She wasn’t a naïve fifteen-year-old. Even if he could meet her, what would he say? “Hey, I go out for a smoke every evening and see you eating frozen dinners and thought maybe you would rather go out and get a sub sandwich?” There was a word for that: loser. He pulled out another cigarette. He shouldn’t smoke another one, but he didn’t finish the first one. Maybe it would help him think of another way? There had to be some way of meeting her.

She went to the bedroom, drew the blind and loosened the cord holding the sheer curtains, and got her nightgown and housecoat from the closet. She kicked off her shoes and started to unbutton her blouse. What a ridiculous thought. Give the guy a cheap thrill? Stupid, ridiculous, not her. It was autopilot, privacy, close out the eyes of the world when you undress. She started to sway, twirled, bumped her hips, unbuttoned one button, then another, dancing; she pulled off her blouse and waved it overhead, spinning, kicking her leg in the air. She stopped. She stared at the blank movie screen the blind made. What was she doing? What kind of goofy fantasy was this? She took a deep breath, exhaled, mumbled, “screw it,” and started to dance again. She bumped and ground her way to the window and grabbed a curtain wrapping it around herself. With the blind down, no one could see. If he was still out there, she would just be a shadow. She unfurled the curtain and spun back and forth across the screen of the blind. She started to laugh and fell on the bed, trying to catch her breath, the laughter swelling. What a dumb way to act. After twelve hours of reading and writing boring contracts, come home and do a bad strip act in your bedroom for no one. She took a deep breath, got up off the bed and slipped out of her skirt. She reached around to unclasp her bra. She turned to the blinded window, then crossed the room to the light switch. She hesitated for a second, then threw the switch. In the dark, she wouldn’t be seen. She closed the bedroom door to make sure there was no light and went to the window, pulled the curtains back and let the blind up. She looked down and across to the other side of the street. A few seconds passed. Then there was a small, bright flash. He was lighting another cigarette. She shrugged and let the brassiere fall. She put her arms overhead and stuck out her chest. She held the pose and watched as the glow lit his face and then faded. She turned and struck another pose. The cigarette glowed again.

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The light in the bedroom came on. Nick fumbled with the cigarette, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. Should he or should he not? It was tempting. He could just light it and not really smoke it. It would give him an excuse to be out here leaning against the building in case someone came by or out of the building. She closed the blinds and curtains. He could make out a faint shadow. What was she doing? Getting ready for bed to sleep off the grind of her day? What size was her bed? Queen, king? Maybe it wasn’t large enough to accommodate two? The shadow was moving, an apparition that was flowing, twisting, turning like a fantasy. Was there music he couldn’t hear? Rock and roll, hip-hop, an old Viennese waltz? He stood off the wall, his body rippling as he imagined dancing with her. Then the shadow disappeared, fell out of the light. His disappointment surprised him. How could he be disappointed? It was all in his head. There was no reality here. The light went out. He stared at the blankness, leaned back against the wall and stuck the unlit cigarette in his mouth. He deflated like a balloon. He flicked his lighter on but continued looking at the black hole of his fantasy.

He lit his cigarette. Did she open the blind? He took a drag, transfixed with his imagination. He inhaled again.

One pose, then another. She stuck her chin in the air, hands on her hips. She leaned over and gave a look only a camera could interpret. She threw her arms out to the side and smiled as if proud of her bosom’s display. She pivoted and bent over, mooning him. Then stood up and went to the window, sticking one fingertip in the side of her mouth, her tongue between her teeth. She took the other hand and cupped her breast like an offering. Then both breasts. A pose she had seen when she was twelve and found an old calendar hidden under underwear and t-shirts in her Grandfather’s clothes chest. She had wondered why anyone would find such a thing interesting to look at and why keep it hidden in a drawer? And now here she was, mimicking that lady. She was a lady, wasn’t she? A woman just trying to make a living, using the assets she had. But here she, Debbie the stripper attorney, was, in the dark, collecting her fee in an indulgent fantasy. She sighed, looked down at the street and the small orange glow, a hole in the dark.

She turned and put on her nightgown, started putting on her housecoat, stopped, picked up her clothes, and looked in the closet. She put the blouse and skirt on hangers, hanging them in the already been worn end of her closet. She looked back to the window; her eyes were adjusting to the dark. She put on her bra and panties and got blue jeans and an old sweater putting them on. How well did his eyes adjust after standing outside with the city’s ambient light and the flash of his cigarette lighter?

She returned to the kitchen. She came to the window. Was she looking at him? Could she see him? She must be looking at something, or did she enjoy the blankness of the dark? Maybe there was something romantic about the city at night, the sky reflecting the city’s light as if the moon was glowing behind thin clouds. She was contemplating something, thinking, not seeing. He dragged on the cigarette. Maybe he could use the cigarette to send an S O S? Save me. I don’t want to go back to work. I’m lonely. I need to meet you. She turned and walked back to the table, sat down and looked at her phone. Send me a message, Nick thought. My phone number is 312-822-9202. What is yours? My name is Nick, what is yours? Can I call you?

This was insane. If they were kids, he would find some pebbles, stand below her window and toss them against the glass. She would come to the window and smile as if she couldn’t contain herself. Her teenage prince had come. She would throw the window open and lean out. They’d start talking and lose track of the distance between them. Then start plotting how she could climb down from the window and into his waiting arms. Oh, my, lord, what a load of crap. He threw the cigarette on the sidewalk and scrubbed it out with his shoe, stuck his hands in his pockets.

He had coins. He pulled them out and looked at a penny, a nickel and a quarter. He looked back up at her window. She was peering in the oven. He crossed the street.

As Debbie peered in the oven, she thought, why did I inherit this habit? One thing she picked up from her Mother. Heat things in the oven, not the microwave. It heats more evenly. A microwave is about speed, and for her Mother, speed implied impatience. That’s what Debbie needed to do: take her life out of the oven and put it in the microwave. She turned, glancing out the window, seeing nothing and sat down at the table, picked up her phone. Email or Facebook? A decision she made every morning and evening. Even that was stale.

She had already checked her email, so she went to Facebook. Her Mother had downloaded new photos of her father. That’s where she had acquired her infatuation with the scent of tobacco. When she was growing up, he’d sit in his recliner reading and smoking until he turned on the television. Then one night, he came home and announced, “It’s time to throw out this bad habit.” And he quit, just like that. He made up his mind to change, and he did it. She needed a change. She could give up frozen dinners and start cooking. But that would never work. She didn’t have time to buy food and plan meals. Maybe she should switch to the microwave? No. That would be like switching brands of cigarettes. Quitting her job wasn’t an option. If she found a position at another law firm, it would be the same thing. Same old same old: her life’s mantra.

There was a ding at the window. Had a bird run into it? It was dark. Birds wouldn’t be flying around. Some big bug?

Nick took up position directly below her kitchen window. He looked at the small change in his hand, looked up and thought, what the hell. What was the worst thing that could happen? She could ignore it. Or, she could call the police. Was he breaking some law? Misdemeanour coin tossing? Felony: hey, what’s your name? Second degree: I couldn’t think of another way to meet you?

Nick took one step back and threw the penny at the window. It clanged against the glass, then two seconds later bounced off the sidewalk away from him. He looked up. Waiting. Wondering: what is she thinking? She didn’t appear. Well, that didn’t work. Maybe he should up the ante? Go with the nickel? He flipped the coin a foot in the air, caught it with his right hand, and turned it onto the back of his left hand. Tails. Give it a whirl. He threw the coin at the window. It made a louder noise than the penny. He looked up at the window, smiling.

There was another clunk. What the hell was going on? Debbie pushed back from the table and stared at the window. Something had definitely hit it. But whatever it was, was gone. That’s pretty spooky. This had never happened before. Never in all the nights, she sat there waiting on her dinner. Was it her imagination? Was it louder the second time? Was it some big beetle attracted by the light? Some life form that didn’t comprehend glass was a barrier. What was on the other side you could not touch? Debbie stood up and tried to peer out the window. But the darkness was blank. She couldn’t see a thing. If she went to the window, maybe she could get a better view?

Nick stood with his head tilted back, counting. He reached twenty. She had not appeared. So, this was a bad idea that had failed. They weren’t teenagers. Maybe the natural curiosity of youth had shrivelled, been overtaken by the caution of maturity. He stuck both hands in his front pant pockets. One coin left. He flipped the quarter between his thumb and forefinger over and over. Three’s a charm? He took his hand out of his pocket, kept his eyes on the window, and twisted the coin on its edge as if there was a message there his fingertip could read. He put his arm behind his head, hesitated, then fired the quarter at the window. It hit so hard he thought for a second he might have broken the glass.

Debbie jerked back when the coin hit. She saw it, but it was just a silver glint and then gone. She picked up her phone and dialled 911.

“911, what is your emergency.”

“Hi. I live at 908 West Jackson on the second floor, and something keeps hitting my kitchen window. It’s happened three times. I don’t know what to do?”

“908 West Jackson. I’ll dispatch a patrol car to check it out.”

“Thanks. Oh, the backside of my apartment faces Clinton.”

“I’ll have a squad car check the 900 blocks of Clinton. Please stay on the line.”


“You say you are on the second floor?”

“Yes, in an apartment. It’s an apartment building.”

“Do you have any windows or other access on the first floor?”

“Not on this side of the building.”

“You see anyone outside the window?”

Debbie hesitated. Why had she not looked? “I’ll look.” She could hear a siren. They were not close but on the way.

“That’s all right. Stay back from the window. The squad car should be there very quickly.”

Why had she not looked? The siren was getting louder. She crept up to the window and looked across the street. The man smoking was gone. She leaned closer to the window and looked down.

There she was. Nick waved, a large sweeping motion as if she were a hundred yards away, not twenty feet. She saw him. Gave him a timid wave back. Maybe she couldn’t see him clearly. Nick took out his lighter and flicked it on, held it by his face, and motioned with his thumb to the other side of the street.

Debbie could tell the man was waving. His lighter flared. It was the guy from across the street. She couldn’t be sure, but it had to be. He must have been watching her watching him. The siren was loud. What had she done?

“The car should be arriving, miss.”

“Ah… it is.” What should she do? She hung up the phone, pivoted and rushed to the door, opened it and hurried toward the elevator. She would have to go all the way around the building. Why was she waiting in the elevator? She headed for the stairs.

Nick saw the patrol car around the corner. Lights and sirens, was there an accident? Hopefully, no one was hurt. The car came to a stop right in front of him. Nick looked up at the window. She was gone.
Both officers got out of the car, each had a hand on their gun. What had he done? He raised his hands, palms open, up to his shoulders and mumbled, “Half guilty, your honour, of trying to get a women’s attention: voluntary ineptitude in the third degree.”

Doug Van Hooser writes and resides in the Chicago area and southern Wisconsin, where he cycles, sculls, and uses an alias when Baristas ask him his name. He’s a graduate of the University of Illinois, married with two children. His poetry and fiction can be found in over fifty literary publications in print and online. A number of his plays can be read on The New Play Exchange.

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