Salacious Intent on a Much Smaller Scale

By

Russell Hatler


Ralph Eagleton was principal watch repairman at Flegal Jewelers in uptown Charlotte, North Carolina. Most of the time Ralph’s job consisted of replacing batteries in ladies’ wristwatches. Everything was digital these days. But you could count on the fact that even the most robust batteries eventually lost their charge. Once in a while, a particularly voluptuous young lady would saunter tearfully in, clutching a wafer-thin, gold wristwatch with its tiny hands frozen at four-fifteen, and Ralph would become momentarily unfaithful to his wife, Margaret. In his mind anyway. After all, Margaret owned the jewelry store.


Margaret had inherited the business from her Uncle Sammy Flegal. But Ralph had a keen imagination. Ralph would graciously accept the dead watch from the quivering hand of the object of his admiration, screw in his jeweler’s magnification lens, peer intently at the offending timepiece and mentally undress his feminine prey. It was harmless enough. After all, Ralph resembled The Hobbit in visage and bearing and wore his wedding ring prominently on the third finger of his left hand. You can’t shoot a guy for his fantasies.


Oh, Ralph wasn’t your model citizen by any traditional measure. He’d come up morally short from time to time. But in the grand scheme of things, Ralph’s occasional transgressions ranked somewhere between petty theft (he’d once forgotten to pay for a bag of Doritos) and defensive prevarication (haven’t we all). In truth there was nothing particularly special about Ralph. Nonetheless, Ralph felt moderately guilty most of the time.


Ralph’s prickly dilemma popped up four months ago when Margaret asked him to run to the store for milk and cereal. Drive, actually. Ralph didn’t run any place anymore. Not since he’d pulled a groin muscle dodging traffic one early afternoon when he was late coming back from lunch. He’d come within a cat’s whisker of being flattened by a black Chevy Blazer. The driver didn’t hesitate for a moment. She just kept barreling down Trade Street. Ralph hadn’t ventured out for lunch since. After his brush with death, he was wary of walking anywhere there might be crazy drivers.


The closest store to Ralph and Margaret’s uptown condominium was the Harris Teeter on West 6th street, eight blocks away. The condo was included in Uncle Sammy’s bequest to Margaret. Ralph realized he had a lot to thank Uncle Sammy for, but he missed their two-bedroom apartment in Matthews. He still played nickel, dime and quarter poker the first Friday of every month with the old neighbors.


Ralph had gone down to the first-level parking garage, unlocked the driver’s side door of the ten-year-old Saab (not part of the bequest: Uncle Sammy didn’t drive!) and puttered away to the Harris Teeter. He parked in the lot across the street. Grabbed his eco-friendly shopping bag from the backseat, went into the store and bought the requisite items. Made an executive decision and picked up a rogue bag of peanut butter filled pretzels and a single-serving package of frozen lasagna. Wheeled his grocery cart to the checkout and fell in love.


The checkout girl couldn’t have been much over twenty. Her name tag said her name was Doris. It added that Doris was in training. Ralph gave her his phone number for their VIC account.


“Promise you’ll call?” he teased.


“I can’t promise, Mr. Eagleton,” Doris blushed. “I see from your VIC account that you’re a married man.”


“Busted!” laughed Ralph, taking the eco-friendly bag from the cart and preparing to stow the purchased items. “Beside I’m twice your age.”


“Oh, that doesn’t bother me,” said Doris with a smile. “People tell me I’m an old soul.”


Ralph glanced at Doris with renewed interest. Her fuzzy brow was furrowed. Doris was entirely focused on passing his paltry assortment of items over the bar code reader. The reader couldn’t figure out the bar code on the pretzels. She nibbled sensually on her lower lip and tried again. Once, twice, three times. He noticed that beneath her green apron, the top two buttons of her white blouse had come undone. A single drop of perspiration glistened between her perky, unfettered breasts. Ralph briefly regretted that he hadn’t bought out the entire store.


“I’m sorry, Mr. Eagleton,” she said softly. “I’ll have to call my manager.”


“Maybe we should put the pretzels back?” Ralph suggested.


“Oh, no, Mr. Eagleton,” Doris protested. “I wouldn’t want you to forego your enjoyment of those yummy pretzels just because this silly old reader won’t perform properly. I believe we as citizens fail to reward ourselves far too often. We sacrifice our personal pleasures in order to serve the outrageous demands of the power structure. My motto is if you see something you like go for it. I have an idea. Here, take the pretzels. Nobody will notice. Just between you and me I think big grocery stores should be legally obligated to give their best customers a little present now and then. It’ll be our little secret.”


And she winked.


“May I give you something in return” asked Ralph, taking the package of pretzels and surreptitiously stuffing it in his eco-friendly bag.


“I see from your VIC account that you work at a jewelry store,” whispered Doris. “If you come across any old jewels nobody wants, I wouldn’t say no.”


“How can I find you?” whispered Ralph back.


“My full name is Doris F. Winters,” murmured Doris, jotting down an address on the back of the grocery receipt. “I’m a philosophy major at UNC Charlotte. The F stands for Felatrice. Have a nice day. Ralph.”


Ralph toted the eco-friendly bag back across the street and drove back home. He didn’t recall much of the trip. His mind was elsewhere. He’d never met a girl named Felatrice. He wondered if she was worthy of her name.


The following Friday was the first Friday of the month. While he was waiting for clients, Ralph pawed through several trays of miscellaneous inventory in the store’s backroom. At the bottom of one tray, he found a star ruby pendant mounted in eighteen karat gold, obviously left behind by a long-forgotten client. The pendant hung from a slender gold chain. Ralph pocketed the item and strolled back to his cage.


At lunchtime Ralph walked down the block to a small Chinese restaurant. He selected the buffet and loaded up his plate. Then he sat down, pulled out his cellphone and toggled the entry in his contacts list for Charlie Robinson, the ring-leader of his Friday night poker group. Charlie answered on the third ring.


“Charlie? Ralph here. Listen, I can’t make it tonight. Something big came up. Tell the guys I’m sorry and I promise to go all in on a pocket pair of threes next month.”


Ralph nodded and disconnected. His palms were sweaty. A month ago, Ralph could barely spell philanderer and now he was one.


That night Ralph slipped into his favorite poker-playing jacket (sapphire blue satin with a royal flush on the back!), kissed his wife on the proffered cheek and headed to the UNC Charlotte campus. He’d alerted Doris that he’d come across something she might like. She said she got off at five. Ralph said he hadn’t gotten off in years but maybe his luck was about to change. They both had a good chuckle over that. Then she said if what he’d come across was nice enough maybe she’d come across as well. They had an even better chuckle over that.


Doris loved the pendant. She went into the bedroom of her apartment and changed into a see-through blouse. Ralph fumbled the necklace in place and tucked the star ruby between Doris’s perky breasts. Doris took hold of Ralph’s right hand and rubbed the palm against one perky nipple. Then she dropped to her knees and proceeded to live up to her middle name.


During the next four months Ralph made several voluntary trips to the grocery store. Margaret had never seen Ralph in a better mood. She assumed it was because business had picked up after the summer doldrums. Ralph was unnaturally attentive to her needs at night as well. Whatever was going on Margaret was pleased. Ralph had never been what you might call an ardent lover. But she had to admit he was learning. The only problem she had with the new Ralph was his poker nights had increased to an every-Friday thing. But given the dividends Margaret figured she could cope.


On Ralph’s behalf he was tickled to death by his newfound prowess. There was a slight problem, however. If you think it’s hard to be faithful to one woman, just try being faithful to two! He didn’t consider his dalliance with Doris to be even vaguely related to infidelity. After all, there was absolutely no penetration involved. Just a delicious sort of ecstasy he’d read about but never experienced. And the blessed relief didn’t diminish his domestic feelings for his wife one whit. Quite the contrary. He felt his relationship with Margaret had been vastly improved.


There was, of course, a minor problem. The trays of leftover jewels were beginning to empty. Ralph’s weekly emoluments to his youthful paramour were becoming increasingly lavish. And the store was about to embark on its annual inventory assessment. So, Ralph made a plan. The jewelry store occupied the entire first floor of a hundred-year-old office building.


Building codes, especially uptown building codes, had changed considerably during the past hundred years. The owner of the building had struggled to keep up, but it was a losing battle. Ralph heard through the grapevine that an inspection was due to take place the following Tuesday evening. Wouldn’t it be a Godsend if the whole place went up in flames the evening before the inspection was scheduled to take place?


Ralph didn’t know how to make that happen, but he knew a guy who might. Charlie Robinson had a checkered past. Ralph called Charlie on a whim.


“Charlie? Ralph here. Listen I’m sorry about the poker but I have a problem and I think you might be able to help.”


Ralph explained the situation to Charlie. When he finished there was a pause. Ralph was afraid he’d made a mistake. More to the point he was afraid Charlie would rat him out. Charlie’s wife and Margaret were best friends.


“You didn’t hear it from me but there’s a guy who might be able to fix your problem,” said Charlie.


Ralph wrote down the details. He made another phone call. After much oblique and delicate negotiation, they agreed on a plan. They set a date for Monday evening at midnight. They would split the insurance settlement down the middle. No one would be the wiser.


Monday evening at eight-thirty Margaret put on her coat and hat.


“I’m going down to the store,” she said. “I got a phone call this afternoon from a co-ed at UNC Charlotte. She inherited some jewelry from her father, and she’d like to bring it down to the store for an appraisal. I’m meeting her at nine. I shouldn’t be late. Maybe a couple of hours.”


The fire broke out right on schedule at midnight. Margaret wasn’t home yet. Doris didn’t answer his calls. And then a miracle happened. For the first time in years Ralph didn’t feel a bit guilty. In fact, he felt like a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Ain’t it funny how things work out?