by Theresa C.
“You know, I’ve been hearing rumors about this guy for twenty-five years. I thought it was a load of bull. Just one of those stories old-timers tell… Now look at me.” Mrs. Mulcahy held out an arm covered in goosebumps. “It’s like someone is dancing a drunken jig on my grave.”
Fiona couldn’t take her eyes off the liver spots on the woman’s hands. She knew she was supposed to ask a question, but all she could think to ask her former math teacher was, “When did you get so old?” But she was supposed to be interviewing her about an alleged foot-tickling. She felt almost as ridiculous as the crime itself.
“He was just standing there, tickling my feet, like a complete perv.” Mrs. Mulcahy sucked on a cigarette, her short, gray hair falling flat in the humidity. “When I woke up, he ran like hell out the front door.”
“The front door? Is that how he got in?” Fiona scribbled in her notebook.
“Must’ve been. I fell asleep with it open, watching CSI. My screen door squeaks like the dickens, though; I don’t know how I didn’t hear him.”
“And he didn’t take anything?” Fiona twirled a strand of black hair around her index finger until it turned from its usual rosy pink to a sickly purple. She imagined the headline: “Algebra Teacher’s Foot Fondled.”
Mrs. Mulcahy sighed and Fiona let the blood back into her finger. They stared at each other from opposite sides of an antique farm table – not the kind you see in rich people’s homes, but the sort you find in the crumbling kitchens of the frugal. Judging from wear, it had probably been in the family for generations.
“Weird.” Fiona shrugged and looked into the foyer; a room as sparsely furnished as the rest of the colonial. Someday, when Mrs. Mulcahy sold the place—or died, whichever came first—a nice preppy couple would move in, rehab the kitchen and bathrooms, start popping out kids, and then sell it for a tidy profit before moving to a newer, bigger house. It was the Oakfield way—or at least it was these days. Fiona couldn’t help but frown at the thought.
“Was there anything familiar about him?”
“Not really. I mean, like I told the cops, he was dressed like half the guys in the neighborhood. Nothing unusual, except it’s a bit hot for corduroys and flannel. And he had a baseball cap pulled down, practically over his eyes,” she replied, absentmindedly picking at a snag in the tablecloth. Despite the gray hair, she looked a little like a daydreaming kid; just the kind Fiona had been when she was getting Cs in the woman’s algebra class.
“Well Missus Mulcahy, unless you’ve got anything else to tell me I think I can take a few pictures and get out of your hair.”
“It just doesn’t seem real, ya know?” The teacher took a drag off her cigarette, and then coughed.
“Can I get a picture of you in your chair?” Fiona asked and the former teacher obliged, settling into her recliner just as she had two nights before when the legendary Oakfield Foot Tickler resumed his questionable and maybe, sort of, illegal activities.
Carolann, the waitress at McCabe’s, was sitting on a stool not too far from Vic Flanagan, but not too close either. Vic wasn’t the town drunk exactly. He napped more often than he drank, but almost never left his barstool – not even to go to the bathroom. She was leaning on one elbow while watching the Red Sox game, waiting for Vic to snap back to life and ask for another beer. The bell over the door jingled as Fiona Blake stumbled into the bar. She waved limply at Carolann, and then threw herself into a booth.
“Hey, Fi, you hear about Beth Mulcahy?” Carolann asked, setting a Sam Adams on the table.
“Yeah, I’ve been working on the story all day,” she answered, raising the beer and tipping it to her lips. Fiona had dropped her ancient Corolla off at home, and walked down Main Street to McCabe’s – as was her custom on nights she expected to drink more than the law allowed. She didn’t want to have to put her own name in the newspaper’s DUI column.
“You think it’s that creep, Irv?” Carolann asked.
“I dunno.” Fiona shrugged. “Maybe it’s an isolated incident.”
“I think it’s Irv; always have.”
Carolann looked around and then slid into the booth across the table. The only other customer in the bar was Vic, who was still nodding. From the way she was acting, Fiona half expected Carolann to ask her to meet her out behind the bar after dark, and to come alone. She leaned in and began to whisper.
“When I was fifteen I was coming home late one night…I was a bit wild back then. I thought I was in deep shit.”
Fiona pulled her notebook out of her bag. “Do you mind if I write this down?” She had once been stuck in a traffic jam caused by someone hitting a black bear on Route 17 and had been caught without her camera or even a notebook; she’d carried them both with her ever since.
“Sure, Sugar, go ahead. Anyway, like I was saying…I came home, went creeping up the front steps. It was May, I think…The television was on that late-night snow stuff, and my mom was asleep on the couch. So there I was all creeping in and trying not to get busted, and standing beside the couch was this skinny guy in a hat and corduroys, with her slipper in his hand.”
“She didn’t wake up?”
“She was a drinker, dead to the world after a few bourbons,” Carolann said, flipping her curls back over her shoulder. “Anyway, he didn’t seem startled. I just stood there as he walked past me and out the door. Couldn’t see his face, it was dark in the foyer and he had that hat on. But he smelled like paint thinner.”
“Yeah, and Irv was always buying junky old furniture he thought was antique, refinishing and repainting it, then putting them out on his lawn with ‘For Sale’ signs. Most of it was crap.”
“Damn right. Anyway, I told the cops but they said that wasn’t enough to arrest him. A few years later the foot tickling stopped. Most people in town these days don’t even know it ever happened.”
“Any of his other…uh… victims still around?” Fiona asked.
“Oh sure. Kim Lester and Margot Schultz. Oh and…uh, Cal Farrow.”
“Cal Farrow? As in Mister Cal Farrow?”
“Yup, there were a few guys who got their feet tickled. Back then things were different; just about everyone left their doors and windows open during the summer. All sorts of people got tickled.”
To Fiona’s mind, there wasn’t much on Earth more disgusting than a man’s foot. The smell was just the beginning: then there was toe hair, and athlete’s foot. The list of reasons to never touch a man’s foot was damn near endless. Fiona had always assumed the Foot Tickler had a foot-fetish, which was sort of reasonable—at least if you considered a manicured woman’s foot in a sexy shoe—but she was baffled by anyone with a thing for men’s feet.
Slapping the table and sliding out of the booth, Carolann asked, “Well, you gonna eat or what?”
She gulped. The whole foot conversation hadn’t exactly wet her appetite. “I’m waiting for Pete.”
“I’ll bring you some bread.”
Fiona had already polished off her beer and was working on number two when Pete Ross came barreling through the door of McCabe’s and stood glancing around, appearing even sweatier and angrier than usual. College had left him with a beer belly and a scar above his left eye from a fraternity prank gone awry. He wiped the perspiration off his brow with his shirt. He was still dressed for work – gray slacks and a blue shirt – and had two pieces of beef jerky poking out of his pocket. He loved gas station food.
“Holy Christ, it’s hotter than balls out there,” he said, loud enough to make Vic look away from the television, and then flopped into the booth and stared at Fiona.
“Nice; it’s good to know Oakfield’s youth is in good hands,” she said, shaking her head. Pete was a fifth-grade math teacher.
“Murph said she’d stop in. You find the Foot Tickler yet?” He took a strip of jerky from his pocket, and started to tear into the packaging.
“It’s Irv, everyone knows that. Just go ask him.”
“And get sued?”
“What’s he going to sue you for? He gonna take your shitbox car and your cat?” He took a bite of the jerky.
“He doesn’t much care what he actually gets, Pete, and fuck you, by the way.”
“We going to eat or what?”
“Hi Peter,” Carolann said, bringing a Bud Light and setting it down.
“Hi Carolann.” He smiled, trying to charm the waitress. “How’s the family?”
“Just fine,” she said. “You two ready to order?”
“I am,” Pete said. “Cheeseburger, no tomato, no lettuce.”
Carolann scowled at him.
“Please,” he added.
Fiona ordered macaroni and cheese.
Carolann nodded and headed toward the bar.
Pete’s family had moved in next door to Fiona’s in the first grade. He’d put a worm down her dress and she’d kicked him in the crotch. They had been friends ever since.
He drank half of his beer in one swig, then burped. Fiona, practically impervious to Pete’s more disgusting traits, barely noticed.
“Hey bitches,” Murph said, sweeping into the bar in a short pleated skirt, a lavender Lacoste shirt, and a headband that held her long, auburn hair out of her eyes. Dana Murphy was Fiona’s only married friend and generally looked like a J. Crew advertisement. Once a week or so she had Fiona and Pete over for dinner, mostly because she knew Pete wouldn’t ever eat vegetables if she didn’t feed them to him. Most importantly, she could drink the average sailor under the table.
“What the hell are you wearing?” Pete asked, laughing so hard he nearly snarfed his beer.
“I started tennis lessons today,” she said and twirled, showing off the bloomers under her skirt. “So, I hear the Foot Tickler is back in action.”
“Christ, I haven’t even written the story yet and already everyone knows! Why am I even bothering?”
“Quit whining. Everyone at the club was talking about it,” Murph said.
“You know, Missus Mulcahy always was kind of hot.” Pete tore off another piece of jerky with his teeth. Fiona grimaced but Murph ignored him. Carolann dropped off another round of beers, along with a red wine.
“You eating, Dana?”
“Just the Caesar salad for me, thanks Carolann.”
Behind the bar Matt Dawson was just starting his shift. The one good thing about today’s Foot Tickler drama had been the distraction; for the first time in weeks Fiona hadn’t filled her day with (mostly dirty) thoughts of Matt Dawson. He was like a beer slinging ballerina, moving around behind the bar with such grace Fiona thought she might ask him to marry her, just to have someone artfully pour her shots of whiskey for the rest of her life.
“A round of shots?” Fiona asked her friends. They both nodded and she headed to the bar.
“Hey there, little lady,” Matt said, flashing a smile and winking.
“Can I get three shots of Tullamore Dew?”
“Anything for you,” he said.
“Really? Well then, you want to come over tonight?”
“Sorry,” Matt said, pouring the shots, “I can’t tonight. I’ve got a baseball game in the morning.”
“Screw baseball,” Fiona said.
Matt pushed the shots across the bar, leaned toward Fiona and whispered in her ear: “I’d rather screw you.”
Fiona blushed. This had been going on for weeks.
“Put it on my tab,” she said and headed back to her table.
“Christ, Blake,” Pete said to Fiona, “you get laid while you were at the bar or what?”
She looked at him, felt her face flush again, and chose not to argue. She had learned to pick her battles. Instead, she grabbed her shot and motioned for her friends to do the same.
“To the Foot Tickler,” she said with the tiny glass lifted above her head, “the key to my first Pulitzer.”
“L’chaim,” Pete cheered and the three of them put back their shots with ease. A couple of hours later, with their dinners finished and many drinks in their bellies, the group headed outside.
“You guys want a ride?” Murph asked.
“No thanks. I could use the exercise,” Fiona said, looking down Main Street toward home.
“I do,” Pete said.
Murph ignored him. “You sure, Fi? It’s late, and there’s a savage foot tickler on the loose, you know?”
Fiona dismissed her with a wave and stumbled off down Main Street.
By day, Theresa is the editor of two magazines. By night she is a reader and writer of books, NPR addict, and avid gardener. This story is the first chapter of a sort of finished book. You can find her at Writer.Editor.Storyteller.