Brandi cupped the base of the man’s skull, resting her other hand on his forehead. His skin under her palms was leathery, and as much as she tried to breathe in a different direction, she couldn’t lose the strong odor of petroleum that seemed to leak from his pores. A headache was starting behind her eyes. She glanced back at the clock. Only ten minutes more.
“Harder!” The man’s voice was like a rake dragged over stones. “You think I’m paying you for some sissy massage?”
Brandi kneaded harder. Her hands strong from practice, she usually enjoyed the movement and quiet of the massage room. But today she ached simply because of the long dragging minutes, as if the hands of the clock were weighted with bricks.
The man only grunted.
She could afford to be picky, she thought. She didn’t have to put up with this. “Say hello to the last nine minutes you’ll ever spend with Mr. Herald L. Cross.”
“What was that?” he barked.
Had she said it out loud?
“Sorry?” she said. “Did you hear something?”
“You said something. You muttered.”
Music tinkled. Waves rushed in and out. Exotic birds chattered. It was all a CD. Brandi would have liked to have been on a real beach somewhere tropical. She imagined herself in a bathing suit with a sarong tied at her waist, her massage chair set under a cabana. She’d work a twelve-hour day in those conditions, no complaints. And she’d bet money that her clients would be a lot more laid back. Not like this old curmudgeon.
“Aren’t you going to do anything else? Or are you just gonna stand there and strangle me all day?”
Brandi’s eyes darted to the clock. Eight more minutes.
“Just another minute,” she said. “Then we’ll move on to something else.”
“I don’t like this one,” he said. “And since I’m paying, I say you listen to me!”
Brandi didn’t speak, but moved her hand from his forehead, changed her grip on his neck. “You have a lot of tension, Mr. Cross….”
“Call me Herald!” he cried. “And what I want to know is where Katie went off to. I liked Katie a whole lot better than you.”
“Katie’s far away.” Even to her own ears, her voice sounded wistful. Still, in her mind, she was on the beach, knees curled to her chest, watching waves. “Unless you’re willing to travel to San Diego for your massage, she can’t help you.”
“San Diego! Who’d ever want to live in San Diego?”
Brandi wondered who wouldn’t want to live in San Diego.
“She inherited some money when her father died. Decided she could finally afford to live her dream.”
“Of living in San Diego?” Herald seemed incredulous. “Got a few screws loose, if you ask me.”
“Have you ever been to San Diego?” Brandi asked. “I’ve heard it’s splendid.”
“No, and I never will. Fargo’s where I was born and where I’ll die.”
Brandi stifled a laugh. She covered it with a cough. Three minutes.
Lapping waves. The coarseness of beach sand. An ocean breeze. She saw all Katie’s pictures on Facebook. Katie seemed to smile a lot. Katie had a tan.
Brandi stared at her own white arm.
“They say Vitamin D is good for your body … sunshine.”
“What was that?” Herald demanded. “You muttered again.”
“Did I?” She laughed. Honestly laughed.
“What’re you laughing at? Keep your focus, woman!”
One minute left. One measly minute. Would he notice if she stopped one minute early? Probably.
She swiped down Mr. Cross’s back with her fingertips.
“There you are, Mr. Cross, all done.”
“But I wanted two hours. Two hour massage.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cross, but I only have you down for one. I have other clients.”
He got up grumbling. He paid grumbling.
And did not leave a tip.
But at least he got up. At least he paid.
And at least he took that reek of petroleum out with him.
As soon as the bell stopped ringing on the slammed door, Brandi opened her laptop. Within moments she was gazing at Katie’s smiling Facebook profile picture.
She clicked open a message box, and typed the name.
Hope you’re well.
A shot in the dark, but … are you hiring?
(End note: In case you're wondering what I'm doing, this is writing practice, inspired by three words given to me by Brandi -- curmudgeon, splendid and knead.)