The Ridges of Baltimore County

Kevin Cowherd

August 27, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

There are songs that come free from the green, chemically treated grass, from the blackened gravel of a thousand interstate highways. This is one of them.

*

Francesca watched intently as the pickup slowly pulled into her driveway. Out stepped a man, lithe and lean-muscled and looking like some vision from a never-written book on the gods. She felt her heart quicken.

"Robert Kincaid!" she cried.

"Name's Peterson, ma'am," he said.

He pointed to the neat lettering on the side door of the Ford Ranger: Walt Peterson Pest Control -- Free Consultation and Estimates.

Robert Kincaid, Walt Peterson . . . what did it matter? She wanted him. He wore thick overalls and hip boots and a work shirt with "Walt" stitched over one pocket. The top three buttons were undone, revealing tight chest muscles.

"I seem to be lost," he said. "I'm looking for a ridge out this way. We're doing some commercial spraying."

Something inside her stirred as she gave directions. So he was in pesticides! She imagined whole armies of termites, carpenter ants, roaches and rodents running from him in terror as he hefted his spray can with those rippling forearms.

There was something in his eyes, in the way he moved his body, a way that rearranged the molecular space between male and female, whatever that meant.

"My husband and kids are away," she heard herself blurt. "If you'd like to stay for dinner."

"It's 7:30 in the morning," he said.

"We could make it later, then."

At first he declined, mumbling something about the $5.99, all-you-can-eat chicken dinner at Bob's Big Boy.

But when she pointed out that the chicken deal at Bob's was only on Thursdays, he promised to return after the day's spraying. He arrived at 7 that evening and changed into a cotton shirt and tight jeans that seemed to pull themselves around his thigh muscles.

After dinner, as she rinsed the dishes, she found herself staring at Walt Peterson. There was something about him. His knowledge of EPA-registered spraying materials, the gravy stains on his chin, the way he nearly set the tablecloth on fire when he lit a Camel . . . he was at once intense and vulnerable.

"Beer?" he said, fishing a can from the cooler he'd retrieved from his truck.

Suddenly the beer slipped from his hand and crashed to the floor, rolling behind the refrigerator. He cursed violently. But just as quickly, the scowl disappeared from his face, like a summer squall that slams into a New England fishing village and hurries on.

"Meister Brau," he said, holding up the can. "A buck ninety-nine a six."

Now the shadows were lengthening and Francesca was discovering feelings she had not felt in many years. For Walt Peterson, too, the slow street tango had begun, funneling him inexorably toward Francesca Johnson.

"We could dance," he said, gesturing toward the radio. Then he rose and began furiously doing the Watusi to an old Jay and the Americans song. Francesca felt awkward, but compelled to join in.

Soon they were holding each other close and exchanging slow kisses, a river of them. Walt's cap, which said "Peterson Pest Control -- Over 75 Years Experience!" kept sliding off his head. She wondered if the infernal thing wasn't the source of his mystical power over her.

"Tell me, Walt Peterson," she said, looking into his eyes. "Are you a shaman?"

"Virgo," he replied. "That's the one with the little fishes, right?"

No, he was no Carl Sagan, she decided.

All that night they made delicious love, Walt finally consenting to take off his cap. Toward dawn, he propped himself up in bed, lit a Camel that nearly set fire to the drapes, and said: "Come with me, Francesca. We'll make love in the scrub brush, if it doesn't hurt too much, and in the back of my pickup. I'll show you used car lots and old diners and convenience stores run by hard-eyed women named Earleen who call everyone 'Hon.' "

"I cannot," she said, eyes moistening. "I have responsibilities, a husband and children. Besides . . ."

"Yes, my darling?"

". . . tonight's my bowling night."

Walt Peterson understood perfectly; after all, he was carrying a 192 average in the Friday Men's B League at the Bowl-o-Rama. That morning, he left quickly, grinding the gears of the old Ford Ranger as he battled a serious hangover.

Francesca watched him go, wondering if, after all these years, this was the night she'd pick up that 7-10 split.

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