From GONE, a novel
Back home. Checked my answering machine, found no messages. Tried to figure what to do with myself in the hours that loomed ahead.
Steve had driven me to a market on the way back from Central Square, so I at least had a bag of real food to work my way through. Cheryl would call at some point. At some point I'd try to get some sleep. If I needed to, I could crawl into the tub again. All sorts of possibilities for a totally bitchen evening.
I debated calling someone, but wasn't sure who to call, what to say. Small talk wouldn't cut it. The most logical tack would be to find a stouthearted individual who would listen to me vent about my disappearing family. That would probably be good for my soul. Or I could talk to someone about the box, which was coming to feel like small potatoes compared to the main event. On further thought, though, I recalled the numerous reasons I have previously spewed for not digging into the box. Later on that one. If I truly felt in dire need, it occurred to me, I could call the Samaritans and do a primal. On the other hand, Monday Night Football would be on later. Watching that might be a primal all by itself. There is something brutally therapeutic about watching crowds of large men beat the living snot out of each other.
In an attempt to shut my thoughts off, I cranked up my ancient stereo and began unpacking groceries. Halfway through the phone rang. I skidded out of the kitchen trying to remember where the goddamn thing was hiding. The clanging led me to the bedroom, my hand reached it on the third ring. I didn't care who was calling. Anyone would do.
"Hello," I said.
"Dennis," replied my ex-wife.
Well, almost anyone. My blood pressure immediately squirted up 20 or 30 points. "Where are you?" I demanded, then struggled to calm myself. Provoking her to hang up would not be the smartest thing I'd ever done.
"I'm not telling you where I am, Dennis."
"Of course not." Maximum disgust in my tone with that. I noticed what sounded like passing traffic in the background on the other end of the line. "Did you want to talk or did you call to lord your surprise move over me?"
A slight pause. "We can't manage a simple conversation, can we?"
"'We'? 'We' can't manage a conversation?"
"Well, listen to us."
Genuinely amazed, I said, "Given the circumstances, what the hell did you expect?"
Brief pause. "I don't know...."
"You don't know?"
"No," she said, irritation creeping into her tone. "I thought...."
I talked over her. "Sheila, how do you know I don't have caller ID and am looking at your number right now?"
"You don't have caller ID."
Shit. "Maybe I got it very suddenly for an occasion just like this."
"I'm at a pay phone, Dennis. In transit."
"How do you know I haven't been to the police and gotten a trace on the line?"
"You've gone to the police?"
"Of course I've gone to the police, what do you think? How's Colin?"
"Can I talk with him?"
I drew a breath, hoping my rising anger might ease off a bit. "You won't let me talk with him and you call to tell me you're not going to talk to me." No comment from Herself. "Sheila, Jesus, I don't get it. What were you thinking? Did you imagine pulling a move like this would make things better?"
"I thought it was time for some serious changes."
"Oh, they're on the way."
"On the way? Look around, Dennis -- they've materialized."
"They're just beginning. And you may not like the way they turn out. Sheila, you're no dummy -- don't you get what you've set into motion?"
"Trust me," she said, voice low, "I get it. I've taken my life into my own hands."
For a moment I found myself at a loss. Traffic continued passing wherever Sheila was, it sounded like she was adjusting her grip on the phone receiver. "Look," I finally ventured, "this doesn't have to be such a godawful mess. It doesn't have to be like this. We're both smart enough and we both care enough -- if we bring good will to the process, if we listen to each other, we can cobble together something workable." Silence from her, the background noise of passing vehicles ebbed and flowed. I stumbled ahead. "I know how angry you've been at me. I have some idea of how it felt to be forced to stay connected to a situation you didn't want."
"And that is over," she said, her voice vibrating with intense emotion. "Believe me, that is now over."
"Sheila, that doesn't help."
A derisive snort from her, then a male voice spoke in the background, faint, sounding like it belonged to someone who was moving toward my ex. "Sheila," it said, "hang up -- this is a bad idea."
Sheila covered the phone mouthpiece, through the muffling I could make out her angry voice saying, "Good going, he probably just heard you." She effectively smothered most of the male voice's reply except for something that sounded like "bad risk." The mystery hombre hadn't said enough to provide much of a sense of him, but what I'd heard of his accent didn't feel local.
From the little I could make out of Sheila's answer, it sounded like her tone had shifted to something less hard-edged. Just before she uncovered the phone, I think she said, "Give me a moment," and I swear it almost came across as conciliatory, with a softer feel than I was used to from her during tense times. Mystery boy must have backed off -- I heard no more of him.
"Sheila?" I ventured. No answer, but her phone had been unmuffled, traffic noise had started up again. "Sheila, please talk to me." The line went dead then with a distinct click. For a moment I remained frozen, phone to my ear, straining to hear something beyond a broken connection. The muscles around my eyes felt tight, my head had begun to ache. I slowly placed the phone back on the bed table and sat erect, breathing hard, looking around the room, trying to get a grip on intense emotions.
I thought about standing, remained where I was. Back to not knowing what in God's name to do with myself. Not a place I enjoyed very much, but one I seemed to be frequenting more and more. Something needed to be done about that.
I don't like being rendered barely functional. This is why I spend a regular chunk of my existence cavorting in theaters, reserving the truly substantial displays of emotion to the stage. You've got this safe little space, you show up, you learn your part, you find out what's going on with your character, you let it rip. It's heady, addictive, and the better you do, the more approval you get. When it's all over the house lights come up, you go back to real life (way more fun, in my opinion, without wild emotional hijinks).
I finally got myself up, headed into the bathroom to splash water on my face, then debated filling the tub and crawling in for a long, hot soak. Couldn't come to a decision and put that idea on hold. Jesus, I realized, I was a bloody, fucking mess, with no idea what to do with myself.
In the living room the stereo had been tuned to a local college station where the music being played had grown drastically unmellow. Normally, not a problem. This day at this time, however, screaming dissonance didn't help. I killed it then paced for a bit, trying to think what to do. Here's what I came up with: get on the phone, start bothering people. Someone had to have some idea where she went. My job: root them out and bother them till they spilled.
It occurred to me I should probably stash the groceries in the refrigerator before embarking on anything else. I did that, found a pen and paper, then sat down to collect my thoughts, such as they were.
Who might know where Sheila had disappeared to?
First group: apartment management, moving company, employer, post office, utilities, bank, credit cards. I had a sneaking suspicion this bunch would provide nothing more than what I'd already stumbled onto. The management company would probably stonewall just as effectively as the building super did. The moving company had been a gift. Cheryl was going to try Sheila's ex-employer. The rest of the bunch probably had nothing more they'd be willing to part with, at least for me. Maybe the police could squeeze out something more. Maybe not.
Second group: family. Parents: dead. Brothers: Patrick and Owen. Both generally acted indifferent to me -- Patrick cool and condescending, Owen mildly, distantly friendly. Owen, the younger, more cordial of the two, might be the first target to go after. Sister: Mary Colleen. Out of touch, probably out of state somewhere, drinking and living a marginal existence. Might not even have a phone or address. Cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents? Not a very large pool of those types to hit on. For a woman of Irish descent, Sheila didn't have much of an extended family, and what there was had a high mortality rate. Need to think more on that, consult my address book on the unlikely chance one of them had found a berth in it.
Third group: friends. The avenue with the most potential. An eclectic bunch, cutting across the social and economic spectrum, including representatives from nearly every sexual persuasion to be found in our fair city. And that's saying something. In large part, these connections had faded from my life after the split-up. It would be interesting to see what kind of reception my reappearance produced.
For instance, Lola, the perp who'd connected me and Sheila in the first place. I'd be curious to see what she might have to contribute. Probably be colorful, if nothing else.
And then I remembered Matthew Bartlett, someone Sheila knew through an early music singing group she'd hung with for a while. Gay guy -- bright, talented, witty, arrogant. Never seemed to warm up to my humble self, mostly made a point of ignoring me when he could get away with it. I enjoyed making that difficult for him, though normally his attention was not hugely pleasurable. Hmm. Ferret-featured; 5'6"; slender, no body-builder; fair, close-cropped, widow-peaked hair; wore thick glasses with owlish, clear plastic frames; showed a lot of gum when he smiled. Sometimes, alone with Sheila, I'd slip and refer to him by whatever nickname came to mind -- weaselboy, Mr. Nasty. You know. Which rankled the bejesus out of Sheila, endearing me to her not at all. You'd think I'd learn.
Maybe I'd make him the inaugural skirmish for this group. Oh, the adventures that waited.
I scribbled down names, circled Owen's and Matthew's, sat and looked at the list till I realized I'd been staring blankly, then roused myself, getting up to open a window and allow some fresh air in. The heat had come on while I'd toiled away, radiators clanging waggishly. I knew full well the warm cycle would pass before long, followed by a plunge into far cooler temperatures.
For now, the cold air felt good, I spent a minute appreciating it before lowering the window to a hand's-width opening. The shadowed face reflected in the glass did not appear serene or joyful.
I checked the time: 6:05. Twenty-five golden minutes since Sheila had called and made my day. Still early, with plenty of evening ahead. What to do with myself? Too early for TV. Too early to bother Cheryl. The groceries had been taken care of. Didn't want to clean. Didn't think I'd be able to marshal enough concentration to read. What did that leave? Go out again, rustle up something to eat? Always an option.
Or get out the box?
Well, now. Maybe its time had finally come. In light of the events unfolding in my life, thecardboard cube of parental leftovers was coming to seem lightweight, benign. And after all, what real damage could digging into it do? I'd find a few odds and ends, some leftovers from a sad life. Nothing dangerous. Might provide some well-needed distraction.
I pondered all that as I wandered out into the hallway and opened the closet door. Parting coats and heavy-weather gear with one arm, I reached in and moved the box far enough forward that I could grab it, sliding it out into the hallway's dim light. Brushing off dust clusters, I carried it into the living room, found a spot on the rug in front of the couch, sat myself down.
One of my hands settled on the box cover. The feel of it, the rough texture of the cardboard, stopped me. And I took a quiet moment to consider what I was about to do. You sure, I asked myself, you want to get into this? Think. You've already endured a heavy-ass day. Your life has gotten pretty turbulent pretty damn quick, the near future promises no shortage of same. Might be smarter to hold off, sleep on it, see how you feel tomorrow. The carton could slip quietly back into the closet, no one would ever know if you didn't tell them. You'd find something else to occupy yourself -- make dinner, turn on the news, something.
But it's just a box. With some old dreck in it, some memorabilia wrapped in newsprint. Just a box. What's the big hairy deal?
My sober gaze rested on the big black characters that spelled out my name and address. Not spidery like the writing in the letter. Hard to do spidery with a magic marker. The woman who labored over that printing knew my father, took the time and care to pack up his last possessions and send them along. It was time to suck it up and sift through them, see what was there.
One hand steadied the box, another pulled the flaps back. Wadded-up pages of newspaper, same as the last time, the wallet nestled on top. I took it out, lay it on my threadbare rug to one side of the box, then pulled out the top layer of newsprint and tossed it off to the other side, revealing:
Newspaper clippings, light brown with age, folded neatly together in a plastic bag.
A key ring with a rabbit's foot and three keys.
There looked to be a fair number of clippings in the packet. I opened it, sticking a finger in to spread the contents apart for a quick peek. The first headline I saw read "CAR DRIVES OFF LIDO PIER DURING STORM, ONE DEAD." I browsed on -- it all appeared to be just what it looked like: newspaper cuttings. Articles, photos, at least one obit entry. A bundle thick enough that I decided to hold off on wading into it, setting it down next to the wallet, transferring my attention to the key ring.
Three keys. Two appeared to be door keys, the third I couldn't identify. Looked kind of like an old skeleton key, only smaller. And flat rather than rounded, with the number 169 stamped into the metal, thin and neat, up near its head. Probably long without purpose, like the door keys, though unlike them appearing shiny, rarely used. I felt the rabbit's foot with my thumb. The fur had been dyed an unnatural deep blue, but remained soft and light to the touch. Pressing harder revealed the bones underneath -- hard, knobby, unyielding. Bones whose luck bled away many years ago. An odor caught my attention, I sniffed lightly at the fur. Moth balls. Edith Ohls or her husband had taken measures to protect my father's stuff. (Would moths actually dine on a dead critter's paw? Nature is a scarier, more mysterious place than I'd realized.)
Where did the idea that a rabbit's foot brings luck come from? I wonder if my father considered himself, at the end of his run, to have been on balance a lucky man.
The key ring and its ornaments joined the wallet and newspaper clippings. I removed more newsprint from the carton, unwadding it. The Oberlin News-Tribune, Edith Ohls' town newspaper. Local news, weddings, obituaries, ads for local merchants and servicepeople, local sports, classified ads. No horoscope, no comics, no word jumble. That's a problem with local rags: they tend to be short on frivolity of the serious, time-killing variety.
My hand brushed against the edge of something. Tipping the carton toward me revealed a mailing envelope off to one side, standing on end. 8-1/2" by 11", faded tan, slightly soiled with age. I slid it out, finding it light and firmly sealed. For some reason, my hands hesitated to open it, the slightest tremulous movement caught my eye, barely noticeable. For a moment, I studied one hand, fingers spread, then clenched it, opened it again. My hands. My life. A little shaky at the moment.
Food, my stomach took that opportunity to remind me, might be helpful. Yeah, fine. Later. Oh, no, it persisted, food would help, food would make everything better! Now, please! And then the lobbying for comfort chow commenced -- macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes bathed in butter, chicken soup -- mental images, the memory of a satisfied G.I. tract, the hollow, near-nausea of my current food vacuum. Capitulating, I got up, hurried into the kitchen to grab a box of crackers. Returned to the living room tearing the box open, gobbled down two or three saltines. Turned quickly kitchenward again to glom onto a brand new bottle of spritzwater. Then returned to the scene of the package dissection, flanked on one side by the expanding mound of newspaper, on the other by the small collection of father-related miscellany.
Crackers? grumbled my stomach, quieting grudgingly down as the first mouthfuls of food and water arrived.
For a moment I ate and drank, standing in the center of the living room, eyes not focused on much of anything, thoughts also mercifully unfocused. Chewing, drinking, swallowing, now and then remembering to take a breath. Simple. Basic. No threat, no immediate danger.
I found myself wishing I had some first-hand recollections of my father. His flight had come early enough in my life that no images of him remained, not even the vaguest shadow. A strange feeling, that. It's always seemed to me that a primal figure of this sort would have to leave some kind of imprint. Instead, scouring the memory banks produces a father-sized vacuum, something I've always found unsettling. On the other hand, part of me feels that this endows Dennis with a perverse sense of uniqueness, makes him special in a proudly sad way. Nauseating, I know, but there it is.
I returned to the cave that passes as my kitchen, cleaned off my hands. Once back in the living room, I picked up the oversized envelope and hefted it, feeling it in my hand, light and slim. Whatever it contained didn't amount to much. I loosened the metal clasp, slipped a finger under the edge of the flap and worked it tearingly open, managing to slide its innards out in the measured manner of a superficially sane individual instead of ripping the bugger apart like I wanted to. On inspection I found two sheets of gray heavy-gauge paper taped together, the tape brown and brittle, giving way easily at my touch to reveal a photograph.
The photo -- glossy, black and white, sharp-cornered and white-bordered, 5" by 7" or so, slightly spindled from past handling -- showed a couple out on a city street, arm in arm, passing a corner bistro. I recognized my mother's face and realized I was looking at the first picture I'd seen in many years of my parents together in Paris. The hand-painted lettering in the windows of the bistro, all in French, confirmed the place; the couple's clothing confirmed the period.
The photographer had been slightly ahead of them, on the curb or in the street, catching both subjects in mid-stride. Their faces were turned to the camera, my mother smiling and lovely, my father, perhaps caught by surprise, not quite smiling, eyes sharply intelligent, aimed directly at the camera's lens. The dark suit he wore had been nicely cut for his well-built frame, along with a black hat of a certain type. (A homburg? A porkpie? Damned if I know.) He presented a trim, watchful, focused figure, handsome in a slightly hardened way. My mother wore elegantly understated clothes, from her coat to the wide-brimmed hat, her image flush with love and fine fortune, the eyes that gazed at the camera reflecting good humor.
Ever notice how certain photographs seem to catch the essence of a moment or person, bringing their core into plain view? For the first time in my life, I got the feel of the people who'd mingled emotions and DNA to come up with me. My first real sense of the flickering conjunction of lives that produced my own nearly-four-decade-long dumbshow. The poignancy of that filled me with an unexpected tenderness and gratitude, seeming bizarrely incongruous with the day I'd just waded through.
Prior to this I'd never owned a picture of my father, a fact that feels vaguely shameful. I have dim memories of sitting on the sofa in our Massapequa living room, leafing through photo albums, all the pictures mounted with black, pointy corner thingies. Images of us and other people, including shots of a smiling dark-haired man with my mother and myself, me cradled in their grown-up arms. By the time I inherited the albums years later, that face was missing, the remaining shots free of any evidence of his passage through our lives. Perhaps my mother eliminated them. I can't say. God knows, the rest of the family did a purge, starting with my grandfather's disowning of my mother, an estrangement that carried over to me; the few relatives who provided brief shelter during my mobile growing years rarely alluded to my mother's marital interlude and its ugly fallout. What information I've gathered about my father came primarily from his memoirs -- romanticized, jaded, world-weary. A voice whose reliability has never been a sure thing to me.
I sat with that photograph for quite a while, allowing my thoughts to roam wherever they were drawn, at times looking away to stare out the window into the Cambridge night. The picture turned out to be a salve for my state of mind, soothing agitation, calming nerves. When I finally deposited it with the other deboxed items, my hand showed no signs of quakiness. We're resilient creatures, we humans. We take a licking and, for the most part, we keep on ticking.
For a moment I considered delving into the packet of clippings but found myself more interested in seeing what other surprises lay swaddled in newsprint. My hand snaked back into the box, encountering something substantial -- jacketed in bubblewrap, containing liquid, fitting into my palm as if made for it. Unwrapping the object revealed a snowdome -- a palm-sized hemisphere consisting of a glass top, a white, plastic base and a tiny, graceful Eiffel Tower. The water was low, I went back into the kitchen, pulled the rubber stopper from the base, filled the miniworld up. Plugged it, shook it, watched snow swirl around the scene.
I found it hard to picture my father purchasing something like this. But what do I know? It meant enough to him that he held on to it until his own quiet, sad expiration. And now here it sat in my hand, real and undeniable. From him to me.
Colin would like it, I thought, and I envisioned presenting it to him, putting it carefully into his diminutive hands, telling him a little about his grandfather, a family character of whom he knew next to nothing.
And when exactly would I get the chance to show this to my now-absent son, I wondered, a question that sent my briefly-elevated mood coasting back down to darker levels. Stop thinking, pal. Shake the globe again, bring liquid winter to Paris, then put it down by the rest of the stash. Breathe. Focus.
Another bunch of newspaper came out into the artfully understated light of my living room to be uncrinkled. A big bunch this time, taking up a bunch o' box space. Ads. Local politics. Wedding announcements, photos of happy couples. How many will still love each other in a year or two or five? Don't be going there, Dennis. I must not think bad thoughts.
Didn't appear to be much left in the box. I spotted more bubblewrap and went for it. Again with the feeling of liquid, fitting in the palm of my hand. And unpeeling the bubblewrap revealed, once more, a snowdome. Disney this time -- Goofy and Pluto, both wearing winter hats, the knit variety, in red and white stripey rings that tapered to a long, floppy point with a teeny red pompom at the very end. (My question: why was Pluto, of all the main characters in the Disney menagerie, the only one condemned to be a pet? To other animals, no less -- oversized mice, ducks and whatever it is Goofy is supposed to be. No hands, no shoes, no power of speech. No big white four-fingered gloves.) In this madcap tableau, Pluto's leash is wrapped around one of Goofy's legs, the other leg waving up in the air in counterpoint to the waving of his arms as he tries to keep his balance, Pluto pulling to one side, looking back at Goofy, smiling, big doggy tongue hanging out.
As with the mini-Eiffel, the water was low. Into the kitchen I went, filled it/shook it. White clotty flakes whipped around the two entangled figures. How often had my father held this just as I was, and what did it mean to him? What memories did it generate, what feelings? Could there have been a big softy lurking beneath the tough guy exterior?
Snowdomes, of all things. Two of 'em. What in God's name was up with that?
I placed Goofy and Pluto so they had a view of the Tower, then picked up the carton to get an idea of my progress. Didn't feel like there was far to go. I pulled out more newspaper, gave it a cursory unwadding, tossed it on the growing newsprint heap. And there in the shadows of the box, down at the very bottom, huddled the last of my father's debris: a pair of well-worn black wing-tips. Old, long-unused, looking dispirited, their best days obviously well behind them.
They were a high-mileage pair, the leather cracked, abraded, scuffed, the soles approaching fragile thinness, the heels deeply worn on the outside rear. If I possessed detecting skills, I could probably extrapolate details about my father's walk from the patterns of wear. To date, I'm not aware of talent in that area so I'll spare you any tortured attempts.
I placed the shoes gently down by the rest of the freight, looking at the collection, item by item.
1 wallet w/ contents
1 packet of newspaper clippings
1 key ring w/ rabbit's foot and 3 keys
1 envelope w/ photo
1 pair shoes
All things considered, a paltry summation of a life, and far and away the queerest delivery the post office had ever inflicted on me. How had my father's tenure gotten boiled down to this? And how come he'd wanted it sent to me?
Could be he might have intended to communicate something. Something as general as a gesture of amends or as specific as, well, who knows? I hadn't yet stumbled upon anything I recognized as a message from father to offspring. Unless it ran along the lines of "This is it, buckaroo -- when the smoke clears, nothin's left but memories and knick-knacks." That much I got and it had me wondering about sorting out some of the clutter in my life. If any message beyond that had been intended, I'd so far managed to elude it.
A glance at the clock showed the time to be either 6:55 or 11:30-something. It hadn't taken 6+ hours to burrow through the box, so I guessed at 6:55.
Great. Now what? Go through the wallet and/or clippings? I stared at them, making no move. The answer to that question, at least for the moment: no. Then what? Make the first call to a name on the hit list? Maybe.
I reached out and picked up the rabbit's foot key ring, then adjusted my place on the floor to lean against the sofa, a pillow behind my head, hands in my lap, cradling the furry blue charm. The ceiling had a long, well-defined crack that originated in a corner and extended out from there. It seemed to have grown since the last time I lay staring at it. Should I alert the building management? They might take action if I called and bothered them every day for the next several months. Or they might invite me to take up residence in the gutter somewhere. Hmm. I thought about that for a while, then let my eyes close.
I don't know where we were -- someplace that felt familiar, reminiscent of flat farmland I'd seen in the Midwest or the eastern reaches of Long Island. I sat in the passenger seat of the car, watching scenery pass. I could hear the voices of a couple of children from the back seat, a boy and girl, talking together about nothing in particular the way kids can, fussing at times, moods that passed like shadows. My window was open, the wind rustled my hair vigorously, roaring in my ear, making it difficult to hear exactly what was being said. Their voices rose and fell.
Wherever we were, the land spread out around us, verdant and lush beneath broad, dramatic skies. Stands of trees stood between fields alternately green with crops or brown and lying fallow, extending off to horizons where shafts of sunlight fell between dark, threatening clouds, tornados taking sinuous form, distantly menacing.
I never got a clear look at the driver. I saw his hands on the steering wheel, the summer shirt and khaki pants, a hat on the seat between us, his dark-brown-shod foot on the accelerator pedal. His head stayed angled away or my windblown hair obscured my vision or my attention was drawn to other things -- scenery, sounds, the children in the back seat, thoughts.
Our speed diminished as the two-lane transitioned from a highway to a paved country road to a dirt lane, until we slowly rolled to a stop near the driveway of a farm, its house, barn and silos off to our left. The driver opened his door, got out and stood looking around, facing away from the car toward the buildings, hands on hips, hat now on his head. I also got out, still feeling the wind in my hair and ears, but gentler, more fitful now. The air shone with a strange, muted radiance, and way off in the distance beyond the barn I could see two twisters spanning the space between the horizon and dark, gathered clouds.
A jet-haired, bearded man appeared in the door to the barn, wearing overalls, a dirty t-shirt and work boots, skin ruddy from working in the sun. He carried a shotgun with both hands, the barrel not quite at ready but alert.
"You," he called out, "what are you doing? Get out of here!" The driver said something in reply, I couldn't make it out through the sound of the breeze in my ears.
The farmer advanced, shotgun aiming more directly at us, showing two close-set, hollow metal eyes. A dangerous, inexplicable hostility radiated from the approaching figure like high summer heat from a highway, and I felt the skin on my neck prickle. The two children burst out from the other side of the car and ran off toward the house, laughing and screaming. I made a move to go after them, the barrel of the shotgun focused directly on me.
"Never mind them," the farmer warned. "You get out of here."
A stiff gust of wind lifted the driver's hat from his head, it flew a quick 15 or 20 feet before touching ground, tumbling over and over as the breeze propelled it on. He took off in pursuit, but it remained beyond his reach so that he ran, broken-stepped, bending to grab, missing, running, reaching, grabbing. I started to follow, the farmer spoke up, stopping me.
"You just never mind him," he shouted, the wind making the words sound oddly distant.
"But he needs me," I responded, hints of anger and fear evident in my voice.
He closed in, the barrel of the shotgun trained on my torso, my body tensing in nervous response. "Goddammit," he gritted out, features twisted with intense emotion, "I said get out of here! Now!" His eyes remained on me, his face flushed and vivid, lips flecked with moisture. His mouth opened wide then, emitting a piercing sound, his eyes stretching enough to expose their whites as the sound went on and on.
My own eyes snapped open, my body levitating off the living room rug for a couple of nanoseconds as the phone continued to ring. I blinked, trying to pull myself together until the phone rang a second time. It would have been nice to spend a satisfying moment in a long, languorous stretch complete with hilarious vocal accompaniment, but the clanging was so brutally insistent that tears were a real possibility if I didn't get to the damn thing quickly.
My hand knocked the receiver off the hook on ring four. By the time I managed to grab it and secure it to my ear, the person on the other end was repeating, "Hello? Hello?" Once again, a nice voice to wake up to.
"Cheryl," I mumbled, rubbing my face. My heart still raced along at three times its normal rate.
"Were you asleep?"
"Dunno. Maybe. Yes." I sniffed and looked around at the clock, which indicated the time was either twenty after eight or twenty to four. "What time is it?"
"Somewhere around 8:15, 8:20."
I grunted, trying to calculate how long I'd been unconscious, then gave up. "You still at the office?" I asked.
"I'm afraid so. How are you doing? What was your day like?"
"Not bad, given what's going on. Tried to stay busy. Went down to Boucher moving this afternoon."
"Sheila left no forwarding address. I mean, she left one, but it's a post office box here in Cambridge. Her belongings are in storage at Boucher."
"And how," she asked, "did you find that out?"
"Luck. A sympathetic employee." I told her the details, then remembered I still had the paper with the information in my shirt pocket, pulled it out, read it to her.
"I came up with that box number, too," she said. "That's all they had for her where she worked." I said nothing. "So," she continued, "anything else?"
"Went to the Cambridge police, made the report."
"How did that go?"
"Oh, hell, Cheryl, I don't know. I told them what happened, they wrote it down and asked questions."
"That sounds about right. How'd you do with it all?"
I hesitated, then said, "As well as can be expected."
"I'm sure you did fine," she said gently. "They treat you all right?"
"The officer I dealt with was okay. Just reserved -- noncommittal, like."
"That's pretty much how they have to be. With something like this they never know how much of what they're hearing is the objective, unvarnished truth until they get other information. Then they can start putting it all together. Don't take it personally."
I remained silent for a moment, thinking -- an activity that demands my full concentration in the best of times. I mentioned that Officer Jackson wanted to speak with my attorney re: the last round of court fun with Sheila, Cheryl said she'd give her a ring the next morning. Then I mentioned Sheila's call.
"She called you?"
"A little while ago."
"Oh, we had a brief, unhelpful conversation."
"Anything come of it?"
"What did she want?"
"I'm not completely sure. She may have called to gloat, or she may actually have just wanted to talk."
"And what did she say?"
I exhaled heavily, thinking. "Not a whole lot. It was basically our usual brand of back and forth." I paused for a second heavy exhalation. "I mostly just managed to piss her off."
"Dennis, think about your history. You can't expect the quality of your interaction to turn around in the wake of the move she just made. In better circumstances, with someone mediating, you might get somewhere. Maybe."
"Did you try to get the number she called from?"
"You mean ask her for it?"
"No. I understand she probably wouldn't be keen to pass that information along. I was thinking more along the lines of caller ID."
"Don't have it," I said, wondering if she could hear the grinding of my teeth.
"Or star 69. Automatic redial."
"Oh, shit. Shit. I've never used that -- it didn't even occur to me. Anyway, she was at a phone booth somewhere."
"You know that for sure?"
"I could hear traffic, close by. Plus she said she was in transit, for what that's worth."
"I see. Well," she said gently, "it would be helpful to have a general idea of where she is, even if it's only a point of transit. I say that just as something to keep in mind."
"Got it," I acknowledged. From there I receded into self-flagellatoryish thoughts re: upping the level of my telephone technology. Cheryl offered some comfort, I thanked her, we said we'd talk the next day then got off the phone.
After which it was just me and my mental static. Not a great time. I looked around, my stomach tight with simmering discontent, finding no pleasure in my dog-eared, untidy home. Unhappy with my life and wanting to do something about it.
Wanting to do something.
Stepping around my father's leftovers, I went to the dining table and located the list of people I'd put together earlier, my eyes fastening on the targeted names. For some reason, right at that moment the prospect of sifting through the various friends and acquaintances felt more palatable than going after family. Why? Who knows. My eyes picked out weaselboy's name, though, and I didn't even think about it, just opened up the Cambridge white pages, started flipping through. And there he was: Matthew Bartlett, Trowbridge Street -- same address as in days of yore. A well-rooted weaselboy. I returned to the phone and dialed. As the ringing began on the other end I thought, Why am I calling this guy? Why not just go over there and bother him face to face? In my experience, he was easier to read in person and would have less wiggle room re: subterfuge with me right there watching his every twitch.
He answered, confirming his presence -- I immediately hung up, grabbed my coat, headed for the door. Hand on the knob, I stopped, checked my pocket to make sure I had keys. Found mine, realized I didn't have the new set, the ring with the rabbit's foot. Ran back into the living room, found it on the floor where I'd been napping, stuffed it in my pocket then made tracks. No more than twelve or thirteen rapidly-trotted minutes later, I stood at the front door of Matthew's building catching my breath.
It's an odd monstrosity of an edifice: six floors of poured concrete, its outside surface textured in a way that gives it the vague appearance of old, gray, corrugated cardboard. Less than aesthetically spectacular. In addition, each apartment had a pair of large sliding-glass patio doors with a waist-high grill/handrail situated immediately outside because someone had neglected to build any decks or balconies.
Once my cardiac rate slowed some, I found Matthew's name and leaned on his buzzer for a while. Almost as soon as I released it, the speaker above the mailboxes came to life. "Yes?" Matthew said, the irritation in his voice audible through the extremely lo-fi intercom.
"Matthew? It's Dennis Marlowe."
"Dennis?" he responded, sounding understandably surprised.
"I...." Brief pause. "What's going on?"
"I need to talk with you if you have a little time. It's fairly important."
"Oh." Another brief pause, him probably trying to figure out what I could possibly want. "Can you tell me what it's about?"
"I'd rather not get into it here. I know I'm bothering you at home, and I apologize for that. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes."
He deliberated: "Uummmmm.... Okay." Not what I would call enthusiastic, but then I hadn't expected to be met with strewn flower petals.
The doorbuzzer buzzed, I pushed my way in. An elevator door stood agape, I stepped inside, hit the button for floor five. The door closed, the elevator began an exceedingly slow ascent which I used to compose myself. By the time the door slid open once more, I was breathing evenly and thinking somewhat clearly. Matthew stood at the entrance to his apartment. When I approached, he said, "Hi," thrusting his arm out and shaking my hand in an awkward but seemingly genuine display of bonhomie. "Long time no see," he added, to which I echoed in agreement, "Long time." He gestured me in, I moved past him.
As he shut the door, I stepped from the apartment's tiny foyer into the living room and involuntarily stopped to take it in. Not because there was anything wrong with it. On the contrary. It was a real living space -- attractive, nicely furnished, warmly lit. Welcoming, even. Kind of faux 50's/60's, but comfortable. Lived in without appearing worn or cluttered. With a nice nighttime view of Cambridge -- treetops, lights from Harvard Square, steeples and turrets from Harvard buildings.
"Like it?" Matthew asked from behind me.
"Matthew," I said, trying to pull together an adequate response, "this is a beautiful place."
My appreciation seemed to please him, I continued gazing around. By comparison, my unpretentious digs felt like a poorly upholstered Dumpster. I considered asking him how much time and money he'd put into creating a home, then decided I felt badly enough about my living space and didn't need to feed any more fuel to that particular fire. Matthew asked me if I'd like something to drink, I declined, he invited me to take a seat. I settled onto the sofa, put my head back and found myself so comfortable that I immediately jerked forward, straightening up. This was not the time to get all warm, fuzzy and relaxed.
"So," Matthew said, eyes magnified by his glasses, his mien particularly owlish, "what's going on?"
"Well," I began cautiously, hoping to stumble across an effective approach as I blathered, "an emergency of sorts has come up and I'm trying to find some way to get ahold of Sheila." His mouth opened, I raised a hand before he could get going. "Look, I'm not trying to stick my nose where it doesn't belong. I wouldn't even be bothering you if this weren't so important. Sheila's away, I have no way to contact her, and someone's got to know where she is. She must have said something to somebody."
"She didn't tell you?"
"Why is it so important?"
A minute hesitation before answering, "It concerns Colin."
"Ah. Well," he said, then paused, a wry, fleeting half-smile lifting one corner of his mouth. "I don't have much to tell you. I haven't spoken with Sheila in weeks."
I studied his face. His eyes met mine, appearing uncomfortable, then flitted away. It had been quite a while since I'd spent any time around Matthew, and I was struck all over again by how emotions and thoughts played across his features. The guy was a walking digital readout of his inner life, in a way making him harder to suss than if he'd been expressionless and impassive.
"Not that this is any of my business," I said, "but what are you saying here?"
"We had a falling out a couple of months ago." He looked out the window, then his eyes shifted back to me. "Big. You know how these things can get."
I had an idea, yeah. "With her, you mean? Or in general?"
A surge of exasperation shot into visibility across his features. "Well, yeah, in general, but especially with her. Jesus, Dennis, if anybody should know that you should."
"If you mean she can be fairly intense," I said mildly, "yes, I'm familiar with that."
Matthew peered over, apparently not sure what to say. "Dennis," he ventured, "she's a powder keg. I don't know what's up with her these days, but I'm not the only friend she parted ways with like this. She's, like...," he shook his head, unable to find the hyperbole he needed to get across his point, moved his hands as if trying to complete the thought, then raised them helplessly.
"Volatile?" I suggested.
"Yeah," he answered, shaking his head in agreement. "She is. Very." He sounded as sincere as I'd ever heard him. "And going through something. Jesus."
"Going through what?"
"If I knew that we might still be talking. She just started going off at people over practically anything, like she'd decided to burn bridges and would use whatever came along as an excuse to get the job done. She hasn't seemed more touchy to you?" I nearly laughed out loud at that one but managed to restrain any mirth apart from a small, expressive snort. "What?" he asked, genuinely not understanding.
"Hello! I was married to her -- her going off is old news. I don't recall it bothering you when she and I were going through the hundred years war and I was on the receiving end of the bile." He flushed with apparent embarrassment, clearly uncomfortable. "I'm sorry," I said, "I didn't come over here to give you a hard time. And I'm not here to badmouth Sheila. I need to find out where she is, and if you can give me any information that might help I would be grateful."
For a moment he sat quietly, eyes averted, then cleared his throat and got up. "You sure you wouldn't like something to drink?" he asked.
"I would," he said, then excused himself and disappeared into the kitchen. While he was gone, I went to the window and stared out into the night, my vision at times shifting from the view of the outside world to the image of the apartment reflected in the glass -- warm, placid, comfortable, except for my shadowed self. Gentle cold radiated in from the window and I leaned into it, close enough to fog the glass up with my breath. The sounds of kitchen futzing tapered off and behind me in the reflected living room Matthew reappeared, holding a glass, expression unhappy. Turning, I presented a slight, unthreatening smile.
"Sorry if I've brought your evening down," I said.
He waved that off, releasing a soft sigh, his usual verve seeming to have leaked away. I was accustomed to seeing him in his normal armor of jolly, thinly-veiled arrogance. In an odd way, this new show of vulnerability made him seem almost naked, a feeling I wasn't sure I cared for. Suddenly, I wanted out of there. Over the sofa, a big wall clock in an oblong 50's-looking sunburst design read 9:20. If I hustled my keister to a phone, I could call someone else and cast a pall on their pre-bedtime hours.
"So let me ask this," I said. "Knowing her as you have, if she were to take off somewhere suddenly, where do you think she might wind up?"
He stared at me, forehead creased with thought, his mouth opening, then closing with uncertainty. Or with second thoughts about telling me anything. "I'm not sure. I'd have to think about that."
Swell. "Well," I said, "if anything comes to mind, please call me. Anything at all."
"I will," he assured me. He sounded sincere, but I knew better than to sit around waiting to hear from him. Most likely I'd be taking a ride in the final taxi before the guy dialed my number. But I left it with him anyway in a show of blind optimism, then hit the street again, pondering who to pester next. Other friends? If the information Matthew had supplied was reliable -- always a question to my way of thinking -- and Sheila had engaged in a scorched-earth policy in her social circle, who knew which friends were currently communicado with her and which weren't.
So. Family. Brother Owen. I, of course, hadn't thought to grab my address book during the hasty exit from my homey little dive, and over the last couple of years I'd successfully purged all phone numbers for Sheila's relatives from my memory banks. This is the kind of thing we pay those characters at the phone company to do: supply us with the numbers of ex-relations who will likely be less than overjoyed to hear from us. I trotted down Trowbridge to Harvard Street, hung a right and headed into the Square where pay phones proliferate with near weedlike abundance.
A call to information did nothing but provide a few seconds' diversion for a phone company babe, Owen's number turning out to be unlisted.
Now what? As I dallied and putzed, the evening loped away minute by minute. I either had to run home, where my little black address book languished -- hoping it wasn't too late to call Owen without incurring insurmountable annoyance -- or give it up for the evening, which could lead to hours of unproductive beverage consumption in the Square. I didn't want to run any more. I'd already run more in the last few days than I had in months. So the prospect of drowning the evening in a local watering hole was beginning to take hold. And I swear, right at that moment the hand of a greater power showed itself.
The phone booth I'd latched onto stood on the curb of Mass. Ave, just up from Bow Street. When the phone company failed to deliver, I drifted over to the side of the booth, at loose ends, swaying in the wind of my own sad deliberations. That's when the 'Bu drove by.
"Steve!" I yelled. He had the stereo thumping loudly enough to drown out my shout, and I took off after him, sprinting down the side of street in his wake, calling his name, waving my arms, hoping he might catch sight of my overanimated form in his rearview mirror and slow down from curiosity. He didn't, but the light by the plaza worked in my favor, enabling me to catch up as he sat waiting for the green.
"Steve," I panted, staggering up to his door, tapping on the glass. He looked over, startled, relaxing when he saw my lathered-up self.
I hurried around to the passenger door, pulled it open as the light turned green, Steve said, "Dennis, what goes on?"
"Drive me home," I entreated in reply, sagging into the debris-covered seat as a driver behind starting making horn noise. Mensch that he is, Steve put the 'Bu into gear without protest and followed Mass. Ave. past Out of Town News, north toward my place. I gave him a brief sketch of the situation, finishing up as he turned into my street. Silence fell until he pulled up in front of my building where, amazingly, an open space waited.
"Want me to come up?" he asked.
Did I want someone nearby while I bothered Sheila's relatives? "Okay," I said with a what-the-hell shrug. "You sure you want to hang around for this? Could be boring, unpleasant and unproductive."
"It's either that or study."
Seemed like a clear choice to me. As I hoisted myself up out of the car I heard a soft rumble, the kind you might hear on humid summer evenings when thunder mutters off in the distance. A lulling prelude, in this case, to more emphatic phlegm-clearing.
"Boo!" Steve called.
A figure inside the front vestibule of the building peered out, raised a hand in greeting before struggling briefly with the door. My friends -- kind of scary.
Once out in the cool air, Boo shuffled in our direction, saying, "Hey."
"Hey," Steve and I responded.
"I'm outta gaspers. Wanna dri' me to th'store?"
"Sure," Steve said, then looked at me. "You mind?"
I didn't, and let myself into the building, tossing the keys to Himself once I had the door open so they could enter without bothering anyone on their return.
Boo waved as they headed to the car. Before I closed the door I heard her ask Steve, "Why'd you getta convertible?"
"'Cuz ragtops rule," answered Steven.
I kept a spare key above the second door to my flat -- located on the landing in the back stairwell, permanently locked, unusable as an entrance -- atop the frame cross-piece, and used it to unlock the working door, returning it to its hiding spot before entering. According to the living room clock, it was either ten of eight or twenty to ten. Assuming I hadn't leaped any times zones, I settled on twenty to ten. Still early enough to bother an ex-in-law.
Owen lived out in a once-rural town in what is referred to as MetroWest, the sprawl of 'burbs that extend inland from Boston. The population had swelled considerably in recent years, the town becoming effectively de-rusticked as tract housing consumed swaths of countryside, though it still retained enough of a non-city feel to make it desirable. A real good place to raise your kids up.
Rooting around the bedroom eventually produced my address book in which I found the number I wanted under Corcoran, Owen. Just where it should be. (Owen could easily have gone under O for Owen, B for brother-in-law or S for Sheila's sibling. Happily, not this time.)
I found the phone in the bedroom, dialed the number. One ring. Two rings. Then someone picked up, a female voice venturing a tentative "Hello?"
"Beth?" I asked. Beth: Owen's cute, timid wife. "This is Dennis Marlowe."
She brightened slightly. "Hi, Dennis," she said. "How are you?"
"Oh, well," I said in response, trying to compose an appropriate reply. Nothing sprang to mind, I filled the vacuum with a return volley, saying, "And how are you doing?"
"Oh," she said wistfully, "I'm okay." Another time I might have given her an opening to expound on what that actually meant, but not right then. It occurred to me, however, that pumping Beth before getting around to Owen might not be a bad idea. If she knew the truth of the situation, she would be far more readable than her husband, not to mention far more inclined to spew. And if she proved ignorant -- well, we'd see. "Listen," I began, "I'm sorry to bother you like this, but I was wondering if you had any idea where Sheila might be. She's gone away and I need to speak with her about something extremely important."
"Is everything all right?" she asked, concerned.
"If I can get ahold of her, everything will probably be fine."
"Is it something about Colin?"
Brief hesitation, then, "Yes, it is."
"Oh, dear. I hope it isn't too serious."
"At this point it's hard to say." Which was sort of vaguely half-true.
"I'm afraid I don't know where she might be. I'm not really in the loop when it comes to that side of the family."
"Would Owen know? Maybe he's heard from her recently."
"I don't know. He hasn't said anything about that." Which would not surprise me in any humongo way. In addition to his normal, vaguely arrogant reticence, he tended to treat Beth as if trusting her with any information about anything would be like asking her to determine the complete value of Pi. "Would you like to speak with him?"
"Yes," I fibbed nicely, "if he's around that would be great."
"Sure, hold on." She called out, "Owen," then put her hand over the phone while they had an exchange about who was calling.
I heard the click of an extension phone being picked up, Owen calling, "I've got it." He waited for Beth to hang up, which she did with characteristic quiet.
"Hey, it's been a long time."
"It has, hasn't it? How have you been?"
"Good, thanks. How about you?"
Me?, I almost said. Fucking radiant. "Pretty well," I answered instead. "Did Beth tell you why I'm calling?"
"No. She just said it was important. What's up?"
We went through a version of the exchange I had with his spouse. "Gee," he said, "I'm sorry. I haven't heard from Sheila in weeks. I have no idea where she might be. How long is she going to be gone?"
"I don't know."
"Mm." He paused as if mulling over what to say. "Well, that's too bad. I don't think I'm going to be much help."
"Owen, this is genuinely important. You sure you haven't heard anything that might indicate her whereabouts?"
"'Her whereabouts?'" he echoed with a laugh. "Like I said, I haven't heard from her for a long time. Long for us anyway. Is she all right?"
"I'm not sure," I hedged.
"Is Colin okay?"
I paused, trying to figure out who was pumping who in this exchange. Or whom. I knew I'd intended to be the pumper, but the sitch didn't seem to be playing out in the ideal manner.
"Colin is probably fine," I told him. "They're both probably okay. I need to speak to her about something that's come up, and until I get ahold of her I can't really say anything more."
Owen started to say something, I heard the murmur of Beth's voice as she interrupted.
"What?" he to said to her. "Beth, I'm talking to Dennis."
Beth spoke again, apparently trying to get Owen to hear her out. The only words I could understand sounded like "cousin Gerry." I remembered Sheila getting a call once from a cousin Gerry, a member of the bloodline I'd never met.
"What was that?" I asked.
"Hold on, Dennis," Owen instructed me, then put his hand over the phone and carried on a short dialogue with Beth, his tone insistent. The back-and-forth subsided, Beth giving way before hubby's parental attitude/volume, and Owen unmuffled the phone. "Sorry about that."
"That's okay. What's this about cousin Gerry?"
"Nothing, don't worry about it. I don't know where Beth came up with that."
"I never met him. What's his place in the family tree?"
The briefest pause, then, reluctantly, "Gerry's our second cousin."
"Is he a Corcoran too?"
"You guys very close with him?"
"I wouldn't say so."
"Why'd Beth bring him up?"
"I told you, I don't know where Beth got that."
"You don't know?" I could feel myself edging toward impatience. "Do you ever speak with cousin Gerry?"
"Dennis, my relations with my family are none of your business."
"Owen, do you know where Sheila is?"
"I told you I didn't." His tone shifted from superior to bored.
"Do you know what she's done, Owen?"
"No," he said cautiously. "What do you mean?"
"She's disappeared. With Colin."
He laughed. "You said she was on vacation."
"No, I didn't. I said she's gone away. In fact, your sister packed up her apartment, put everything in storage and left without saying anything. She took off with our son and no one I've spoken to knows where they are. Do you get the picture?" Silence from the other end of the line. "The police are involved in this, and if it turns out you know something and aren't letting me in on it, you'll be hearing about it."
"Don't threaten me, Dennis. I don't know where she is. When did Sheila leave?"
I took a breath before answering. "Friday. And don't brush me off, Owen. I'm not in the mood to take it." I half-expected him to come back with something dismissive, he didn't, I waded back into it. "So what exactly did Beth say about cousin Gerry?"
"Oh, Christ, I told you...."
"Goddammit, Owen," I interrupted, "have you been listening? This is not a pissing contest -- this is some serious shit."
I heard sudden noise from the other end, muffled sounds and voices, Owen's becoming physically distant, dwindling as if he were leaving the room. Beth finally spoke into the phone, sounding surprised to find herself there.
"What did you say to him?"
"I asked him what you said about cousin Gerry."
"Oh. I don't think he wants to...."
"Listen, Beth, tell me about this guy. Does he have some connection with Sheila?"
She answered with hesitance, apparently not convinced that talking to me would serve her best interests. I think her usual impulse to help out had come under siege from an urgent desire to take cover.
"I don't really know very much, you know?"
"Beth, please, talk to me. Did you mention Gerry because you thought he had a connection with Sheila?"
"Well, it's just the last time she was here she mentioned him a couple of times."
"Mentioned him how? What did she say?"
"Something about maybe going to see him. Or wanting to go see him. Something like that."
My underarms, I realized, were damp. I heard voices at the door, someone trying to get the lock to give way. Dragging the phone cord, I went out there, opened the door as I spoke, waved at my prodigal friends, returned to the bedroom.
"How long ago was this?"
"September, I think. Last time she was here, a couple of months ago."
It sounded like Steve and Boo stopped by the door to Colin's room, talking in low voices, maybe checking out the exhibit of Colin's artwork. A moment or two later, they passed my bedroom door on their way into the living room, glancing in as they went by. Once they were out of view, I heard coats being undone, keys landing on dining table, voices speaking quietly.
"What do you know about Gerry?" I asked, trying to focus back on coaxing information out of Beth.
"Nothing much, really. I've never met him. Sheila knows him better than we do."
"Do you know where he lives?"
"Um, Long Island?"
"Where on Long Island?"
"The south shore? I'm not sure."
"Would Owen know?"
Her voice faltered. "I don't know.
"Would you ask him?"
She produced a small moan of nervous apprehension, then turned from the phone and called, "Owen?" No answer. "Owen, I'm sorry, where does Gerry live? Down on the Island, right? Is it on the south sh-....?"
Owen cut her off, barking out a furious reply from somewhere off in the house.
"Seaford," Beth said, her voice small, unhappy. I considered pushing for a street address, but didn't have the heart to put her through it. I thanked her instead, she got off the line very quickly. It occurred to me I might have begun some bridge-burning of my own.
Long Island. Long Island. Where, I wondered, had my Rand-McNally thingie hidden itself? Sniffing around the piles of debris in the bedroom didn't turn it up. Out to the living room I drifted, peering around, a little abstracted, thinking about the situation.
"What?" Boo asked. She had settled into the once-overstuffed chair across from the couch, her tired-looking green down coat still on. Steve could be heard muttering to himself in the kitchen, probably deciding what edibles to lay waste to.
"There's a Rand-McNally road map atlas hanging around somewhere."
"You need it?" she asked.
I nodded, trying to figure where it might logically have gotten to. Boo glanced over the side of the chair, saw something, leaned over and dug under the upholstery, pulling out some old newspapers that had found their way there. She squinted at headlines, apparently finding nothing of interest, then got out of the chair, squatting down for a better look under it. One hand reached beneath, grabbed ahold of something, pulled it out.
"Thissit?" she asked, holding up my tired, worn atlas, festooned with clusters of dust and hair.
"Dennis," Steve said at the door to the kitchen/dining area, "some housecleaning might be in order. The dust count here has got to be way over the acceptable number of parts per million mandated by the government." He spoke through a mouthful of crackers, "government" coming out "gumminth."
"The gu'min' has a dus' coun'?" Boo asked, in genuine innocence.
"There may be dust," I said a touch defensively to Steve, "but until that comment there were no cracker fragments flying around."
"Dennis, if a half-conscious forensics lab worked on this rug they'd be able to find traces of every meal you've ever eaten in front of the TV."
I ignored that, noticing Boo waving her free hand in front of her face to clear away airborne atlas dust. I opened a window and held the book out in the night air, brushing it clean. When the kind of associates I have react negatively to your housekeeping, it's a bad sign.
After closing the window, I went over to the lamp by Boo's chair and opened the atlas to New York State, Boo watching closely. Long Island had a separate page all its own, I eventually found Seaford in Nassau County on the south shore, situated between a town called Wantagh to its west and another one to the east called...
...Massapequa. A frisson of prickling hair slid up the back of my neck. I hadn't been back to Massapequa since the blurry few days after my mother's death, had never wanted to go back. Why, out of all the possible places to run, might Sheila have wound up in that area? What the hell was up with that?
I shuttled quickly back into the bedroom and grabbed the phone. "What's the area code of Nassau County?" I called out to my guests.
"Where?" Steve called back.
"Fi'-one-six," yelled Boo.
516. That sounded right. I dialed 516 information, asked for the number of a Gerry Corcoran in Seaford. After a moment, a woman's voice told me that there was no listing for a Gerry Corcoran in Seaford.
"What about other towns in the area?" I asked uncertainly.
"Let's see," the operator said, "I have a Gerrard Corcoran in Massapequa."
Whoa! My mouth opened with uncomfortable surprise, then snapped shut. "Is that a new listing?" I ventured.
"It doesn't appear to be."
"I'll try it." There was no way of knowing if Owen's inaccuracy had been intentional, but if the number turned out to be the right one I'd let it slide.
During this, I went back through the living room, stopping at the dining table to grab pen and paper, scribbling the number when it came through.
And then ground to a stop, unsure how to proceed. What if I called and Sheila answered? After our years of history, she'd recognize me from my merest grunt. (Not that I grunt all that much -- certainly no more than your average Cro-Magnon.) Of course, if I called and Gerry answered, all that would prove would be that he lived where the phone company said he did. Unless I could definitely place his voice as the supporting actor in Sheila's call.
"Steve," I said.
"Yo," he answered from the kitchen.
"Do something for me?"
"Okay," he said, appearing at the door with a glass of orange juice.
"I'm going to dial a number," I said, handing him the receiver. "When someone answers, ask for Bill."
"Bill?" He looked from me to Boo then back, not comprehending.
"There won't be any Bill there."
"So why am I asking for him?"
"Because asking for Sheila would not be very smart."
"You have Sheila's number?"
"That's what we're trying to find out."
He seemed to get the gist, nodded. I dialed the number, gave him the receiver, stuck my ear as close to his as I could manage. A moment of connections being made, then a faraway phone began ringing, two rings that seemed to stretch on and on. A third ring started, someone picked up. Actually, two someones picked up, male and female, apparently on different extensions. Both said, "Hello," hers sounding annoyed. The male then said, "I've got it," the female said nothing further, producing only the sound of a phone being hung up. And in the moment before that extension went silent, a young, familiar voice in the background said, "Mommy?" Steve's eyes widened at that, flickered to me then away.
"Hi," he started out nervously, voice squeaking as he tried to make it higher than its normal register. Steve, master of disguise. "Sorry to call so late. Is Bill there?"
"There's no Bill at this number," said the unidentified male.
"Oh, heh," Steve responded brilliantly. "Okay. Sorry to bother you." The phone on the other end hung up loudly, Steve jerked our receiver away from our ears, looked at Boo and myself uncertainly. "Was that Colin in the background? It sounded like him." I said nothing, my stomach churning. "I think," Steve continued, "it was him." I thought the same. I also thought the irritated female was Sheila.
I had no idea what to do with myself. Boo appeared at my side, peering up at me. My eyes glanced over, met her slightly bloodshot ones then slid away.
"You okay?" she asked, concerned, as Steve put the phone down.
My head shook in indecisive answer, which is when I realized my temples were throbbing. Hands (mine) rose quickly to either side of my head, commencing emergency massage.
"Breathe," Boo advised me nicely, which was when I noticed I didn't seem to be doing so. How does that happen? Every once in a while I realize I'm barely respirating and have to suck in a panicky gasp of air. What's going on there? And how do I survive without oxygen?
As I've begun edging my way out of the 30-something zone, I notice I've accumulated far more questions than answers. That really has to stop.
"What now?" Steve asked.
"I think," I said carefully, "I have to go down there."
"To Long Island?"
"Maybe you shud call ya lawya'," suggested Boo, "ge' her t' callthe p'lice."
An intelligent, grown-up thought I probably should have paid more attention to. As it was, I didn't want to hear it because, frankly, all I could think about was getting Colin back. Taking matters into my own hands, physically going down to the Island and grabbing him away from my ex-wife. Redressing a wrong, coming out on top. Me, winning for a change.
There it is. Adversarial, shortsighted, counterproductive. Dim -- I admit it. I'd just found out where my son was and I wanted him back. I wanted him back, and the idea of going through the channels -- calling this person, calling that law enforcement agency, waiting to see what they had to say, following their rules and dictates -- it didn't work. And I didn't want to discuss it with anyone. I just wanted to get on with things.
I thought of asking Steve if I could borrow his car, then decided against it. This is why God -- in her, his or its infinite wisdom -- provided me with a credit card, for occasions just like this.
"You know what?", I said to my guests, "I need time to think."
Boo studied me assessingly. "Y' wan' us t' leave?" she asked. "Y' sure y' maybe don' wanna tawk things ovah?"
Steve looked back and forth at us. I momentarily faltered in my resolve to get rid of them, then firmed up. "Thanks," I said, "but I really need some time to think or brood or whatever it is I have to do. By myself." I felt both pairs of eyes on me, looked from one to the other, then away. Steve broke the tableau, draining his glass, then returning to the kitchen to put it in the sink as Boo began the process of zipping and snapping her coat.
Steve reappeared, grabbed his coat and slung his arms into the sleeves. "You're sure about this?" he asked. "You really want to turn us out into the cold?"
"If y' wan'ed to," said Boo, "y'could tellus 'bout th' stuff on the flaw."
"By th' box. Th' sno-globes an' ol' shooz 'n' stuff."
"Another time, all right?"
They moved toward the door, Boo casting me a glance that looked suspiciously suspicious. Or if not suspicious exactly, then something only slightly removed from it.
"Lissen," she said, "if you nee' to tawk t'anyone, cawl. Don' matta wha' time it is."
"You have a phone now?"
"Cawse not -- he does," she answered, indicating Steve, who looked at her with surprise at being volunteered for 24-hour counseling, then recovered and nodded gamely.
"Call any time," he said earnestly.
I thanked them, we said goodnight. On their way down the hall, Steve asked Boo, "You want a ride?"
"Well, where are you going?"
I shut the door on the rest of the exchange, started to turn away, then stopped and listened to their footsteps descending the stairs before quietly pulling the door open a crack. The receding steps and voices reverberated just the slightest bit in the stairwell before, very faintly, leaving the building. I remained where I stood, listening as silence fell, as if something important had just happened, something poignantly mundane that might be passing out of my life for a while.
© 2002, 2009 by runswithscissors