From GONE, a novel
Tuesday, November 16, 1993
The pre-dawn hours found me on Long Island, in a telephone booth -- an actual booth, not a kiosk -- by a parking lot off Sunrise Highway, pawing through a phone book to see if I could score the address I needed. I'd gotten off the Southern State Parkway when the car's clock read 5:32, cruised slowly down whatever road I was on until I stumbled across the Highway and this booth. My head hurt, my mouth tasted like a bad length of roller rink, I looked pale and tired. The fruit of riding asphalt all night. On the other hand, I'd made it to Massapequa without mishap and the new day promised, well, a serious change in routine at the very least.
The phone book looked brand spanking new, bearing only the slightest evidence of handling. As opposed to the booth, which had clearly hosted souls in states far more dire than mine. A page in the C's produced what I needed: Corcoran, Gerrard -- 37 Verbena Lane.
Verbena Lane. My ex-wife had my son in a house on Verbena Lane. Sounded like something out of a children's story, where talking, clothes-wearing animals might live. Maybe the street belonged to a subdivision that used flowers as a theme, block after block of identical houses on streets named after rustic vegetation plowed under by builders' bulldozers.
I wondered how much Colin knew of what was going on, what he'd been told. Could be he thought I'd abandoned him, an idea that got my gastric juices percolating. Or maybe he'd been told some story that made perfect sense, explaining the move and my absence in a way that caused no anxiety. You'd think he'd have to pick up on Sheila's true vibes in some way, though, right? But what did I know -- maybe he'd been handled with enough care that it all just felt like an adventure. Maybe he was happy to be visiting there on Verbena Lane.
Not a thought I savored very much. And with that I lurched from the phone booth to stand swaying slightly in the parking lot by the rental car I'd managed to scare up the night before -- a dark blue American-made subcompact called the Swift -- watching early morning commuters speed by, trying to clear my head by taking deep breaths of crisp air laced with car exhaust.
I realized I had half a phone book page in my hand and stuffed it guiltily into a pants pocket. Then pulled it out again to make sure it was the page with the listing I needed. Then crammed it back into the pocket, trying to cover by looking around in preoccupied fashion, as if contemplating something deep. Dennis Marlowe, master of illusion.
In mid-cram, my hand came into contact with the rabbit's foot, which had made the trip with me, and began handling it absently.
So, I asked myself blearily, what next? Start inquiring at gas stations for directions until I struck gold? Sooner or later, some intrepid petrol pumper would have the info. The police, on the other hand, would know exactly where Verbena Lane was and I'd only have to go to one station house. Probably not a great idea to announce myself to the folks in blue, though. I stood trying to figure how to proceed, getting nowhere, mental gears straining to engage on even the most minimal level. My eyes settled longingly on a diner located farther along the road, all lit up against the wee-hour darkness. Food.
Refueling my tired body, it occurred to me, might clear some of the mental fog. That thought sent me back to the car, we made our sorry-ass way down the highway and into the diner's parking lot where we found a space with a fine view of increasing traffic.
The diner: big and shiny with great expanses of aluminum and purple neon. The purple neon should have been the giveaway, but I was too tired to pay attention. Inside, I saw I'd entered some entrepreneur's idea of the kind of upscale emporium a former diner could be turned into. Large, spotlessly clean, scarily bright -- more metal, more neon, big mirrors stretching along the rear wall, way more spacious than any diner had a right to be. Not the kind of place I wanted to totter into for a simple, cheap meal at 5-something a.m.
"Hi," said a waitress, "just one?"
"Actually, could I take a look at the menu?"
"Oh," she said, shifting gears, "of course." I accepted the outsized, laminated thing she handed me, opened it up, immediately spotted prices twice what any self-respecting breakfast joint should carry. Three times higher in some cases. Mama. Handing the menu back, I thanked the woman and zipped out of there.
This bizarre mutation of a diner lay near the intersection of Broadway and Sunrise Highway, close enough that I could access Broadway through an adjacent parking lot, follow it north across the Highway and beneath a trestle to wherever it led. I mounted up and did that, emerging from under the trestle to find myself on a suburban version of a downtown street, dark shops stretching ahead on either side. A bit further up, one well-lit breakfast place presented itself. The front window bore the name The Early American, behind which morning chow activities could be seen. One parking space later, I stepped in the door to discover a classic neighborhood eatery.
The joint sounded and smelled the way a breakfast palace should, a tangy combination of utensils in action, waitresses at work and air thick with life-restoring aromas -- coffee, eggs, home fries, toast, bacon, donuts. My body felt happier from the ambience alone.
As I settled into a just-emptied booth, a waitress appeared to clear away debris. "Coffee?" she asked, picking up plates, giving the table a quick swipe with a damp cloth before sliding a menu in front of me. Seemed like a level of activity that would require more than two arms, but maybe I missed something.
"Coffee would be great," I said.
She disappeared with the detritus, reappeared a minute later with some steaming brew in a big, white mug. I wrapped palm and fingers around warm porcelain, found myself thinking about Colin, remembering the way his little hands encircle a mug, lift it carefully to his lips, his eyes looking down at it until lip contact is established and the liquid -- usually soup -- is safely trickling into his mouth. His eyes look around then, maybe over at me for a brief second, then back down. He has great eyes -- dark, expressive, pretty in that way kids' eyes are, with delicate lashes.
"You ready to order?" the waitress asked, bringing me back to the present moment, "Or do you need a minute?" Her accent sounded like something more from my neck of the woods than from Long Island.
"I'm ready." The torso by the end of my table stood sheathed in a light blue standard-issue waitress outfit. One hand held a pad of paper, the other a pen, waiting on me. My eyes rose to the countenance above the hands and found nice-looking brown thirty-something eyes, set in a nice face, slightly lined, lightly freckled. A face not thin, not round, not long, framed by dark brown hair cut to just below the jawline. No makeup I could see apart from the slightest touch of eyeliner. A normal face, pretty in an understated way. I felt a faint pang in my chest, me jonesing for an easy partnership with someone normal and cute.
"Eggs would be good," I said.
"Umm... is there a breakfast special?"
The pen lifted from the pad, she recited, "Two eggs, home fries, toast, coffee, $1.99. Three eggs, $2.50; with bacon, $2.99."
"Three eggs," I said, "over easy." Her eyes returned to the pad, the pen resumed scrawling. "With O.J. And wheat toast."
"Okay," she said, a neutral smile slipping into place, body turning to move away.
"And a corn muffin," I added, quick enough to catch her before she sped off. "By the way," I continued when she'd stopped, "are you from the Boston area?"
"Yes," she said, eyes refocusing on me. "Why?"
"The accent gave it away. I live in Cambridge."
"Is that right? I grew up in Malden." A neighboring town. City. Whatever.
"Grew up there?"
"When did you leave?"
A shrug. "Eight, nine years ago."
"Wanted a change?"
"Married someone from here."
"Oh. That can do it."
"Yeah." A smile -- small, but nice -- then she hurried off. I hadn't noticed a wedding band, not that it was any of my business. But still. I'd check again when she returned with edible matter.
The diner's front window provided a dynamite view of Broadway, where traffic continued to pick up. The pre-dawn light had strengthened, the sky easing away from the deep, dark blue of the wee hours. The clock over the cash register indicated a time of 6:05.
A wave of bleariness washed over me, I rubbed a hand back and forth over my eyes and down my face. My vision settled on the mug, my clutching hand hoisted it to my waiting mouth. Ahh, said my body, caffeine.
Drugs aside, there is something about the taste of a good cup of J, the way it blossoms as it washes over the tongue, expanding to fill the mouth, leaving an aftertaste in its passing that's like nothing else. I remember sitting in front of the television in very young years, impressed with the deeply sensual, almost religious tone of coffee ads. Mmm, they'd say, the camera in close on someone sipping from a white, broad-brimmed cup, their expression serenely rapturous. Rich and satisfying. In later, more jaundiced years I assumed the big flavor sell was a cover for the real attraction: the drug, winkingly sanctioned by The Powers That Be. Just say no, unless you're talking about a cup of high-octane brew. Then just say yes. Then say yes again. Keep saying yes until your hands are shaking so hard you can barely get the cup to your lips.
And it is fun to have a cup or two. Makes me feel like I can do anything. More than two cups, though, I start rocking back and forth autisticlike, my teeth grinding, my fingers tapping. Gets to feeling kind of anxiously desperate. Not a good time.
My thoughts wandered, me observing other diners, until my waitress returned, plates of food balanced on her left hand and forearm, O.J. in her right hand. And just in time, my thoughts having rounded to matters looming darkly ahead of me. She set it all down on the table before me, I came to fast enough to check out her left hand. No wedding band. Hmm. "Thanks," I said, looking back up at her.
"You're welcome." Nice face, nice smile.
Great. I've been driving most of the night, drastically short on sleep, bent on a mission that could go any number of messy ways, and I'm trying to determine if a waitress is available or not. Get a grip, pal.
"Can I get you anything else?"
I looked at her in brief inner debate before saying, "Not right now."
"Okay." She took off, I gazed after her, then at my breakfast, stupid with fatigue and turbulent thoughts, finally lifting a fork and starting in.
It occurred to me as I cut and chewed that I should probably think about what I might encounter in the course of the coming day's activities. Plan. Organize. Exercise my left brain. (Or is it my right brain?) So. First, find the street and house. Next, park unobtrusively somewhere nearby and watch for a while, get as much of the lay of the land as fatigue and frayed nerves will allow. Remain unobtrusive, try not to provoke flight (or assault). See how things look, reassess plan of action. Not much of a scheme, but enough to start with.
After whipping through my meal, slowing down to savor a pretty decent corn muffin (slightly grainy, not very sweet), I paid up, leaving as generous a tip as I could scrounge together, and booked, not seeing my waitress as I left, noticing a small resultant feeling of sadness. It then occurred to me I should probably use the facilities, and I went back inside where I nearly ran over the poor woman.
"Everything okay?" she asked, getting out of my way while managing to maintain footing, balance, composure and her grip on two dishes of food.
"Yes, thanks." She had pretty eyes, a warm, deep brown. I almost stood there staring into them, slackjawed, but got a hold of myself. "Which way is the men's room?"
"That way." She gestured with a plate of eggs 'n' homes fries, I mumbled thanks and took off. Looking back, I caught her gazing after me for a brief instant before turning and moving toward a booth. Hmm.
In the restroom, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Scary. Hair looking like an antenna farm after gale force winds; dark circles under tired eyes; stubble starting up like patchy crabgrass. Not a sight likely to inspire feelings of attraction in the opposite sex, apart from those into the junkie/cadaver thing.
I washed my face, used wet fingers to comb my hair into a less alarming look. Then disappeared into a stall for a few minutes to relieve nether build-up.
On my reappearance in the diner, I found myself in the path of a waitress trying to get to a booth to refresh coffee and two guys trying to get to the cash register, took a quick step back to let them all by. When I moved forward again, the woman who'd waited on me paused on her way past. "Everything okay?" she asked.
"Sure," I said uncertainly. "I drove a lot of the night, so I'm a little tired."
"I can see that." She sounded friendly enough that I had the urge to look behind me, make sure she wasn't speaking to someone else. "Well," she continued when I said nothing in return, "have a good day."
"One can only hope," I said. She laughed as she moved off, the flash of nice calves catching my eye. And again with the pang in my chest, this time provoking irritation in response. Enough.
Out to the car, the air cold enough to cause a nice tightening of skin, a pleasurable sense of coolness down my windpipe with the first breaths. Brought the engine to life, got the heater going, headed back out onto Sunrise Highway, pulled into a gas station. As I hauled myself out of the Swift, a beefy 50ish guy in a tired blue Mets jacket hurried out of the office to two cars waiting at the pumps. "Excuse me," I began, following him, "do you have any idea where Verbena Lane is?"
"No," he answered, not looking at me. He stopped at one of the cars, unscrewed the gas cap as the driver said something I couldn't make out over traffic noise, grabbed a pump nozzle, jammed it in, started it up, went to the next car. I looked around, saw no one else attending to business and no one in the office, debated taking another run at the guy. After he got the pump going for the second car, he looked over, expression blankly uncordial, jerking his chin at me, kind of a body language equivalent of So? What?
"Do you have a local map around?"
"No." A puff of breathmist eddied from his mouth with the single syllable.
"And you have no idea how I might locate Verbena Lane?"
"No." He continued to stare, blank, almost defiant, his hands in his pants pockets, arms tight against his body, ears and cheeks red with cold. Probably wanted nothing more than to get back inside where it was warmer. I thanked him, got back in the Swift, tried to re-insert myself into the flow of traffic. The happy commuters wouldn't let me join them until a woman with big hair waved me out when it became clear she wouldn't be going anywhere right away.
The next pumping station turned out to be a slightly friendlier version of the first one. But station number three had a large Massapequa street map on one wall of the office, decorated with faint fingerprints from earlier street searches.
The kid who helped me had curly hair cropped so short and tight it almost looked like cranial embroidery. Beneath his oil-stained work clothes, muscles bulged with a youthful vigor that might have appeared aggressive on someone less personable. Turned out he was familiar with the neighborhood I was looking for.
"Oh, sure," he said, pointing to a whorl of streets in the map's upper right-hand quadrant. "That'd be in here somewhere, the flower streets." So my floral suspicions were right. The flower neighborhoods seemed to have been built around two or three central interlocking blocks, the surrounding streets expanding out in successive curving layers to the more gridlike north-south, east-west main roads. Like a flower's petals, I realized with surprise. His finger traced its way to Verbena Lane, he tapped it a couple of times. "There you go."
"Thanks," I said, peering at the map to find my present location.
As if reading my thoughts, his free hand moved to a dark straight line stretching from east to west near the bottom of the map. Sunrise Highway. "We're over here," the kid said. I patted at my pockets in a half-vacant search for writing stuff, the kid produced a pen, extending it to me.
"Take some scrap paper from the desk," he suggested, moving to attend to a car that had pulled up outside. The desk turned out to have nothing usable, but I spotted something suitable in the trash can and retrieved it. Back at the map, I reoriented myself, tracked down the flower streets and traced my way to Verbena Lane, writing down directions carefully enough that I'd be able to read them when I needed to, even scratching out a diagram or two. Left the pen on the desk, waved a thank-you to the kid on my way to the Swift. As I began to pull out, the gas gauge caught my attention, its needle starting to sag down toward the big E. I backed up to the apron, the kid who'd helped me came over, I said, "Fill it." He did so.
Twelve or thirteen minutes later I turned a corner into the long, curving expanse of Verbena Lane, moving slowly enough to get a fix on the house numbers. According to the Swift's digital clock, the time was 7:20.
The first houses I saw were in the 70 to 80 range. I paused to make sure I'd turned in the right direction then proceeded cautiously on, the numbers descending in orderly fashion, the dwellings stretching off in a slow, gentle curve, eventually ending up ahead at another street. Even numbers lay to the left, my attention shifted to the procession of homes to my right. My heart thumped in my chest, each beat echoing solidly in my head and hands. My jaw had become tightly clenched, I opened it, taking a deep breath.
Not a bad neighborhood, as densely-settled suburban enclaves go. Lots of trees along the street, now bare-branched and stark in the early-morning November light; lots of shrubs and nicely-tended lawns tucked into the small spreads of earth around the houses, looking lifeless and dormant in that dull green winter way shrubs and lawns have. The houses probably had pools and decks hidden away in back yards, each little fiefdom decorated with lawn chairs, broken toys and whatever else had been left outside to survive the winter months.
It occurred to me, as a work-bound suburbanite backed out into the street a few houses ahead, that driving too slowly might draw unwanted attention. On the other hand, if I went too fast I'd have to make a return foray -- tooling repeatedly back and forth might also be a good way to let the 'hood know I'd arrived. I'd never done this kind of thing before and hoped I'd appear normal enough to the locals that I wouldn't stand out, that my current lack of grooming wouldn't work against me, not to mention the Swift's out-of-state plates.. Casting a glance at myself in the rearview mirror provided no reassurance on the grooming count, and when my eyes shifted back to the parade of 3-bedroom capes, I saw I'd come to 43 Verbena Lane. Then 41, then 39. I slowed slightly, getting a gander at 37 as it glided by, a study in tasteful whites and browns with brick trim. Front stoop, concrete walk curving in three descending steps to the driveway that spanned the short distance from the garage to the street, windows neatly arranged all around, bracketed by decorative shutters. Just like most of its neighbors. Except that this house contained my son and my fugitive ex-wife.
And now what? I asked myself increasingly profane varations of that question as I continued on down the Lane. The rearview mirror disclosed no activity around the house. No evidence of flight, no signs that my passing had provoked wild alarm. Just the sleepy 'burbs early on a weekday morning. At the end of the street, I hung a right, went around the block and reappeared on Verbena Lane at my initial point of entry, this time with an eye out for a discrete place to park. A few houses to the near side of number 37, I pulled in behind a blue late-model Olds, under the spreading branches of a naked maple tree. Behind me lay a driveway, just to the other side of that sat a Taurus station wagon. Family cars all around. And me, here on family business. I shut the Swift's engine off, latched on to the copy of Newsday I'd been smart enough to pick up on the ride from the gas station, opened it. Just a regular guy catching up on current events.
And I waited. Thought about turning on the radio, decided against it. Figured more sensory input would be pushing it. As it was, my nerves were beside themselves. I could feel sweat seepage in my armpits and lower back, but noticed with some satisfaction that the hands holding the paper remained steady. I'll take my victories where I can get ‘em, no matter how piddling.
Time crawled along. Other suburbanites left for work, kids of varying ages went by wearing backpacks, carrying books or lunchboxes. Around 7:40, a mini-school-bus picked up a couple of kids who appeared to be 7 or 8 years old. No one seemed to take much notice of my derelict self. A couple of kids walking by glanced at me with passing curiosity, but that appeared to be the extent of it.
By 8:30, I'd read everything Newsday had to offer and put the paper aside. Smudges of newsprint decorated my fingers, I started to wipe them on the seat fabric, caught myself, used my jeans instead.
The locals' exodus to daytime routines had subsided, neighborhood activity quieting down. I wondered how long I could sit there without someone becoming overly curious about me, decided not to think about it, cracked the driver's window for some fresh air. Then realized that would just make my mobile lounging space colder and closed it again. When I left Cambridge, I hadn't been thinking clearly enough to bring reading material or a notebook to scribble in. My body had now backed off from its state of janglingly high alert, and the possibility of hours of boredom had begun to shift from a potential reality to one being gradually, depressingly realized.
Actually, I reminded myself, I had brought some reading -- the packet of newspaper clippings I found in the box from Edith Ohls -- but it lay out of reach, languishing in my bag in the trunk. I wasn't sure that calling attention to myself by getting out of the car to root around back there would be very smart, so I let it lie.
My butt began to ache, I sat up straight and stretched a little. The seats in this perky little rental car had not been built with an eye toward extended occupancy, much less pampering a tired body. I couldn't even slump down and drift off for a bit because the seat curved forward in an odd, exaggerated way that hyperextended the spine, thrusting my torso forward such that sleep would only happen if I were willing to collapse over the wheel. Which would probably get the horn tooting its perky mating call every time I moved or twitched. Just exactly what I'd need to maintain a low profile.
Checked the time (8:36), stifled a groan of angst and suffering, then wondered what Colin was doing. He tended not to sleep well in new places, so had likely been long awake. Breakfast was probably in process or had happened recently. I couldn't imagine Sheila wouldn't be taking good care of him. She loved him as much as I did. And on the chance it turned out he hadn't been well cared for, I'd make sure she regretted it.
Not very attractive, that kind of sentiment, I know. But right then I didn't give a damn and wasn't worried about impressing anyone with pretensions of high-minded nobility.
The brooding continued. Was Colin happy and comfortable? Did he have much of his stuff with him or did he feel stranded, with nothing familiar or homelike around for emotional padding? I studied the house, wondering what I'd find if I could see through its walls. People had spewed forth from other shanties around the 'hood, but the homestead that had my interest had so far shown no sign of life, intelligent or otherwise. Were they all in there watching Sesame Street together?
And what about this Gerry character? I hadn't thought too much about that to this point, but the possibility of his crossing my radar screen suddenly seemed very, er, possible. Dealing with Sheila could be enough of a horror show -- toss an unknown quantity like this guy into the mix and who knew what adventures lay ahead. I fretted about the idea of going to the detex and getting them involved, a move that a hopeful part of me promoted as a smart one, but my resistance to it remained intact for the time being. Plus, I'd feel mighty stupid explaining to them why I hadn't called them or their Massachusetts brethren before driving madly down to the Island in the first place. It could be, though, that they'd care more about me coming to my senses and turning the matter over to them than about my initial misguided impulses. They might turn out to be compassionate and understanding, slapping me on the back with fraternal understanding, offering me a cuppa joe instead of browbeating me.
My spine stiffened as I noticed the front entrance at no. 37 open. I couldn't see the inside door -- what I saw was the storm door open partway out, where it held for a moment until a brown and black tiger cat slipped out. The cat looked back at the now-closed door, gazed around, raising its nose to sniff the air, then descended the steps to the front walkway where it sat staring out at the street, its tail swinging lazily back and forth.
I shifted in my seat, my posterior aching, my heart now banging against my chest wall a little harder and faster. Someone was in there. Probably with no idea that the call they'd received last night had given the game away. A surge of dark satisfaction blossomed deep inside me, spreading up through my stomach into my chest and throat, rapidly transforming into more familiar anxiety with the thought that at some point I was going to have to take some action. Sitting out here like this for days on end was not an option.
So what, I asked myself, will you do? My throat tightened up as images of possible scenarios blew through my head in scary shards of thought, ultimately coalescing into the realization that the position I'd put myself in could become genuinely dangerous, with genuine repercussions.
This is why, I told myself impatiently, people call the police, dummy.
Piss off! I immediately thought in retort. (You're arguing with yourself! a dismayed part of me observed.) I gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands, fighting off the impulse to start banging the back of my skull against the seat headrest. The cat remained where I'd last seen it, gazing down the street in my direction. Watching the jackass in the Swift have a conniption. Its tail flicked back and forth as it stared until a passing car distracted it. It then stood, descended the steps to the driveway, tail in the air, and disappeared around the corner toward the back yard.
I fretted over whether the cat might have reinforced any excitement Colin felt about being in this new place. Colin loved animals, had expressed the hope I might get one for him to pester and fawn over during his days at my place, since Sheila had vetoed the feline playmate idea for their Cambridge squat. I'd explained to him that my apartment building had a no-pets policy which overrode any desire we might have for a furry roommate, and after cross-examining me re: building regs he seemed to give up. Every once in a while he'd bring it up again, as in, "Sure would be nice to have a pussycat to pet while we watched TV," or "Wouldn't it be fun to have a kitty to dress up and stuff?" He'd probably been all over the cat I just saw until it couldn't take the onslaught of enthusiastic, poorly-calibrated physical attention and begged to go outside.
Colin. What the hell was I going to do?
The question vanished from my thoughts as the front door of no. 37 opened again and Sheila stepped out. Colin stepped out after her, wrapped in a white and green skiing jacket and a blue scarf. From my distance, I couldn't make out the brown eyes that would be peering around above the scarf but there was no mistaking the small haystack of brown hair. Sheila let Colin move past her out onto the stoop as she called something back inside, then pulled the door closed. The storm door swung shut, they moved down the steps and across the grass to the street. Belatedly, I grabbed the newspaper in case I needed to pull it open for concealment, the sound of it loud and crisp in the car.
They proceeded straight to a vehicle I couldn't see, parked directly in front of the house. Sheila unlocked a door on the passenger side and got Colin seated, apparently making sure he was belted in before closing his door, then strode around to the driver's side (still had a nice walk, I noted, with a strange mixture of feelings) and got in. In a moment, the car angled out from the curb and moved away, me frantically dragging the Swift's keys from my pocket, cranking it, backing up and pulling out, keeping what I hoped was a discrete distance behind them.
The car looked like a white, fairly new GrandAm, not the ride I'd seen Sheila driving the last time she picked up Colin from my place (a Toyota Corolla, ten years old). I didn't see the Corolla parked anywhere near the house as I went by and wondered what it meant.
The thought of being spotted brought my foot up from the accelerator pedal, so that the distance between us widened some. If I were her, I reasoned, in the position she'd put herself in, I'd be skittish enough to be on the alert. Better to err on the side of caution. The GrandAm turned at the end of the street, swinging off to the left. A moment later I followed. Up ahead, their car bore right at another corner, heading out to a busy thoroughfare. I hung back until they turned, then hurried to the corner, forcing my way out in front of a Volvo that responded with its snotty-sounding horn.
Several cars separated my little rental heap from the GrandAm. I could feel my heart pounding unhappily away in my chest, the palms of my hands now damp enough with sweat that I had to wipe them on my tired-looking jeans. Jesus, you read about this stuff in detective novels, it sounds so romantic and manly. The real thing felt clumsy, stupid, perilous; perfect fodder for ulcers and criminal charges. Trying not to think about how little fun I was having, I concentrated on remembering to breathe and keeping track of the GrandAm, a process that turned out to be harder than one might think, at least for a rank greenhorn like myself.
A few blocks up, Sheila aimed the GrandAm into the parking lot of a supermarket. I followed, hoping my trailing distance remained discrete enough. When the GrandAm turned into an aisle and a parking space partway along, I drifted into the next aisle over, sliding into a space close to the near end. Close enough that I could see Sheila's head when she got out. The other door swung open and shut, a few seconds later the two of them proceeded toward the store, Sheila saying something to Colin, who remained invisible until they emerged from between parked cars into the lane of the aisle in which I lurked. She wore a forest green hooded jacket -- something else I'd never seen before -- with jeans and low-heeled boots. Colin walked next to her, now wearing a dark purple knit hat I'd gotten him a couple of weeks earlier. His arm extended up, hand in hers, him looking like a normal kid on a normal day in a shopping center with his mother.
A car pulling out up the aisle briefly blocked the view, a moment later mother and son disappeared into the store, the door swinging closed behind them. I decided to stay put and wait for their reappearance; however, my aching hinder finally got me out of the Swift to stretch and resuscitate my tired body, mindful of not straying out from between the vehicles where I'd be clearly visible to all passing citizens.
A chilly morning in a sizeable parking lot. I looked around. Cars. Lots of ‘em. With lots more passing out on the drag. And despite the early hour, lots of people were about rounding up provisions. A breeze gusted up and I silently gave thanks that I'd worn a warm coat for the trip, had even thought to throw a change of clothes into my overnight bag, though I'd neglected to include long underwear.
A sour taste in my mouth reminded me I was tired. I rubbed my eyes, then yawned in total body fashion, arms at full extension, back arched, mouth gapingly open, emitting primal noise. Hugely gratifying, though not to the elderly woman who happened to glance over at my ragged-looking self as she tottered by on stiff legs. Our eyes met, her pace picked up, the small body swaying from side to side in her haste to put some distance between us. Must be hard to make any headway in those thick, high-heeled numbers she had on.
Right about then, my bladder decided the morning's coffee and O.J. needed to be recycled. Subtle signals at first, nothing too alarming, though it occurred to me that my lack of available options for speedy evacuation could turn this into a fairly unfortunate situation. My choices seemed to be stay put, risking eventual disgrace, or trot off somewhere to take care of myself and head back to Verbena Lane later. Now that I'd found Colin I didn't want to risk losing him, but within minutes the need to pee had grown insistent, escalating to a keening groin-throb. I found myself doing the old jiggling, hopping, bladder-about-to-pop two-step, trying to hash out my options while keeping an eye on shoppers exiting the store. Activity in the parking lot seemed constant, though apart from the senior citizen I'd frightened no one had come into close proximity. I squinted around, calculating the risk of taking a whiz by the front of my car, trying to figure if I could manage it without looking too obviously like a shmuck taking a whiz by a car.
My bladder finally left me little choice. Positioning myself by the front of the Swift, I cast a quick assessing glance around -- nobody passing by, no one sitting in any nearby cars that I could see. Time to do it. With some struggle, I managed to coax my netherboy out into the cold breeze, got him pointed in the right direction. And after a couple of shaky moments, relief was underway. In an attempt at nonchalance, I passed one hand through my hair, then leaned against the car. Relaxed, easygoing, passing a lovely morning in one of Massapequa's many fine parking lots. And feeling lighter of poundage by the second.
I noticed the blacktop had a slight grade, so that my contribution to nature ran slowly off to one side, around the front wheel and presumably over to the next vehicle. Wouldn't its owners have a nice surprise waiting on their return?
In the aisle behind me, a horn pierced the moment's relative peace, abrupt and near enough that I jerked partway around, sprinkling the front bumper of the Swift as I did. Hadn't even had the thing 24 hours, I was already piddling all over it. At least my sneakers were dry. (Well, one of them.)
The honking had come from a vehicle protesting another's poorly-timed decision to shift into reverse. No one had cottoned to my clandestine activity. I looked around warily then recommenced, wisps of steam rising from the moisture on the bumper.
At which point, Sheila and Colin emerged from the store. Sheila carried a bag in one arm, holding one of Colin's hands with her free one, Colin looking down at the ground as he walked. In a hurry, I reined in my bodily functions and slipped back into the Swift, keeping an eye on my ex. I would have kept the other eye on my son but he disappeared as soon as they stepped between cars.
Sheila put the bag into the trunk of the GrandAm, unlocked Colin's door and got him seated, walked around to her side, got in and pulled out. As did I, falling in behind them at a tactful distance.
Back to their lair, Sheila apparently with no inkling anyone trailed behind. We proceeded into Verbena Lane from the direction we left, I pulled into a space beneath the branches of a sycamore several houses down the block from no. 37. In the opposite direction from where I'd been earlier, on the other side of the street. Sheila pulled her new vehicle into number 37's compact driveway, the GrandAm just about filling it from garage door to sidewalk. Sheila and Colin got out, she went to the trunk and retrieved the bag, he came across the cat and scooped it up, his arms under its stomach. The cat made no struggle until Sheila said something to Colin, then it started wriggling around, legs pumping like those of a small, furry, slightly spastic sprinter. When Colin put it down it scooted off a safe distance before stopping to glance back, tail waving about in an agitated manner. Colin followed Sheila up the steps, the cat sat down on the lawn and looked around, recovering from the excitement.
Hmm. No suspicions had been raised, far as I could tell, apart from the cat's growing suspicions that Colin's attention might be something to avoid. I mulled the thought of taking a break, getting something to eat, trying to get cleaned up somewhere, maybe change clothes.
I don't know what I expected in this little venture of mine -- maybe I'd leaped into action the way I had so I wouldn't have to reason it out -- but the dreary reality of hanging around like a pederast near a playground wasn't it. I think I had some vague, dramatic notion of galloping in, grabbing my son, then galloping off into a lovely self-righteous sunset, reunited with my progeny, my ex left behind in empty-handed come-uppance. A counter-abduction. Which still loomed as a possibility, but in the meantime I lounged, uncomfortable and not terribly happy. Without glamour or nobility, though with stubble and bleary vision.
Do you think, I asked myself, they're likely to pull up stakes in the very near future? It's possible, I answered musingly. Anything's possible. But if Sheila thinks she's successfully found safe cover for now, why would she want to get running again right away? She never cared for traveling much to begin with, hated not having the minimum comforts reliably in place: a space she had some control over, her own stuff arranged and left where she'd put it all, a hair dryer nearby, a TV, preferably with cable so she could find as many news magazines as possible.
Nothing in the little bit I'd seen of her so far had indicated agitation or skittishness. On the other hand, she'd certainly surprised me in unexpected ways on other occasions.
It occurred to me that I'd probably be able to sort things out more efficiently with a little sleep under my belt. But how the hell would I manage that and keep a reasonably effective eye on no. 37? Plus, I had the feeling that Massapequa might not be a prime location for sacking out in one's car. Even if I could find a spot that felt secure or low-profile enough to flop, the Swift's back seat was way small and would probably leave me with crippling spinal rearrangements.
Couldn't think what to do, so I did nothing. Just sat, staring dopily ahead. Nothing further happened at no. 37. How, I wondered, do people do this for a living? I burped slightly, producing the faintly sulfurous taste of early-morning eggs. I was starting to feel truly repulsive and knew a glance in the rearview mirror would provide an alarming picture.
Something had to be done. I started up the car, sat for a moment in quiet debate, then slowly pulled out. The Swift passed no. 37 at a speed calculated to draw no attention, me yawning, one hand up to cup my mouth and hide my face a bit. Once past, I proceeded out the way I'd originally come in, heading back toward Sunrise Highway, tired enough that I'd begun to feel a little desperate. The Swift's clock read 10:11.
Wan November sunshine seeped through the windshield as I turned east onto Sunrise Highway. Ahead on the right a sign for a motel came into view, shining dully in the thin light. The driveway presented itself, I pulled into the lot, the car bouncing over the lip of the apron as if over poorly maintained railroad tracks. My stomach lurched with the motion, enough to cause concern. Any misgivings I might have had about laying out the money for a room were melting away with my body's growing unhappiness.
In fact, as I got out of the car my body seemed to take over, slamming the door and propelling me toward the office. I wasn't sure I'd locked the door behind me, tried to turn to see, but my body refused, twisting me forward, moving faster, my arm jerking out as I approached the entranceway, grasping the handle and wrenching the door open, my feet stumbling unstoppably inside, pausing to turn back and forth until the front desk had been located, then moving decisively there, pulling up in front of the, well, concierge would be too grandiose a term, but you know, the person in a shirt and tie. The clerk.
"Can I help you, sir?" Dark, heavy-lidded eyes gazed at me, businesslike in an affable way, their owner dark-haired, dark-complexioned, with the ghost of an unplaceable accent.
"I'd like a room," I managed to enunciate. "If there are any available."
"Oh, there are rooms," he assured me, moving to a computer off to one side of the counter.
"I know it's early for check-in." I had the urge to start babbling, either from fatigue or from the relief of being around a reasonably friendly human, but managed to prevent a torrent of idiot words from spilling out of my mouth. Which effectively dammed up the energy that would have been discharged, so that my body began undergoing a resultant blizzard of tics and twitches that I hoped were apparent to no one but myself, my feet repositioning themselves as my weight shifted from one to the other, hands moving here and there, from the counter to a pocket, to scratch something, to pull at face and hair, my eyes roving around the office -- as impersonal a workspace as I'd ever seen -- out the window at traffic moving by, settling briefly on a sizeable potted rubber plant out in the foyer, then skipping up to some mass-produced artwork that adorned the walls.
"How will you be paying for this, sir?"
One of my hands found my credit card and slid it onto the counter before my mouth could start spewing nonsense. The clerk took the card, studied it, then turned away. My attention returned to the paintings -- exotic scenes in mythical foreign lands, vaguely Indian or Middle Eastern, difficult to tell exactly which in keeping with my inability to place the nationality of the person I was dealing with. Scenes mostly featuring men and women in get-ups both tight yet gracefully flowing, modest yet artfully revealing. Figures with idealized bodies, heroically romantic, posing in ways that could easily turn from love to war. When I looked back at the clerk, he'd produced a key from somewhere and hovered over the computer printer, neatly tearing a sheet of paper off once it had grown to full maturity, sliding it gracefully over to me with a pen. I picked up the pen, trying to puzzle out the form. A light brown finger thrust itself gently into my vision, pointing at a line at the bottom of the form.
"Just sign there, sir," I was instructed. It always throws me a bit to be called "sir." My impulse is to look around and see who's actually being addressed.
I signed. He gave me a copy of the form, told me my room number, handed me a key, all the while smiling nicely. I hesitated, he said, "Is there something else?"
"Well, it's earlier than check-in usually is. I guess I'm wondering if there might be an extra charge of some kind."
"No extra charge, sir," the clerk replied with good grace. I thanked him, returned to the car, grabbed my bag. Managed to locate the room and get the door open, finding your basic rectangular motel cubicle. TV, three lamps, two beds, dresser, bathroom and the mumble of a TV in a neighboring room. My body guided me into the bathroom where I emptied out the ballast, then back out to one of the beds where I sat down. Not bad. I felt myself lower slowly into horizontal position, curled up on my right side, head on pillow, mouth falling slightly open. The soft sounds of passing highway traffic and television babble registered distantly. My eyes closed.
© 2002, 2009 by runswithscissors