From GONE, a novel
The steps extended down from where I sat, three of them, in neat rows of brick and mortar, descending to the front walk. I saw the legs of a young boy -- my legs -- bare and slim below well-worn shorts, sneaker-shod feet planted on the middle step, the right one jiggling in time to an inner rhythm. The legs to the left of mine belonged to someone much bigger, the feet clad in black wingtips, the pants above them sharply creased and dark, dark blue, almost black.
I didn't know the man to my left, though he seemed to know me. He sat talking about something, I don't remember what, his forearms resting over his thighs, a cigarette perched between the fingers of the left hand. He nudged me, his right hand rose to point at something -- a plane passing overhead, high enough that its progress across the expanse of blue reminded me of an insect's steady, singleminded crawl across cleared ground. For some reason, the man's voice seemed to come and go, murmurous, other sounds washing over it like surf on a shore: the breeze, passing cars, the drone of the plane.
My nose began to run, I realized the weather had turned cold, that it was winter even though the trees still had all their leaves. They moved in undulating waves as the wind blew through them with increasing strength, rippling with the gusts of cold air, the many leaves calling ssshhhhhhhhhh, SSSSHHHHH. The man noticed me wiping my nose and pulled a box of tissue from under his suit coat, placing it on the stoop between us. I took one, blew my nose into it, then took another and held on to it, crossing my arms and hunching up, starting to shiver.
The noise from the plane's passage grew louder, I looked up to see sunlight reflecting off its wings in lucid diamonds of intense white. I felt motion next to me, looked to find that the man had taken the tissue box and gotten to his feet, his silhouette clear and sharp against the sky, the trees behind him moving majestically in the strengthening breeze. He threw the box up into the air as one might hurl a frisbee, drawing his arm across his body then flinging it out and away, the box soaring up into the light, spinning rapidly as it flew. Reaching into his coat, the man drew out a gun and took quick aim at the box, firing three shots in rapid succession, startlingly loud. I could see the flashes burst from the end of the barrel, vivid and bright. Instantly, the box blew apart, the tissues exploded into the air, bursting into wild flight before the wind like a cloud of mid-winter butterflies.
I heard another report, my eyes jerked partway open, I found myself sprawled on the motel bed listening to people in the adjoining room. The dull thumping of things being carried in, then muffled voices, a woman's loud enough that I could discern the edge of a whine as she spoke. A man replied, lower, then a door closed with a solid sound. Steps moved away outside. I rubbed my eyes, looked around. The air in the room had cooled. The clock radio on the night table by the bed read 3:51.
The television still mumbled away in the room opposite that of my new neighbors. I hoped it would shut up at some point.
I labored to a sitting position, tried to clear my head, thought better of it, lay back down. A minute or two later, I rolled my legs over the edge of the bed and worked my painful way upright. When I finally shuffled into the bathroom, my hand groped around for the light switch without success until I got that some engineering genius had located it on the wall outside the room. Reached out there, flicked it on, took a moment to cover my eyes while they adjusted to all that illumination. I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't especially care to see that clearly right after I wake up.
The mirror featured an individual who'd seen better days. Bloodshot eyes stared back until I gathered myself and took inventory of what the motel had given me to work with. Towels, a small bar of soap, a teensy bottle of shampoo, two plastic cups wrapped in plastic. And to my grateful surprise, a disposable razor -- I'd managed to leave mine home. I did, however, bring the envelope containing the photo of my parents, which I suddenly remembered. Exiting the bathroom, I found my bag, dug around in it. A minute later, the photo stood propped up against the stem of the dresser lamp, near the TV, so I could see it from most any point in the room. Something about their image in the space provided a slight feeling of counterbalance against the overall vacuum in my life, family-wise. A thin, flimsy counterbalance, but in my current circumstances better than nothing. I gazed at the picture for a moment, then returned to the loo.
A shower and shave brought me some distance toward rejoining the human race. A change of clothes took me a little further. By the time I wandered back out into the waning light of the late November afternoon, I'd reinstated the illusion that I had some vague idea what I was doing. It occurred to me that early darkness might work in my favor when it came to sitting watch over Sheila's cozy burrow. Of course, if I hung around long enough someone, sooner or later, would wonder who I was, what I was doing. Be interesting to see how long I could forestall that.
A quick stop at a deli for a bag of chow, then back to Verbena Lane. The Swift and I passed no. 37 -- no visible sign of felonious activity -- exiting out at the end of the street, turning around and coming back in that way to settle into a slot in front of no. 24. A distance from both the morning's vantage points, the opposite side of the street from no. 37. Just as darkness settled in.
The GrandAm sat in the driveway, white and sleek, reflecting light from the faux lantern by the front door. I considered getting out, strolling casually up the block to where I could take a few quick steps across the grass and see if the hood felt warm from use. I considered that for a minute. I also considered calling the cops, taking Tae Bo or moving to New Orleans and investing in unhealthy amounts of liquor, spicy food and Mardi Gras beads.
Instead I stayed put, keeping an eye on no. 37 as I ate my supper. Chicken salad with lettuce in pita bread. Cole slaw, fries, O.J. There is something nice about unwrapping a take-out meal in a car and digging into it. The feel of paper napkins, the aroma and taste of the food. An infrequent enough happening for me that I always seem to sense echoes of other front-seat picnics welling up from the memory banks. I enjoyed that until I remembered why I was there this time, after which the sandwich and fries seemed dry and tasteless. (The slaw had been tasteless to begin with.)
Two or three cars pulled into two or three driveways, a 30ish woman passed by on the far sidewalk taking a dalmatian for walkies. No one seemed to notice me. Dennis Marlowe, invisible man.
A light went on in the corner room over the driveway at no. 37, the blinds in the front and side windows brightening softly. I saw no movement or passing shadow to indicate who might be there. The chicken salad lay in my stomach, sullen and unamused.
Since seeing Colin that morning, alive and going to the store with his mom as if life were somewhat normal, I'd begun experiencing the strange, subversive feeling that maybe things weren't really so bad. Kind of a nudging whisper suggesting I might be making more of the sitch than it deserved. That I might be the real problem. And of course a good argument could be made that as far as my life goes, I am my only real problem. Me, my choices, my judgments, my mistakes. I thought about that as I watched the gently glowing windows, coming up with nothing helpful.
It occurred to me that a serious downside to this sitting and waiting thing was the abundant time it provided to brood, something I'd always had a talent for. Not that brooding takes great bunches of talent or effort. All one needs to do is let one's thoughts slink down avenues of resentment and self-pity, where one then settles slouchingly in and hangs out for long periods of time. It's easy to piss away otherwise useful hours hashing over things that have gone badly, old injustices. And just as easy to conjure elaborate imaginings re: how things could go wrong up the road. An old friend of mine used to call that second bit living in the wreckage of the future. Doesn't help anything very much, but it's easy to learn and you can do it anywhere.
I shook my head to clear it, came back to me sitting in the car. Dump the brooding, Dennis. A nasty habit, like smoking or picking your nose. Not an indicator of vibrant emotional health.
I turned on the Swift's radio, went up and down the dial, voices and music bleeping and yawping by, finally settled near the bottom end, a college station. Jazz. Guitar, piano, bass, drums, swinging quietly along. Fine sitting/waiting music.
I looked around at the neighborhood, all the houses with lives going on inside them, families having dinner, maybe waiting for someone to get home. Or fragmented families in the aftermath of unanticipated events, making a life with the pieces left to them, putting together spare meals of hot dogs and macaroni. And then I wondered if, in my travels around the local thoroughfares, I'd driven by the building my mother and I had lived in -- something that hadn't occurred to me, I realized, since arriving in Massapequa thirteen or so short, blissful hours ago. That stopped my breathing for a moment.
In reflecting on it, I couldn't come up with any place I'd passed that rang a bell, though who knows, I might have been too spaced or preoccupied, or the locale might have changed beyond recognition. It had, after all, been thirty-odd years since my last glorious day in this burg.
The thought that I might be somewhere near the site of my earliest memories persisted, and the chicken salad didn't seem to be taking it well. I cranked down the window, breathed some relatively fresh air. A chilly breeze nosed its way into the car, I cranked the window most of the way back up, reached over to the radio, boosted the volume a hair. The music had ended, the student announcer had started murmuring, but I couldn't make out who'd performed the last cut. I hate that.
A walk would have been exactly what the sawbones ordered, but I wasn't sure it was a good risk. If I was going to be lurking around the neighborhood much longer, it probably wouldn't be a great idea to display myself up and down the length of the block, even if it might help settle my inner cabaret down a touch. How the hell do people do this for a living? And with that question I felt the long shadow cast by the old man.
Does everyone do some version of this, carry their family with them wherever they go? Or is it just one of the earmarks of my own personal neurosis?
Across the street from no. 37, a matron wrapped in a full-length puffy coat emerged with a teensy dog on a leash, hurrying to a foreign-made SUV parked in the street. The dog: one of those tiny breeds that look like the business end of a mop, only with ears and legs. Little bitty legs in this case, that needed to move at a tremendous, calorie-burning rate to keep up with its outsized person. (Every one of those critters that I've ever seen has worn an expression of embarrassment, as if aware of what they look like.) The woman opened the driver's door, lifted the dog up and dropped it onto the seat. It turned around, looked at her, she said something, making a shoo motion with a hand. It disappeared, the woman got in, pulling the door shut. Headlights came on, the SUV pulled out and took off, disappearing down the block away from me and out of view. When I looked back at number 37, I saw that the corner windows had gone dark. Hrm.
That roused me, don't ask me why. Shutting off the radio, I pulled myself carefully out of the Swift, closing the door with a quiet click. For a moment I stood motionless by the car, then moved silently along the sidewalk, doing my best to make like a homie from the ‘hood out for an evening stroll. Casual. No one seemed to be giving me the laser eye from nearby houses. I ambled up the block until I stood opposite no. 37. Stopped, looked around, breathing in the night air, innocent as can be.
Number 37 betrayed no secrets. No muffled sounds of child abuse, no frightened screams from son or mother. No nothing. Just a house in the 'burbs -- some windows lit, little amber front stoop lantern shining away, no different from any other residence along the street.
I continued quietly on, crossing the street halfway up the block and starting back. Yes, it occurred to me that walking right by the house was risky and not terribly bright. I did it anyway, hunching my shoulders, collar up around my neck, moving right along. Nothing happened, no one burst out, panicked, enraged or seeking rescue. A breeze rustled shrubs and tree branches. I continued along, moving past my rented mobile lurking enclosure and well down the block before slowing up to figure what came next.
Didn't people in movies usually have sidekicks for activities like this? Another body to trade shifts with, another personality sharp enough to ensure the endeavor wouldn't end up completely adrift? With only myself to count on, I wasn't sure how long I could keep from doing something terminally stupid.
The sound of a door closing somewhere down the block behind me caught my attention, I glanced around. A figure appeared, moving down a walkway, far enough away that I couldn't make out for sure which house it came from. An adult male, far as I could tell from its dark form, though I couldn't have sworn to it. Definitely not my ex, unless she'd experienced drastic hair loss since that morning. Went directly to the GrandAm, opened the door, got in. I heard the distant sound of the engine firing up, then the lights flashed on, the car shifted into motion, backing out into the street so that the headlights swung around in my direction. I turned and continued on along the sidewalk as I'd been, slowing under a tree for cover, my face averted, as the car glided by, turned left up ahead and slipped out of view.
Gerry has left the building.
I swore at myself. If I'd been planted in my lurking enclosure like I should have been, I would have gotten a decent look at the guy Sheila had taken refuge with.
Fuming, I made a beeline back to the Swift, glancing around for any sign of being observed. Nothing. So far.
Back inside, the small white characters of the Swift's clock read 7:40.
7:40. I hadn't noticed exactly when I arrived, but at a minimum it had been in the neighborhood of 5:40. Two hours earlier. Two hours of driving myself quietly wacko. Dear God, with how many more to endure?
Come on now, I thought, settle down. Remember why you're here. I took a deep breath and did so, my eyes on number 37, sitting stolid and impassive in the November chill, driveway now empty. Somewhere up the block behind me a dog barked, once, then once more. Everyone wants to be heard now and then.
My brain can be a problem. If I thought only half as much as I do, I'd probably get twice as much done and be far happier. As would those who have to deal with me.
It's not as if I haven't investigated disciplines that soothe the mind. I have. There just always seems to be something about the experience that doesn't work for me. Or I find myself growing unaccountably antsy, dissatisfied.
But here, sitting alone in my rented Swift with plenty o' time on my hands and nothing to do but fiddle with the radio, I decided sitting quietly for a while couldn't hurt. Especially when the alternative seemed to be a growing inability to keep myself from cretinous behavior. Just sitting, following my breath as it passed in and out, hoping it wouldn't make that annoying little whistling noise it sometimes does, a sound I associate with 80-year-old men with big floppy earlobes and hair sprouting from unnerving locations.
I shut my eyes and breathed, thoughts and images flowing through my head. Sheila, Colin, difficult years. Noticed where that was going, turned my attention back to my breathing. A car went by, my eyes opened to watch its taillights recede up the street. I tried adjusting my body. The Swift clearly had not been designed by anyone familiar with normal posture. Still had that new car smell, though. Which, when I thought about it, was not something I found hugely appealing. The aroma of new plastic and other synthetics. Mmmm.
Breathe, Dennis. In -- nice and deep -- and out. In, out. In, out. How do people do this without getting aroused from all the in/out? My thoughts turned to some carnal escapades from early in my time with Sheila until I remembered I was trying to calm my system, not heat it up. Took a deep breath, shut my eyes again, exhaled. Easy, nice. Much better.
I remembered the last time I'd tried meditating in any serious way, about ten years earlier. Heard about a center not far away that dealt in an Eastern religion, went over to check it out. When I got there, I found a big old domed building, impressive in an odd, affectingly antebellum way, with an air of grandeur slowly sliding into disrepair. Almost as if a conscious comment were being made about the unimportance of material trappings.
For a few weeks I went to meditation groups there, once or twice I went to their version of religious instruction. I wanted it to fit, I really did, but I just couldn't work up the kind of eagerness and zeal the other aspirants exhibited. Whenever I find myself in a spiritual arena where someone begins laying out their version of HOW IT ALL IS, I start to drift away. As soon as I think I'm hearing some variation of We've got the inside track, it's just a matter of time before I'm out of there.
In this case, I bailed after a holy guy did a weekend gig at the center, one of the mucky-mucks from somewhere back in Asia. A great teacher, looked up to by the people at this place with love and reverence. He showed up, we all gathered in the large room beneath the dome -- a nice space, sizeable and airy, late-afternoon sunlight slanting in through tall windows -- the talk began. Turned out he'd been drinking. And continued drinking, wine of some sort. He got sloppier as the event progressed, his attitude becoming bizarrely expansive and grandiose.
What do I know about spiritual wisdom and the forms it can take? Could be this guy was a legitimate avatar, deliberately carrying on to challenge or provoke. Behaving outrageously to shake us into fresh awareness in the present moment. It could be. I, however, didn't hang around to find out.
I closed my eyes again, there on my vigil in the Swift, and breathed for a moment. Seemed to be getting easier. Except that any heat left in the car had seeped off into the November night some time earlier, and sitting quietly brought me to greater awareness of the fact that I was spending my evening in what may as well have been a four-wheeled icebox. Given that I didn't want to draw attention, turning the motor over to refresh the heat would probably not be very smart, and since I hadn't thought to pack thermal underthingies, all my body could do to take care of itself was shiver. Do people who do this kind of work for a living suffer like this? Probably not. They probably plan ahead, buy warm clothes and blankets, take them as tax deductions.
Distract yourself, Dennis. Jiggling in my seat from the cold, my hands pressed between my legs for warmth, I peered up through the windshield at the evening sky. A meager scattering of stars shone with chilly light. Not much to see, just like Cambridge. What happened to the crowded night skies I remembered from childhood? Washed away by the lights of our modern, overcrowded world. Or driven elsewhere by wildly escalating rent.
I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so inescapably at loose ends, apart from any number of moments during the previous two or three days. Back home I could take a walk, go to a movie, grab something to eat -- any number of things. Here, my only available options were staring around the neighborhood and stewing or filling the time with random stabs at self-improvement.
I noticed the restless blue glow of televisions radiating softly from front windows of nearby houses. Oh, to be curled up in front of the tube like a good American. That's probably where Colin was. Though you never knew. Sometimes he had no interest in TV at all. Sometimes he'd rather draw or play a board game. Or get me to read to him. He'd decided he really liked Tigger and the gang, so we were well into the doings at Pooh Corner. My progeny seemed determined to reproduce one of the original drawings of Eeyore, but so far all his attempts looked like a stick figure of a person with donkey ears and a snout, doubled spastically over in pain. Regardless, they wind up on his bedroom door and my refrigerator. If he keeps at it, he's bound to come up with something decent. At that point, I'll start framing them and they'll show up everywhere in the apartment, covering all available wall space until I have to rent additional quarters.
What would he be watching right now? Tuesday night. Probably some benign, half-lame sitcom. Maybe Gerry had cable and Colin was developing an addiction to channel after channel of dreck. Unless maybe Sheila was reading to him, trying to generate a feeling of normalcy. Maybe they were playing a board game or crazy eights followed by a wicked bout of 52 pick-up.
At four and a half, he was not yet up for games of any real complexity, though it was fun to watch him try, the way his little features settled into a serious expression as he concentrated. Sometimes I study him when he's focused like that, feeling a little awe at the depth of the works spinning away in there. Then he'll do something like knock a bowl of oatmeal all over my lap and completely kill the moment.
The light in the corner room over the driveway went on again at no. 37. This time I thought I could see evidence of motion inside, a faint passing shadow on the blinds. Otherwise nothing. No one pulling the slats apart to stare out at me, no one taping a big HELP sign to the window.
More jiggling to get the blood moving in the cold dark of the Swift, hoping to God no one had a videocam trained on me. I could picture the headlines: "Man Filmed Apparently Masturbating Before Freezing Solid In Suburban Night." Would give the term ‘death from exposure' a whole new meaning.
The clock read 8:02, I gritted my teeth from cold and angst.
Half an hour later, I still shivered though not as much, having achieved a measure of frosty tranquility through more deep breathing. Eyes closed, I ventilated through my nostrils, exchanging cold air for warm, breathing from the diaphragm, just following the in and out of the breath with my attention. After two or three cars had gone by, I'd stopped opening my eyes, determined to maintain concentration, and found myself gradually sinking to a fairly deep state, deep enough that my muscles began to let go and relax, my system slowly calming down. At some point, the solid slam of a car door closing brought my eyes open a bit. I saw a substantial shape mounting the walkway steps at no. 37, then up the stoop to the porch, opening the screen door, then the inner door before stepping inside. A rectangle of light briefly glimmered before the door closed, its noise solidly distinct, and the street lay momentarily quiet until the muffled howl of a high-horsepower car accelerating on a nearby thoroughfare punctured the silence.
Blinking, I saw no car in the driveway, then spotted the GrandAm at the curb in front of the house. I hadn't even heard it before the sound of the door brought me to. Couldn't make up my mind if that was good or bad, then switched to considering the figure I'd seen. Gerry, apparently. Big. Tall and wide, in a dark leather coat. Appeared to have curly hair. That's all I could say for sure about him.
The inside surface of the Swift's windows had begun to collect a ghosting of mist, I wiped most of the windshield clear with my sleeve, my motions energized with a sprouting sense of self-disgust. You know, I thought impatiently, you would have gotten a better look at the Incredible Hulk there if you'd been paying attention, if your fucking eyes had been open. I took the criticism silently, clearing away moisture from the windows on either side of the front seat.
My less than stellar job of surveillance aside, the giant I'd just seen had gone home to my ex and my little boy while I sat out in the cold, alone. I didn't care for the thought of that. I found I also didn't care for myself very much right then. And as my thoughts roiled darkly, I found I didn't care for much of anything that came to mind. Except the idea of getting my boy back. That appealed in a bitter way, and the bitterness seemed to bring bleak hope, the angry hope of the disenfranchised for blunt justice.
I sat in the deepening suburban night, eyes on the house that held my son, nursing bad-tempered thoughts and eking out what thin shavings of satisfaction I could manage from that as fuel for the coming hours.
And I waited.
© 2002, 2009 by runswithscissors