far too much writing, far too many photos

runswithscissors


From GONE, a novel



Chapter 7

Distant noise of traffic, mingled with the goddamn television murmur from next door. A taste in my mouth of chicken salad gone evil. Tired, foggy. Headache, scratchy throat. Chilly, the rubbery covers on the bed not doing the job. Thinking Dear Jesus, what has happened to my life?

When my eyelids scraped open, the bedside clock radio read a blurry 6:30. My eyes took in the slightly shoddy environs, then closed. At 6:32, they opened again, me resigned to getting the day underway.

I girded, slowly rose from horizontal onto one arm, dragged a hand over my face and through my hair. Reached out, found the light and turned it on, one eye closed, the other squinting from the sudden brightness. Yawned with satisfyingly loud volume, ran a hand over my face again. Stubble.

Got stiffly to my feet, shuffled past my parents to the bathroom. As rudely bright as ever in there, the same stunned-looking individual blinking in the mirror. Twenty minutes later I brought the TV to life as I pulled on clothes. A minute or two of excessively happy morning program nonsense reminded me why I can't stand that stuff and I killed it.

Showered, shaved, dressed. Now what? I lowered my denimed hind quarters to the bed, made an effort to think.

I'd remained parked on Verbena Lane until shortly after 11, when the last visible lit window at no. 37 went dark. After a judicious waiting period to make absolutely sure the evening's excitement was over, I started up the Swift, drove quietly away.

Arrived back at the motel about twenty of midnight, immediately ran a hot bath, still shaking from hours of underdressed thrills in a frigid car. Blew my nose loudly enough to rattle lampshades in every unit in the building, stripped off cold, tired clothes, got hot bath water flowing, slid into the tub. With time, the shivering stopped, the expanses of gooseflesh settled down. I thought about calling Steve for some moral support but didn't know what I would say to the inevitable cross-exam, so put that on hold. Went over the question of the police and what to do re: them, found myself still resistant and tabled that for the night, busying myself with sleepytime activities, overcoming hypothermia, all that. Fell into bed around 12:30 where, despite the neighboring room's eternal TV-fest, I slipped off to a night of turbulent dreams.

And now another day loomed, promising further adventures. November wind rattled around outside, pale morning light found its way into the room through gaps around the curtains.

My eyes moved to the clock radio. Five after seven. The day awaited, decisions needed to be made. First: do I book myself into the room for another night or pack up my paltry possessions and vacate? And what about the rest of the day? What the hell was I doing? I needed counsel. Which prompted the next set of questions: who to speak with, what to say.

Steve seemed the only candidate right then, a fact I did not feel completely comfortable with. What was I doing leaning on someone his age in a sitch like this? Was I so deficient in friends that my prime options were a 24-year-old law-school terror and a smoke-shrouded quasi-street-person? Somehow the last few years had narrowed my life down, and it took events reaching their current state to bring that home. Not (he added hastily) that I'm a hermit. I've had friends, a fairly healthy network of them. From college, theatre, other places. Some moved or drifted off over time, others precipitated out during the split-up with Sheila and its long, turbulent aftermath. I let the deficit happen -- kept myself busy with work and acting, preoccupied with Colin and the overarching drama of my life to where it was fairly easy to let people, etc. slip off.

Bleak thoughts on a bleak, cold morn. I looked at the phone, thought about using it, then remembered the stupendous bill I'd been presented with years earlier after a motel stay that included several calls to an aspiring sweetheart. No wonder the clerk had smiled so nicely when she handed it to me -- she knew I was about to subsidize any expansion plans the management might have had.

Two quick decisions: (1) put off the decision about the room; (2) locate a pay phone, make a collect call.

Outside, I found a partly overcast a.m., the air bracingly brisk, wind whipping around me as I wandered over to the patiently-waiting Swift, its little rear end posed perkily up in the morning light (still a young enough car that the elements hadn't yet worn down its spirit).

While the engine warmed up, I debated which direction I should take, then realized easterly movement was all the highway would permit from the parking lot. It occurred to me there might be a pay phone back in the motel near the office or lounge, but I decided I'd prefer a locale with at least the illusion of privacy. Slipping the Swift into gear, I stopped thinking and got underway, managing to jerk out into traffic almost immediately. An omen, I hoped.

The prospects up ahead didn't look promising, so I executed a fast U-turn at the first traffic light and headed west. A long, motley array of businesses sprawled along the south side of the highway, still closed at this early hour except for those pandering to commuters. Not too far along, a gas station/convenience mart presented itself. I turned around at the next light, pulled in and found a phone but no privacy. They had newspapers, I scored a copy of the Times (couldn't find Newsday), checked out the front page on the World Weekly News (best headlines in the biz: "15-Year-Old Gives Birth to Vampire Piano Prodigy"), picked up a cup of paint thinner masquerading as decaf. Took a little longer to get back onto the Highway this time. Luckily the Swift had enough pep to skid out in front of a pick-up that didn't want to let me in. The sound of horns around me evoked the feeling of Boston traffic, inducing momentary homesickness.

Further west I came across an old-style gas station with a pay phone off the garage end of the building. I pulled in, parked by the phone, counted up my remaining cash -- enough to ferry me through a couple of days of less-than-exorbitant spending, then considered who to call. There were two or three old friends I could bother who wouldn't mind hearing from me out of the blue, even at that hour of the morning. They knew nothing about what was going on, though, and I found myself reluctant to spread the news of my life's chaotic state to more ears than had already heard about it.

Cars sped by as I went to the phone, trying to remember Steve's number. My memory didn't seem to be at its sharpest these days. Or maybe I just didn't call people as frequently as I used to, so that numbers weren't burned into my system as reliably. I had the receiver in hand, finger poised to punch keys, when I stopped to consider why I was calling collect. The guy was a student, after all, and though he would probably be completely, sickeningly gracious about picking up the tab, it didn't feel like a move that would buttress my self-esteem. I searched through my pockets, sifting through license, registration and other flotsam until I found a phone card, unused for many months and carried only because it was mixed in with the things I stuffed in my pockets before going out. Good thing.

A moment of punching in bunches of numbers, finishing with what I hoped was Steve's. Ringing commenced on the other end, Himself picked up with a crisp, clearheaded, "Hello."

"Steve."

"Dennis!" he responded, sounding surprised in a welcoming way. "Where are you?" I covered my free ear to hear him over traffic noise.

"At a gas station in Massapequa."

"You're on Long Island?"

"I am."

"We've been worried, man. We didn't know for sure what happened. I called a couple of times yesterday."

"I wasn't home."

"I got that. What's going on?"

I told him, starting with renting the car and driving all night, me hunching up around the phone against cold and rush-hour racket as I talked. He listened, asking a question or two, never suggesting I might be into something both reckless and foolish, for which I was grateful.

"So what are you going to do now?" he asked after my recap wound down. I looked around, my breath misting, one hand shoved in a pocket. I could feel my skin getting stiff with cold. "Are you considering letting the police in on it?"

Oh, hell. "I don't know," I said, because I didn't.

Brief silence, then, "You might want to, you know. Consider it."

"I might," I acknowledged, knowing I probably wouldn't and unable to justify it. Steve tactfully switched the subject.

"Do you have money?"

"Yes."

Another brief silence. I felt like I should acknowledge the kindness behind his asking about funds and all, but didn't.

"I did some research," he said. "Tried to see what I could track down about spousal abduction."

"And?"

"Well, I found a lot of text, but not much that applies specifically to your situation. Mostly it's men who run off with the kids."

I watched traffic, me bouncing up and down in an effort to keep from freezing to the ground. "Not this time," I finally said.

"It mostly says it's illegal, you should let the police into the picture, maybe hire an investigator. If they've fled across the state line, you can go to the FBI."

"I know all this."

"I know you do. I think I also found the address for this guy. Gerry Corcoran, right?"

"That's him."

"Yeah, the school switchboard office has phone books from all over. But you've got it already, so never mind."

"Still," I said, "good work. Listen, how's Boo doing?"

"All right, I guess."

"She at home much these days?"

"I don't think so. I get the impression she's not wildly happy with her living situation."

"Uh-huh," I said, thinking. "Do me a favor -- if you see her, tell her she should feel free to hang out at my place if she wants."

"Yeah?"

"She seems to enjoy being there, and it would be good to have the place looking lived in, someone picking up the mail, all that."

"And the key?" he asked.

"She knows where the spare is."

"Yeah, but to get inside the building? And for the mail?"

That stopped me for a moment. "She's resourceful," I finally said. "She'll get someone to let her in. Forget the mail, I guess."

"She can pick up any loose mail. Magazines and like that."

"That would be great," I agreed. Steve started to say something else, I interrupted. "Listen," I told him, "I'm freezing. I've gotta go."

"Where are you staying?" he asked. I told him. "Will you be there tonight?"

"I don't know. I don't know what's ahead."

"If you wind up staying there again, check at the desk for messages."

"From you, you mean?"

"Yeah. Just in case."

"Right."

"Do the same if you check out, just in case."

"Okay."

"All right, dude."

"Hey, listen, before I go, how'd you do with the midterm?"

"Oh," he made a dismissive noise. "I nailed it." Depending on my mood, his self-assurance can be endearing or annoying. This morning it registered on the endearing side of the spectrum.

"Okay, Steve," I said in prep for hanging up.

"Dennis, listen, whatever goes on, be careful, huh?"

"I'm being careful," I responded, both touched and slightly ticked by his concern/advice.

"I know, I know, but I mean it. Don't get in trouble. Go to the cops if you need to."

"Sure. Listen, I'm cold."

"Right. Okay. Later on then."

"Later."

I hustled back to the Swift, turning the blower up on the heat as soon as I'd closed the door. My hands sought out a vent, me alternately rubbing them together and spreading them to bask in warm air, my thoughts unsettled, unhappy. Well, what? I quizzed myself impatiently. What's the problem? I was off the phone and glad of it, on my own, not answering to anyone. So why the sinking feeling? And under the easy answers -- where I was, what I was doing, stress, fatigue, frosty weather -- something deeper swam, cold, heavy, forlorn. You're lonely, son, a part of me observed. Which sent a jet of sharp irritation surging through my system.

Food, I thought. My system needed an infusion of fuel, and quick. A good greasy breakfast -- comfort food, emotional first aid. I decided to go back to the diner I'd eaten at the previous a.m., managed to navigate my way there without pissing off too many Long Islanders along the way, found a space. After parking and killing the engine, I sat for a moment, hands on the wheel, heart beating heavily in my chest. A couple of deep breaths, a glance at myself in the rearview mirror -- not a happy picture, that, though an improvement from 24 hours previous -- before I opened the door and got out.

Brisk weather, blustery even, as it should be, I suppose, with Thanksgiving eight days away. I moved my sneakered feet and got in the door as fast as they could carry me, my hair pointing every which way from the wind. I looked around, spotted an empty booth and planted myself. The woman who'd taken care of me the day before saw me, pulling up by my table a moment later with a mug and a decanter of java.

"Coffee?" she asked, sliding the mug in front of me.

"Decaf would be great."

"Whoops!" she said, aborting her impulse to pour. "Decaf. Be right back with that." And moved quickly away. For a moment I watched the activity around the place -- a woman behind the counter, two women working the booths, one or two individuals moving around back in the kitchen, visible through the little window slot. Whatever these people were getting paid, it probably wasn't enough.

A moment later she reappeared with an orange-rimmed pot, poured me a steaming mug of brew. Same outfit, I noticed. Clean and reasonably fresh looking. "Would you like a menu?" she asked. I looked up at her, saw the dusting of freckles beneath tired brown eyes. "Oh," she said in recognition. "Hi, how are you?"

"Doing better."

"That's good. Yesterday you looked, well..."

"Yes?"

"...like you'd been run over."

"Hmm," I said, both pleased and embarrassed that she'd noticed. "Well, I was, I had been, in a way."

"Not a very good time, getting run over," she commented, eyes showing kind interest.

"No, it's not," I agreed. "It passes, though."

"Aren't you stoic. Yes, it does. Usually." She cast a glance down the length of the diner, I guess determining how much time she could afford to spend chatting.

"So I'm ready," I said. She put the pot down, pulled out pen and order pad. Her eyes returned to me, attentive. "Eggs, three, over hard. Pancakes. Do you have fruit?"

"Sure."

"A banana, please. Toast, home fries." I watched her face as I spoke. While she scribbled away, her top two front teeth appeared and gently pinned her bottom lip. Something about observing that felt inappropriately intimate and I looked away.

"Anything else? Juice?"

"I think I'm all set."

"Okay." A quick smile, sticking the pen into the hair above her ear, picking up the coffee pot, then moving off. That morning I was in the side of the booth that enabled me to watch her approach and departure. Her scent hung faintly in the air -- a combination of soap/shampoo, sweat, pheremones -- and a bubble of yearning expanded in my chest.

There's nothing wrong with flirting, is there? It's healthy, right? I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt this kind of mojo for a woman I'd just run into, wondered if it was the real article or if it reflected something more suspect, more needy. Maybe it was no big thing, just hormones on normal duty. Or maybe my heart was waking up. Or maybe I was simply torturing myself.

I stared out at cars zipping by, chewing on the end of a thumb, thoughts drifting, until movement caught my attention. My waitress approached, a plate of toast in one hand, a glass of water in the other.

"There you go," she said, depositing them before me. "Your eggs should be out in a minute. The pancakes may take a little longer." As she spoke, she wiped her hands on the blue, frilly apron that went with her outfit.

"Can I ask a question?"

"Sure."

"This is the south shore of the Island, right?"

"Yes."

"Is there a beach out there somewhere?" I jerked a thumb vaguely southward.

"Oh, yes -- Jones Beach. You've never been?"

"No." I watched her face, enjoying it.

"You should go. It's nice off-season. Not crowded, real pretty." She smiled, her eyebrows raised a bit. "Anything else?" Her body language told me she had to get scooting.

"No, not right now. Thanks."

"You bet," she replied, picking up dishes at a neighboring empty booth. "The eggs and all will be here soon." I watched her motor away, laden with breakfast empties, then shifted my attention back to the view out the window, wondering about my life.

What does one make of great, drastic developments in one's existence, the kind that appear out of nowhere, pulling the carpet out from under with nasty deftness? I couldn't make sense of it. God knows, there are plenty of people and institutions out there claiming to have the answers all mapped and staked out. I wish I believed them. Far as I can tell, though, it's as likely that there's no meaning to any of it as it is that there's great transformational meaning. And I suspect no one can make that determination for me but me. That, at least, seems to grow clearer as the years flicker by.

So why didn't that clarity help? The landscape of my life spread bleakly around me, devoid of inspirational messages or road signs pointing to better times. Or maybe, I suggested in a surprising challenge to myself, I was just so used to seeing the picture through my habitual mindset that I shut out anything different. Maybe there are all sorts of hopeful things to see if we have the eyes to spot them.

For instance, the attractive woman who approached bearing provisions. My heart perked up when she appeared, my stomach muttered happily in anticipation of chow. Eggs and home fries with an orange-slice garnish settled to the table before me, along with a banana on its own little plate. I noticed the hands that brought them were working hands, saw a burn mark or two, saw skin toughened from making a living. Nice hands, though, far as I could tell. I wondered how it would feel to hold one.

"Be right back with the pancakes," she said, moving off. I picked up my fork, put it down, picked up the mug o' decaf, took a sip. Hot. Spooned some ice from my glass of water into the coffee, stirred them around, watching them disappear. And then she was back, arranging the plate of pancakes amid the other plates.

"That," she said, "is a pile of food."

"I know," I said, staring at the spread, then looked at her, saying, "Thank you," and meaning it.

"Oh, you're welcome. Enjoy." And she was gone. I tried to pick up her scent again, but the aromas from the food overrode all other input.

I dug into the eggs, putting a forkful into my mouth which immediately burst into tastebud joy. My waitress -- what a stupid expression -- came rushing back with a bottle of maple syrup. "Here," she said, depositing it the pre-existing syrup decanter, "this is better than that stuff."

"Thanks," I tried to say through a mouth full of bolus. She waved as she strode off to check on another table. I thought about it all and decided either she was bucking for a massive tip or something nice was happening in a more personal way.

You know, I reminded myself, you're not supposed to be sitting in a diner imagining the waitress is soft on you while you suck down piles of slop -- you're supposed to be getting your ass in gear for some serious shit. Stop thinking, Dennis, I advised myself hastily. Eat, eat, eat. And I did, more soberly, hands and mouth moving mechanically.

Fifteen minutes later I'd renewed my membership in the clean plate club, my benefactor reappeared. "Everything okay?" she asked, picking up empties.

"Great." (Stifled belch.)

"Can I get you anything else?"

"I think I'm set." (Feverishly wondering how to get the conversation onto something more personal.)

"Okay, be right back."

Shit! She walked off, me still straining to produce banter, compliments, rakish one-liners -- something that might soften up those eyes again. Nothing doing.

You're not here to pick up women, I reminded myself. You're here to pick up your son. Right, I acknowledged, spirits sinking to their accustomed level.

Right.

Leaving my coat in the booth, I got up and slouched into the men's room for some post-gluttony systems maintenance. On the way back out, I glanced in the mirror, grimacing at the presented image. Stopped, tried to persuade hair to behave. After a minute, molding and begging seemed to have some effect. Took a mouthful of water, swished it around, spat it out. Did it again. Slapped some water on my face and dried off. Whew. Looked back in the mirror, told the fella I saw there that we were doing okay given the circumstances. Then stopped and gazed more intently, taking stock.

The room fell quiet, except for the distant sound of passing footsteps and clattering kitchenware outside. I felt my breath, felt my heart beating, noticed how tense my jaw felt and opened my mouth wide, working it around in funny-looking gyrations until the muscles loosened up some. Some of what happens today is up to you, I thought. Try not to fly through it like a human wrecking ball, okay? Take time to breathe every now and then.

Right.

Back out to the diner where my bill waited at the table. It seemed even more reasonable than I'd been expecting and a glance showed I hadn't been charged for the banana or coffee. Big deal, I know, but hey, maybe she hadn't intended to give me quite that big a bargain. I scratched my head, pulled out money, counted up what I owed. "You know," I said when my waitress showed up again, "I think you may have missed one or two things."

"Oh?" Her features knit slightly as if waiting for a complaint.

"There's nothing here about the fruit or coffee."

"Oh, the fruit came with the pancakes."

I stared at her, uncertain. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, absolutely."

"What about the coffee?

"Don't worry about it. On the house."

"Really?"

That nice smile again. "Yeah."

"Thanks. You have been nice to me these last two mornings beyond the call of duty. I really appreciate it."

I thought I saw her face take on the slightest suggestion of color, she seemed to lose a bit of her easyness, becoming suddenly shy. Like the briefest passing of a cloud over the sun. "You're welcome," she said, a bit formally, then half-gestured at the bill. "Are you ready with that?"

"Oh," -- I jumped to attention, handing over bill and money -- "yes. All set."

"Be right back," she said and moved off, stopping briefly at another table to ask how everything was.

I stood up to pull on my coat, felt a tremendous mass of matter sloshing around in my stomach. Bleah. Didn't feel quite as wonderful down there as it had when it first passed through my mouth. She returned with change, counted it out to me. "Okay?"

"Perfect."

"Thanks," she said preparing to tear off, "have a good day."

"Wait," I said. "Thanks, really."

"Oh," she said, surprised, "sure."

"My name's Dennis."

Several things seemed to pass across her face -- caution, confusion, finally a smile.

"I'm Maryanne," she said. I extended my hand, she took it with one of hers. Warm and surprisingly soft, with a decent grip.

"Nice to meet you," I said.

"Thanks," she said, disengaging. "Come again," she added a touch more formally as she moved off.

We'll see I thought. I noticed the woman behind the counter checking me out as she wiped up after a customer, saw a man a couple of booths away staring at me, expressionless, mouth chewing in bovine manner. I returned his stare, he looked down at his food.

Outside, I was met by a brisk cold breeze that drove a billowing sheet of dust and grit across the parking lot, making it hard to catch a breath. I lowered my head, walked quickly to the car, zipping up my coat. Inside, the clock read 8:25. Part of me began agitating that I should have been positioned on Verbena Lane at first light, or at least by 7, 7:30. I tried to ignore it, knowing it was only me looking for a reason to be upset.

A quarter-mile down Sunrise Highway I pulled in at a convenience mart, picked up a copy of Newsday along with a bottle of water. Something made me think about the cold hours of waiting that lay ahead and I asked the cashier if there might be somewhere nearby to get some thermal underwear. She mentioned a couple of department stores and an Army surplus shop, all opening at 10 o'clock. She also commented that the weather was supposed to get cold during the day. Supposed to get cold? What kind of weather had I been dealing with?

I had to refer to the map I'd drawn the previous morning to find my way back to Verbena Lane. When I pulled into a space and parked I found myself in front of no. 55 -- a little farther away from no. 37 than the previous morning.

I sat quietly for a minute, scanning the area. Far as I could tell, the Neighborhood Watch had not yet cottoned to me. I reminded myself that this was my second day in a row of hanging about the neighborhood. Residents with too much time on their hands might notice that. Which made me feel uncomfortably visible.

No. 37 looked as it had when I signed off nine hours earlier -- quiet, sleepy, innocent, unassuming. No moving truck, no barbed wire or gun emplacements, no visible signs of criminal lifestyle. No indication I'd registered on their radar. Or maybe they thought they'd effected a successful enough disappearance that they didn't need radar.

I picked up the Times and began skimming through it, trying not to immerse myself so deeply that I blew opportunities for observation.

Opportunities for observation. What a stud, huh? Pretentious wording makes the man.

An hour later a chill had settled into the car and I had newsprint all over my fingers. There had been a couple of local comings and goings, a few cars passed through the Lane in transit to more promising climes. A squirrel made its leisurely way across a couple of nearby lawns before crossing the street and disappearing from sight. Sparrows and starlings foraged around the nearest lawn, dispersing into the shrubbery when a car went by.

I wondered what a real investigator would do in my situation, unhindered as they'd be by my ignorance. I tried to think back through mysteries I've read, couldn't seem to remember many long, drawn-out instances of a lone operative sitting on their butt like this. But they'd have to sometimes, wouldn't they? To keep an eye on a person or a place? Then again, maybe mysteries wouldn't be as wildly successful a field of writing if protagonists spent too much time in tediously realistic slogwork.

So how could I do this differently? Well, I thought, what about the police? Then sat staring ahead for a moment before cautiously edging into consideration of the issue.

There was no question that calling in the constabulary would make life simpler. I'd tracked Sheila down, I knew where she was staying. If I went to the cops I'd be taking the risk that she'd bolt with Colin before I returned with the law, but that didn't feel like much of a risk right then.

So where was her car? Maybe she'd ditched it somewhere or sold it before getting out of Cambridge. Or maybe she'd driven it down from Massachusetts and stashed it in the garage at no. 37. That would explain why Gerry's had been left in the street. Unless he had a second vehicle or used the garage for other things -- for storage, as a workshop, as an S&M dungeon. Or maybe he just felt like parking in the street. If you had a car and a garage, Dennis, would you park in the street? Probably not. For that matter, why hadn't he at least parked in the driveway?

Back to the police. I still resisted. Why is that? Possible reasons: lack of trust in authority figures; kneejerk rebelliousness; insufficient smarts. I had a feeling I'd catch some flack from the citizens in blue for taking action on my own, even if I'd saved them footwork -- maybe I'd gone through enough grief and didn't see why I should answer to them. Or to anyone for that matter.

Perhaps I hadn't yet developed enough ability to discern what might be in my best interest. Or maybe I was simply sullen and resentful enough that it really got in the way at a time like this.

And with that I realized I hadn't called Cheryl since leaving Cambridge. Which felt more negligent than avoiding the detex, though it occurred to me that letting her know what was currently up with me would probably put her in a bad position. On the other hand, she was a friend -- I should let her know something. Hmmm.

It also occurred to me that I'd once again forgotten to dig out the newspaper clippings and bring them along to peruse during these hours of sitting on my butt. Bugger.

Up the block at no. 37, the screen door opened about halfway and the tiger cat popped out, trotting smartly down the steps before pausing to looking around, tail extended vertically, its tip moving almost as if it were also looking around. The door closed, the cat continued down the walk to the driveway and turned the corner toward the rear of the house, disappearing from view.

Ten minutes passed, nothing further happened. My underarms had gone a bit damp, I tried to remember whether or not I'd used deodorant that morning. For the life of me, I couldn't recall. One good thing about winter: little chance of attracting flies, no matter how pungent one becomes.

A black Volkswagen went by, slowing down further up the block as if looking at address numbers. The brakes lights came on, the car pulled into a space at the curb. A portly 40-something guy in a nice black coat got out and headed up a walk to a front door several houses down from no. 37, attache case in hand. He rang the bell, waited, examining the front of his coat, brushing something off a sleeve. Someone eventually answered, the storm door opened enough for a verbal exchange. After a minute, the door started to close but portlyman kept talking, apparently trying to keep the exchange going through sheer persistence. The storm door opened a bit more, the conversation continued, p-man speaking with winning animation. A moment passed, the door closed again, portlydude gave up, headed back to the VW. The car pulled out and took off. Another minidrama come and gone.

According to the Swift's clock, the time was ten past ten. I'd so far managed to avoid making a decision about the police, as well as neatly sidestepping any decision about the motel. To my credit, though, I had decided to pick up long underwear at some point. I was cold enough that my nose had been running since the phone call with Steve and I only had two or three leftover napkins to blot it with. I'd need to round up a pack of tissues soon or I'd begin making a seriously embarrassing mess.

The motel question, it occurred to me, would become very pressing very quickly since check-out time was 11 o'clock, fifty short minutes away. What would they do if they didn't hear from me? Assume I was staying on or impound my stuff and prepare the room for someone else?

I heard sounds somewhere to my rear, glanced in the sideview mirror, saw a dark blue car of some sort pulling out of a driveway. Its rear end angled around toward me, it paused as the driver changed gears then took off in the opposite direction. I peered at the nearby houses, saw no sign that anyone had yet noted my intrusion into the neighborhood but noticed I was beginning to feel mighty conspicuous. When I looked back at no. 37, I saw Sheila moving down the front walkway. My stomach contracted as though I'd unexpectedly stepped out of a plane at serious altitude.

No sign of Colin. I sat motionless, waiting to see what would develop. She went directly to a vehicle parked in front of the house and got in. I dragged the Swift's keys from my coat pocket and fingered them nervously, trying to figure what to do. Up ahead, the GrandAm pulled out, drove off in the opposite direction, around the gradual curve of the block and out of sight.

I'd inserted the keys in the ignition, one hand on the wheel, the other ready to fire up the engine, but made no further move, undecided about whether to trail my ex or stay put, apparently coming to yet another decision by not making one.

So, assuming nothing shifty had taken place in the hours before my arrival, Colin was now in the house without Sheila.

My son waited in no. 37, just up the block, alone. No, no -- correction: without Sheila, but not alone. Most definitely not alone, though some part of me judged the current keeper a lesser impediment. Part of me considered Sheila to be the only obstacle of any true import.

My mouth seemed to have gone dry, swallowing became difficult. I watched my hands open the water bottle and bring it to my lips, introducing a sip of water, then another, liquid passing over my tongue and down my throat, cool and soothing. Breath moved in and out of my nostrils. My heart continued to pump in my chest, its beat echoing in other points in my body. A minute or two eased by this way, an odd, attenuated span of time during which a decision grew and took hold, a process I seemed to observe rather than actively take part in. After that, things moved more quickly. I found myself getting out of the car, walking along the sidewalk toward no. 37, my system keyed up in a way that produced a buoyant sensation of detachment. As if the cells in my body had come into sudden awareness and begun functioning at a level they rarely did. Clear and alert, almost hungrily so.

Nothing had been thought through. On the contrary. Sheila's disappearance provided an unexpected opportunity that galvanized me into unplanned movement, producing an exhilarating sense of focus and an edgy awareness of imminent, ballooning risk, also weirdly exhilarating. As I advanced along the sidewalk, I came as close to having no thought as I'd ever been. At some point a part of me began quietly counseling caution, my pace slowing in response, my attention moving fully to the house.

Overcast had started to creep in, washing some of the blue out of the sky, further diluting the already-thin sunlight. As I approached the driveway at no. 37, I heard the cheeping of sparrows somewhere nearby. The grass in the ground between the twin concrete tracks of the short driveway lay patchy and dormant. I moved up the two steps at the bottom of the front walk and on toward the stoop, my dim shadow stretching out from my moving feet, sliding across the lawn.

I ascended the stoop more slowly, the sound of my feet on concrete steps unnervingly distinct. At the top, I paused to gauge my next move, my eyes moving left from the front door to the bay window. The curtains were closed, white and just sheer enough that a person inside could probably make out the shape or motion of a visitor. Through the door, I thought I heard someone talking, far deeper than Colin's voice would be. Just a vague murmur, then silence, another murmur, another pause, then talking again. A light in the doorbell button shone with a soft glow. Friendly, inviting.

As my hand rose to poke the doorbell right in its tiny, glowing navel (it had an outie), I noticed the inside door had not been firmly shut and appeared to be unlatched. Quietly opening the storm door, I gave the inside door a light push. No movement. Another push, harder, it reluctantly yielded, opening about an inch. I could hear the voice louder now, still talking away, apparently on the horn.

"Hey, listen, don't get your boxers in a twist about it, all right? No, no, just spread a tarp over it if any weather starts up." A pause. "Sure it's a pain but what's the alternative, carry it all inside?"

A sliver of wall just inside the door's edge was now visible, off-white, along with the slightest edge of carpet along the door's bottom edge, also off-white, but darker. Off-off-off-white.

A moment of hesitation. I could feel that I was on the brink of starting something that probably couldn't be unstarted, something I might find myself fervently wishing I hadn't done, and noticed that my heart seemed to have risen up out of my chest to just up under my adam's apple.

If I closed the storm door quietly, I told myself, if I turned around and returned to the car, it would be all right. I could go to the cops, I could wait for Sheila to return. All sorts of safer possibilities lay in that direction.

"So," the voice inside continued, "I'll get over there later, we'll see how things stand. No, no. We'll finish this fucker up around the end of the month, things will quiet down, you'll be in Florida by Christmas."

At that moment some part of me refused to hesitate any further, I found my hand rapping on the door, me calling out, "Hello?"

The voice inside said, "Hold on a second." Then, louder, "Who is it?"

"I'm sorry, the doorbell didn't seem to work," I lied, working to speak through a mouth gone bone dry. "The door was open, so I just thought I'd...."

"The door's open?" Serious irritation. My knocking had swung the door ajar a few inches, I could see an entranceway to a living room in and to the left. The guy -- Gerry, I assumed -- spoke into the phone: "Can you hold on? I don't know, someone's here."

I stepped inside as footsteps approached, moving far enough in from the door that it wouldn't be quite so easy to herd me back out. Straight ahead, the foyer ended at a hallway. I could see part of the entry to the kitchen there, to the left, very bright compared to where I stood -- white tiles on the floor, white counters, walnut-colored cabinets, light yellow walls.

A large 40ish human being holding a cordless phone steamed into view through the living room to my left. I estimated he had three or four inches of height on me, not to mention, I don't know, 40 or 50 pounds. On someone else, that extra weight might have settled onto the body as sagging muscles and fat. On this specimen it had been distributed so that the body remained large and powerful-looking despite a thickening midsection. Big. Very substantial.

Dark longish hair and a rough, short beard framed a round face -- not fat, but fleshy, with distinct features and dark eyebrows that rode the bottom of a well-defined brow ridge, accenting dark eyes currently focused on me with sharp displeasure. He wore a heavy white sweater, jeans, wool socks.

His body filled the entrance between the living room and the foyer, radiating a sense of subtle threat as he asked, "What's the story, chief?"

Whatever thoughts I might have had about snow-jobbing my way further into the house evaporated with the reality of this character in front of me. "I'm sorry about the intrusion," I responded quickly. "I..." -- brief hesitation, then the plunge ahead -- "...I'm here to see Colin."

"I see," he said, watching me carefully through slightly narrowed eyes, his mouth forming a thin, hard-edged smile. "Colin who?"

"Colin Marlowe. Sheila's son."

"And you are...?"

"I'm his father."

A brief pause as he studied me. Then, thoughtfully, "Is that right?" I nodded. "Well, whaddaya know," he said softly, a glint of humor appearing in his eyes. "She just had to go and make that call." His expression and physical attitude suggested he was not looking for a reply to that last bit, I stayed mum. "Well," he said assessingly, "maybe we should have a talk, huh?" His eyes remained on me another couple of seconds, me trying to look like Mr. Innocuous, pal and confidant to those who would harbor felons, until he said, "Yeah, maybe we should," abruptly turning and moving back into the living room, evidently a tacit invitation to follow. I hesitated, he glanced back toward me. "Close the door, would you? It's letting the heat out."

For a moment I stared, then collected myself and swung the door shut, hearing the sshhh from its lower edge passing over the carpet, having to apply extra pressure at the last moment to get it firmly closed.

"You want some coffee or something?" Gerry asked from somewhere off to the rear of the house.

"Um...." A cuppa would have been great, but I had a feeling I shouldn't get comfortable -- who knew how long Sheila would be gone. I took a step through the entryway to the left into the living room. "I don't think so. Thanks anyway."

"Mind if I have one?"

"Not at all."

"Hey," he said into the phone, out of view in the kitchen, "can I call you back? Someone's here. Okay, so you call me. Whenever. All right."

I heard the sounds of the phone being turned off and put down, of mug hunting and coffee prep. I looked around for any sign of Colin, listened for anything that might indicate his presence nearby. Nothing. No stray toys or books, no TV or radio. No four-year-old voice talking to itself off in another part of the house, no sounds of little person activity.

Then I checked out the space I stood in -- the living room. A modular mirror composed of squares of darkly-marbled glass covered most of the far wall, so that I stared back at myself planted in an unfamiliar place, diffuse light from the front window bleaching my left side a bit, me appearing startled to find myself where I was. The mirror ended a touch more than halfway toward the rear of the house, delineating the beginning of the dining room, a slightly narrower space. To the rear of the dining room a curtained window looked out on a back yard, to the right of that a doorway led into the kitchen. All the furniture had apparently been bought as sets, from the couch, armchairs, tables and lamps in the living room to the faux classical table, chairs and hutch in the dining room, providing an odd sense of continuity and uniformity completely alien to the living spaces I was used to. All of it well-kept and presentable, but all of a certain species of furnishing that usually struck me as a bit stiff and unreal. A look that made it appear artificial, overprocessed, especially the wood, which had been colored and shaped into some designer's diabolical conception of elegance, sans warmth and comfort. In particular, the wood's texture and hue looked like someone's idea of the next evolutionary step for what used to be called antiquing.

There was artwork about -- two or three small ceramic pieces of a bright yet carefully washed-out blue, made by artisans from the same gene pool as the perpetrators of the furniture design; two or three high, narrow, framed Japanese-style prints in the dining room (bamboo, artful figures in kimonos, artfully-winding roads between artfully-suggested oriental hills) -- all of it in keeping with the muted color scheme (off-whites; modest, circumspect browns and blues). All of it, that is, except the large painting which hung behind me on the bit of free-standing wall by the foyer's archway. Once my eyes located that I couldn't tear them away, in the same way people become fascinated by car wrecks. In the carefully controlled scheme of those two rooms, this painting stood out as the single source of bright color. I imagine that even the living room TV braying a high-intensity game of football would have a hard time keeping one's focus from wandering to that example of artistic impulse gone wildly wrong. (If anything could convince me that it's long past time for the serious rethinking of abstract expressionism, it's the mainstreaming of works like this: hideous displays that could easily be the product of enraged children on an amphetamine bender.)

"Like it?" Gerry asked, strolling in from the kitchen to stop near me, eyes on the painting as he sipped from a dark blue mug of J.

"A lot of color," I said solemnly.

"I know. Covers some bare wall, though." I looked over at him to see if he was kidding. He didn't appear to be. "The ex bought it. She pretty much put this whole place together."

"That why she's gone?" The words slipped out before I could stop them.

"No." He spoke without irony, either not catching the lack of manners in my question or ignoring them. "We decided she didn't belong here."

We decided? Again, I glanced at him to see how he meant that. His eyes met mine with a calm, steady gaze. Unblinking, coolly unreadable. He took a sip from the mug and looked back at the painting, apparently relaxed and unperturbed by the morning's twists. The warm, slightly acrid aroma of coffee reached my nostrils.

"So you came all this way to see Colin or do you have other business in the area?"

"I'm here to see my son."

He nodded. "Makes sense. He's your boy." A statement of understanding on the face of it, spoken in a tone too remote to provide much sense of fraternal sympathy.

I studied him appraisingly for a brief moment before nodding and letting my gaze move back to the painting. It had the subtle power a television has, the power to draw attention, allowing one to focus on it instead of on the people one is with. A distraction that's a good excuse to modulate interactions down to a shallower, more manageable level.

Two men out in the 'burbs, studying art together. Imitating civilized behavior.

A car door slammed outside, my body jerked -- imperceptibly, I hoped. A glance over at the window showed the GrandAm back in its berth in front of the house. My system, lulled into a relatively sedate state during the last few minutes, shifted jarringly back into crisis mode. And then the door opened.

"Hello," my ex called out.

"Hey," Gerry replied. Casual, laconic.

The door closed, a bag was lowered to the floor. "You were right," said Sheila, taking her coat off, "it's brisk out there." She started to say something more as she advanced to the living room entrance, but it died in her throat when she saw me. Here we go, I thought.

Clearly, she was unprepared for an encounter like this, allowing me an instant of brief, perverse satisfaction at her display of stunned surprise. The shock quickly gave way to anger, her face -- for that matter, her entire body and the air around her -- darkening and clouding over with furious, barely controlled emotion.

"You bastard!" she managed to get out -- it would have been a whisper if the emotion behind it hadn't been so intense. The atmosphere in the space around the three of us nearly crackled with her energy. I wasn't completely sure whose pedigree she'd just impugned. Probably mine, though it could have been Gerry's for not warning her. You never know.

"What is this?" she demanded. "What's going on here?" Her eyes were fixed on me, her body shook as she spoke.

"Sheila." That came from Gerry. Her eyes shifted sharply over to him. "Calm down." His tone -- level, with an edge of something that almost felt like disinterest -- carried an element that allowed no room for argument, and to my surprise Sheila made an effort to contain herself. "He's here to see Colin."

"Of course he's here to see Colin." If she hadn't been working on restraint, that might have come out as a snarl. "You think he tracked us down to try and save the marriage?"

He raised his free hand, palm up, in silent entreaty. "Hey," he said quietly, "come on. Okay?"

And again, she made an effort to pull it together, swallowing visibly, breathing hard -- appearing surprisingly vulnerable, emotions passing fleetingly across her face in a way that struck me as sad and exposed. Her eyes remained on Gerry for a moment before shifting back to me, the heat in them temporarily banked.

I can't describe how strange it felt to encounter her like this, in a place so unfamiliar, a situation so intensely charged -- a set of factors that evoked the sensation of seeing my ex with fresh eyes. There she stood, two feet away, unnervingly real, filled with roiling life, familiar in ways both tender and repellent. The same features, hair, skin, wearing clothes I recognized. The same mannerisms, the same ways of moving. Even the sound of her breath, the cut of her hair, the small mole by one of her nostrils, all long-known to the point of having lost the special meanings they once had.

And, no surprise, the dynamic between us also remained familiar, especially the well-worn phenomenon of me being on the receiving end of angry vibes. I found myself experiencing a strange, detached curiosity about how I'd react to that, hoping I wouldn't choose too badly.

"You want a cup of coffee or something?" Gerry asked Sheila. "Before we get into anything here?" Asking with that same tone.

"Coffee?" She looked at him like she'd just discovered he was losing his mind. "Now? No." The idea of giving her a cup of scalding liquid to throw didn't hold much appeal for me either.

He spread his free hand, as if to say Hey, fine, whatever. "So maybe we should talk," he said, "the three of us." He looked from Sheila to me, one eyebrow raised. "We've got a situation here we need to settle. With any luck, we can maybe do that without making it sloppier than it already is." He looked at Sheila, who still had her coat and scarf. "You want to hang your things up before we get going?"

Simmering, she returned his look, turned and exited to the foyer. I heard the closet door open, sounds of hanger activity.

"Where is Colin?" I asked. Sheila started to say something in response, her tone suggesting it might not be tremendously constructive, so I cut her off. "I have a right to know. I don't see any evidence he's here, I don't hear him. Where is he?"

"He's out back." That was from Gerry. "Go ahead, take a look."

I moved around him, made my way past the dining room table to the rear window and peered out into the yard. A large rectangle of grass, wider than it was deep, with a couple of trees, some shrubs and small flower beds arranged around the perimeter, semi-artistically, the whole thing fenced in by an impenetrable array of tightly-fitted six-foot-high pickets, no peep spaces between the slats. Snoop-proof. Serious enough to prevent anyone in a nearby yard from copping an eyeful of the good life at no. 37. A short distance out from the dining room window sat a jungle gym, making me wish I had a yard my kid could hang out in. And way over to the right side, near the house, I spotted Colin crouched down by the fence investigating something. I couldn't make out the object of interest, but I could see his concentration, one of the things about him I loved watching the most. He stood up, a stick in one hand, dragging its end back and forth against the fence before turning to squint at a bare-branched tree, where a blue jay had paused to call out loudly.

For a moment I bridled at the thought of him out there alone in the cold, but he appeared to be dressed warmly enough and wouldn't be wandering off if the fencing were only half as solid as it appeared. So I set that testiness aside and turned back toward the living room to find Gerry and Sheila watching me, Gerry standing with mug in hand, the other in his pants pocket, Sheila with her arms folded under her breasts.

"He's doing okay." Gerry said.

A number of replies scrolled quickly through my head, but I kept them to myself, wanting to pick my way through the coming moments with some caution.

Gerry looked from me to Sheila. "Well?" he prompted. She looked at him, silent, her expression bringing to mind other unhappy occasions.

"So what's the story, Sheil?" I asked. Her eyes shifted to me, her expression less than cordial. "What's with the abduction?"

"'Abduction,'" she repeated, articulating the word, her voice thick with sarcasm and dislike. "I'm not going to explain myself to you."

"Hey," said Gerry, "let's try to start this with a conversation not a fight, okay? I'd prefer not to host a major bout between you two in my living space, you know what I'm saying?"

"You have my boy here, taken illegally and being held here illegally. You're already hosting something major."

Gerry aimed a large index finger at me. "I'm not debating it, I'm telling you. All right? You don't like it, you're free to leave. You call the police, I guarantee you these two will be gone when they get here." We stared at each other, my heart working in my chest. His lips curved up in the slightest smile. "You've got your feelings, she's got hers. Sometimes that's life." A shrug. "Sometimes things don't work out the way you'd like, right? Nothing much you can do about it for the most part. You try, and that's okay. You do what you can, try whatever approach you can come up with until maybe you learn you're not in control of very much."

He's talking and I notice a part of me seemed to be gauging the physical differences between us, which were plentiful. Me: middling height and weight, in fair condition, on unfamiliar turf in a situation not to my advantage. He had a few inches on me, not to mention lots more bulk and mass, the home turf advantage, and a casual sureness about himself. If it came to the physical grapple, he could probably tie me up pretty well. I wasn't sure I'd have much effect on him, though I might be able to piss him off if I worked at it. Not necessarily a good thing, I know.

The only edge I figured I might have was the one fueled by emotion, which could just as easily turn out to be a major-league liability depending on what it led to and what league we were talking about. Not that Gerry seemed to be hugely concerned in any visible way about me or what I might do.

"Somehow you found your way here," he continued, giving Sheila a wry sideways look that she returned without expression. "Creates some complications, but it's happened, nothing can be done about it. Be a better use of time and energy right now to turn our attention to what we might have some control over. Like how we react to the unexpected, how we conduct ourselves." He looked pointedly at Sheila and myself in turn. "We could start there."

I was getting a little restive in the face of this guy's ringmaster shtick. Sheila appeared to be feeling something similar, putting little effort into pretending otherwise.

"Get him out of here," she told Gerry.

He considered, looked at me. "She doesn't want you around."

"You toss me out, I'll be back with the cops as fast as I can manage it."

He looked at her. "That what you want? A big, messy scene; throwing your things into the car and taking off under pressure like that?"

She squared up to him, eyes looking like sparks might start flying out of them. "What do you think? And what kind of idiot question is that? You think I need to have everything explained to me?" Instinctively, I backed up a step or two. I'd been in enough heated interactions with her to know when a little distance might be a good thing.

"All I'm saying," he countered, "is you've been dealt a certain hand here and you might want to put some thought into how you play it."

Her eyes widened, her body nearly vibrating with emotion, one arm rising to jab a finger for emphasis as she spoke. "I've put some thought into how I want to play it -- I want him out of it!" She cut a sharp glance over at me, teeth flashing as her lips twisted angrily away from them, then looked back at Gerry, speaking emphatically. "I want him out and I'll do whatever needs to be done, with or without you."

"What," I demanded, "does that mean?"

My ex gazed at me, her face showing grim satisfaction. "I should have never gotten involved with you," she said. "It was a mistake made in a moment of weakness. Getting married to you was another, much bigger mistake. And God knows, it was a mistake having a child with you." Her eyes stared into mine, defiant. "When I called the other night, I was feeling sorry for you. I'd gotten away, no one knew where I was -- I had the illusion of safety and enough space for the luxury of soft feelings. I knew my move came at your expense and I thought maybe we might be able to take a step in the direction of working something out." Her features twisted slightly in a mirthless sneer. "But you took care of that."

I felt blood rush to my cheeks. "You took off with our child, the biggest fuck-you move you could've come up with. How did you think I'd react?"

"How you react doesn't matter any more. Because your involvement in my life is over." Whatever reaction I had to that brought an unpleasant smile to her lips. "Get used to it," she continued, "because I am cutting the cord. As far as I'm concerned you are dead."

"Dead?" I heard myself say in amazement.

"You don't exist. You are out of my life."

I took a steadying breath, the face in front of me so vivid I could see its pores, the individual creases on its lips, the separate lashes arrayed above and below dark eyes. "And what about Colin?" I asked. "What were you going to tell him?"

She leaned toward me, the skin stretched tight over her facial bones, speaking with fierce intentness. "What I do with him, what I talk about with him is none of your business. I don't answer to you any more!"

"Who the fuck," I said, bristling, "do you think you're talking to? I'm not some acquaintance you can blow off just because you feel like it. That is my boy as well as yours out there, the one who's been left out in the cold, in an unfamiliar yard with no one keeping an eye on him. You may not like it, but I am part of his life." I was about to remind her about court orders, the law, the FBI and all that, but she cut me off before I could launch into it, her eyes slicing from me to Gerry.

"Get him out of here," she ordered.

"Yeah," Gerry said thoughtfully, looking at me. "Look, nothing personal -- it's been interesting, but it doesn't look like anything positive's gonna happen here. It may be time for you to hit the road."

"You don't have to get in the middle of this like that," I answered, apparently trying to reason with him. "You don't have to get involved that way. This whole thing will only get messier if we can't work something out."

"Uh-huh," he said, setting his coffee mug on the dining room table. Well..."

"Get him out of here!"

"...too late for that. I'm already involved. Nothing good's gonna happen here right now, so maybe you should go away, let things cool off for a while."

If my history with Sheila provided any gauge, whatever grip she had on self-restraint was close to giving way. Part of me counseled heavily to stop arguing, get out, NOW, but I didn't listen, as if I just couldn't accept this particular battle had become a losing effort. "If I walk out of here, I come back with the police."

He shrugged. "That's a risk, yeah, but you know what?"

"Gerry," Sheila ground out, the skin on her face and neck blotchy and red from anger.

"I think," Gerry continued, putting a large hand on my shoulder, "I'll have more problems if I don't get you out of here than I will if I do."

I shrugged the hand off, angling a step away as I did. Gerry smiled gently, eyes alight with amusement and what looked vaguely like sympathy, clamping his hand on the back of my neck, moving faster than I'd expected he could. We began to tussle then, my vision blurring with the sudden flurry of motion. Or maybe blurring isn't exactly the right word -- an odd combination of sharp images and fast, lurching changes in perspective as we struggled, me getting the worst of it. I felt one of my feet leave the floor as Gerry got an arm around me, lifting me at an angle that cut down my purchase and ability to resist. I knew if the other sneaker left the carpeting it would mean I was on my way to the door and so increased my efforts with flailing intensity, whacking away at Sheila's bouncer in a fairly ineffectual effort to loosen his grip. I think he had one arm around my neck by then because breathing became a problem, my vision suddenly overlain by a reddish haze. That's when Colin appeared.

He apparently found his way up a set of stairs that ran from the hallway down to the basement, materializing quietly enough that none of us saw him before he spoke. He said only the single word, "Dad?" Not loud, but clear enough to cut through the activity, bringing it to a fast halt.

Gerry's grip around my head and neck loosened a bit, the three of us staring over by the kitchen entranceway to the hall where Colin stood unmoving, still in his cold-weather duds, cheeks rosy from the outside air, looking confused and uncertain. I pulled free from Gerry, hair slowly springing back from the compressed bunchings Gerry's arm had forced it into, breath rasping loudly in and out of my mouth.

"Hi, Col," I said as normally as I could manage.

"Colin, honey," Sheila interjected, "go to your room for a minute, okay?"

"No," I countered, taking a step toward him. "Stay there. Don't go." Sheila grabbed at my arm, I pulled it loose, she grabbed again, getting a grip on my sleeve, Colin's alarmed eyes following it all. I jerked my arm free, felt Gerry reach out a restraining paw and lay it on my shoulder.

I'm not sure what happened then. All the different pressures came to bear, I guess. I felt a physical blossoming of anger with Gerry's last move, something in me bursting with an almost audible pop, the reddish haze recommencing. As his hand lighted on my upper arm, I jerked around, shaking him off and heaving a high elbow, throwing it quickly, with no thought but with plenty of force and body weight behind it, feeling it connect, solid and hard. Gerry fell away from the impact, staggering a couple of awkward steps back, both hands flying up to his face, which seemed to have exploded in a small spray of blood. His expression veered from surprise to pain, eyes closing as his hands tented his nose, then opening again, wide and still startled.

Sheila cried, "Gerry!", then lunged at me, making wordless sounds of rage and physical effort. I instinctively hunched my shoulders in protection as she flailed at me, then reached out and managed to get a grip on her shirt, lifting her off her feet and over to my left in a sweeping arc, my body turning with it, releasing her to fly into Gerry who fell back as she hit, both of them going down in a loud flurry of sound. Gerry landed on the end table nearest the dining room, which tipped as he and Sheila rolled together off it, everything on the table springing up into the air -- the lamp, two of the blue pottery things, a couple of magazines -- before gravity brought it all down around the two bodies entangled on the floor.

I looked over at Colin, who stood unmoving -- paralyzed with shock and fear, fingers from one hand in his mouth -- then leaped at him, sweeping him up in my arms and bolting through the foyer to kick aside a grocery bag, wrestle the front door open, burst out into the cold air. My feet took me down the stoop and across the lawn, carrying me faster than I'd gone in years, flying down the block toward the Swift. I held Colin tightly, hugging him to my chest, gasping out, "It's okay, don't move, it's all right," to him as I ran, his brown hair riffling around in the breeze from our passage, his eyes wide and frightened, moving back and forth between me and the increasingly overcast sky.

As I neared the car, I tucked my left arm around Colin, releasing my right so I could dig out car keys. I hadn't yet looked back and had no idea how close any pursuit might be. I noticed odd sounds then realized it was me grunting as I ran, breathing loudly through my mouth, producing a little saliva with each exhalation so that my lips had become wet.

I left the sidewalk as I approached the Swift, angling out into the street and around to the driver's door to fumble the keys into the lock. Glancing up as the key slid in, I saw the front door of no. 37 fly open, Sheila coming out to look wildly around, followed by Gerry, who held something -- a towel or washcloth -- up to his nose. Sheila spotted me and came charging down the steps and across the driveway in my direction as I got the door open and hefted Colin over into the passenger seat, sliding in behind him, frantically trying to get my legs and feet inside so I could pull the door shut. My hand found the ignition switch and got the key into it, my feet stomping the clutch pedal to the floor and hitting the gas as the engine came to life. A glance in the mirror showed no vehicles coming, nothing but a couple of parked cars between me and Magnolia Avenue, the street that cut into this part of Verbena Lane. I released the parking brake, shoved the gearstick into reverse, the car jerking backward out into the Lane with a squeal of dismayed tires.

Sheila had covered about half the distance between the house and my ride, long, black hair flying behind her as she ran, yelling something I couldn't make out, her expression clearly indicating I'd better not allow her to catch up to us. I had to slow some at the corner to make sure no vehicle was coming along the intersecting street, then gunned it out across the open asphalt, hands grabbingly turning the wheel to bring the Swift about before shifting out of reverse into first and making a fast, noisy exit from the Lane. Sheila had gotten close enough that I could hear her calling Colin's name as she cut across the lawn of the corner house and out into Magnolia Avenue in a futile attempt to reach us. I watched her image in the rearview mirror, legs and arms pumping hard then finally slowing as I pulled away and around another corner.

Colin sat curled against the door in the seat next to me, features scrunched up but eyes open, staring ahead. I couldn't tell whether he was looking out the windshield or gazing at the dashboard, trying to piece together what had happened into a picture he could absorb.

"Hey," I said, breath still rasping in and out. His eyes darted over, his head turning just a bit in my direction. "I'm sorry. I know this was awful." Lame, inadequate, ineffective words. I pulled around a corner onto a major local thoroughfare -- Jerusalem Avenue? Hicksville Road? something -- and after I'd gotten up to a decent speed, I put a hand out, touching his shoulder, the back of his head. "You all right?"

No answer for a moment, then, "Uh-huh."

"Colin, really, are you okay? Talk to me."

Again no answer for a moment, then a slight head-nodding. What I needed to do was pull over and stop, take him in my arms and apologize, hold him for a while until he might have felt a little reassurance. But I was afraid to. I had visions of the GrandAm appearing in the rearview mirror and intended to put some distance between me and that possibility.

I made a skidding left onto a road that turned out to be Broadway. Houses, cross-streets, small businesses, convenience stores, fast-food shops flew by as I sped along, keeping an eye on the rearview mirror while trying to concentrate enough on traffic that I wouldn't slam into anyone.

We went quickly past the Early American, I found myself trying to figure h
ow I could manage to go back there, even briefly, before fleeing town, then gave myself a fast, silent talking to about reality and focused my attention where it needed to go.

A light turned red before I could accelerate through, I managed to brake the car to a hurried, jerking halt. I found myself still breathing hard, the rapid beating of my heart echoing throughout my head and torso. I put on my seat belt, then leaned over and arranged Colin into a position that enabled me to do the same for him, reminding myself he should be in the back seat, hoping we could make it back to the motel without attracting any undue attention from the local gendarmes. My hand remained on him, my eyes on his face.

"Hey, buddy, you with me?" He looked over, appearing oddly clear for a moment before nodding his head. "Good. I know this is hard and happening real fast, but trust me, it will get better."

His eyes studied me. "You were all fighting," he said tentatively.

"I know. I'm sorry."

The light turned green, I checked the mirror as I shifted into first, finding no indication of pursuit. Accelerating, I changed lanes to get around a slower driver, an old man hunched over his steering wheel. Up ahead, I saw the trestle for the Long Island Railroad and busy traffic beyond it. We made the lights all the way up to Sunrise Highway, getting into the left-hand lane under the trestle where we came to a stop, waiting for the green. No sign of the GrandAm behind us that I could make out.

A train pulled into the station above us, loud then quieting as it slowed, sounding like it had approached from the west, from New York City, heading toward Suffolk County, the Hamptons, the south fork of the Island and the broad Atlantic. Colin's head tilted up when the rumbling began, looking at the roof of the car as if he were trying to see through it. The light changed, we moved out and turned left when traffic allowed, swinging by the Overpriced Diner, Colin's eyes aimed out past me at the train just starting to pull slowly out from the station. It occurred to me that I hadn't really noticed how elevated the tracks were, perched atop a long, high berm that paralleled the Highway, and I wondered how far along it remained like that. Not that it mattered. Just one of those random thoughts that come and go when one should be paying attention to the more pressing demands of a collapsing life.

My eyes drifted to the Swift's clock, which read 11:03, close to thirty hours since I'd found my way to this oasis of suburban living. The only time I'd seen light traffic on the Highway had been when I first arrived, pre-dawn. Apart from that, it had remained pretty well packed. A lot of people, all crammed together on this island in an immense concentration of population, towns and infrastructure. A place starting to look tired and old from the sheer weight of numbers.

Come back, Dennis. How far along is the motel? Oh, up ahead somewhere. It's coming. Unless we passed it.

My eyes went to the mirror, scanning what I could see of the traffic behind us. My heart seized up at the sight of a white, medium-sized vehicle, calmed a bit when it turned out to be an Olds rather than the car in question. Next to me, Colin seemed to be slightly more present than he had been, slightly less shaken by his dramatic change in sitch.

"Listen," I said, "we're going to be stopping at a motel up ahead, okay? So I can run in and get my things." He looked at me, quiet, glanced ahead, then back at me.

"Then where are we going?" he asked, trying to sound indifferent though his voice bore a plaintive edge, his face betraying apprehension.

Where were we going? Good question. "I'm not sure," I answered, hoping I didn't sound even half as clueless as I felt. His eyes remained on me. "We need to talk about that. But right this moment is not a great time."

"Are we gonna see Mom and Gerry again?"

"Well, I don't know. I mean, yes, probably, but most likely not today." Unless they found us and broke my arms.

"What about my stuff?"

"Did you have a lot of stuff at the house?" He nodded, me looking back and forth between him, the traffic in front of us, and the rearview mirror. "Clothing and what else? Toys?"

"Uh-huh, a couple."

"Anything else?"

"Some books." His voice sounded so small. "My pop-up book about the zebras." A translation of a French book about a family of middle-class zebras that moved to Paris, a story he adored. "My new Elmo book." Elmo, a Canadian moose always stumbling into one adventure or another. Colin was big on books about animals acting like people.

"Anything really important that you need to have right away? I mean, that can't wait a few days before you have it again?"

"My toothbrush." A little blue one with a sparkly handle that he loved so much he took it with him every time he went from Sheila's place to mine and vice versa. I'd gotten him others, especially as his little sparkly number began to look frayed and exhausted from use, but no other toothbrush would do.

"Colin, sweetie, we can get another one."

"That one's my toothbrush." A bit of a whine there. Placate, placate.

"I know, but we might not be able to get it back for you right away. We can find one you'll like somewhere. Just for now."

He stared ahead out the windshield, making no answer. The sign for the motel lay just ahead, I slowed until the driveway presented itself and we could pull in. I slowed further for the speed bump by the office, then remembered about check-out time and came to a quick halt, Colin angling forward then flopping back against the seat as the car stopped.

"Stay here," I said, unbuckling my seatbelt. "I'll be right back." He looked at me, then around at the motel. "Okay?" He nodded, I opened the door, sounds of traffic suddenly louder with the rush of exhaust-fouled air.

In the office, I found a different person than I'd dealt with on the previous day, a bottle-blonde 50ish woman, red nails, mascara'd eyes, khaki pants that revealed a bit of middle-age bulge below a white shirt.

"I'm checking out."

She had a nice smile, patient and friendly. "All right," she said, words broad with a Long Island accent. "Can I have your key?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, I need it. I mean, I haven't gotten my things out yet. I just wanted to let you know I'm late."

Her eyes watched, the mouth below them open a little as she listened. "You're not out of the room yet?"

"No. I will be in just a minute. Is that all right?"

She waved a hand. "Yeah, of course. Don't rush. Come back when you're ready." A car pulled up outside, looking like it wanted to get around the Swift. I thanked the woman, bolted out to the car as the other one squeezed by. It occurred to me I'd left the Swift in full view for any passing ex-wives to see, causing me to saddle up at high speed, clumsy with nerves. I jerked the car into gear and scooted it around to the rear of the lot, reasonably close to the room, parking behind a Cadillac with dark, tinted windows I hoped would provide good cover for the few minutes I'd be there.

"Okay, we have to go up and get my stuff. This should only take a minute. All right?" He nodded. "Good," I said, "let's go." He opened his door and climbed out. I got out my side, circled around the back of the car to meet him. He stood looking around, I put my hand out, he took it. "Up here," I said, moving to the covered stairway that ascended to the second level. As we climbed, his attention shifted back and forth from the stairs to the expanding view of the surroundings: the parking lot, the long motel building, the empty swimming pool behind us, the traffic out on the Highway, the railroad beyond that. Lots to see, plenty of distraction.

We could hear the television in the room next to mine, still going. Who keeps their TV on every minute of the day? Or maybe they only turned it on when they saw me coming. How thoughtful.

I opened the door to the room and let Colin enter first, me wondering how he might be seeing it. Not much mess around, I noticed with relief, apart from the unmade bed. The TV next door mumbled on. A surge of further relief washed through me at the thought of getting out of there.

I grabbed my paltry assortment of bathroom odds and ends, stuffed them into the plastic bag they'd traveled from Cambridge in, tossed that in my overnight bag with yesterday's clothes, grabbed a fistful of tissues, stuffed them into a pocket. Scanned the room for anything I'd missed, saw the photo. Picked it up, carefully inserted it into its envelope, put that back in my bag, on top of everything. Gave the room the once-over again. That was it. Colin stood by the foot of one of the beds, kicking softly at the leg of the nearby armchair.

"All set," I told him. He looked up at me. "We can go now. You okay?" He nodded. I went to him, dropping my bag on the floor, sitting on the end of the bed. "Come here," I said, lifting him into my lap. He leaned against me, his face turned against the sleeve of my coat, hidden except for the outside edge of one eye, one eyebrow, one cheek. The side of his face, the small, pink winglike ear, half hidden by brown hair.

I held him close but not too tightly, my chin resting on the top of his head. "Do you need a haircut?" I asked. A movement of the head in response, a minuscule shrugging of shoulders. Indicating what, I couldn't make out.

After a minute, I sat up and relaxed my embrace, running a hand through his hair to smooth out its disorder. "We should probably get a move on," I told him.

"Where are we going?" he asked, looking up at me, head angled to the side, one half of his face still against the sleeve of my coat.

"I'm not sure." I didn't mention I was leery of heading back to Cambridge, the first place Sheila and Gerry would go to find me. "We can talk about it in the car, but I want to get out of Massapequa first." He started to climb down from my lap, I waited till he was done before getting up. "Do you need to use the toilet?" I asked. He shook his head no. "You sure? I'd rather not have to run into a gas station in ten minutes because your bladder's getting ready to spring a leak." Wordlessly, with just the slightest air of put-upon martyrdom, he turned and disappeared into the bathroom. I heard the sound of his coat falling to the floor, his pants opening, the light tinkling of his tinkling.

I opened the door to the room and stepped outside, admiring the view of the big shopping center off beyond the swimming pool. One thing about Sunrise Highway: no shortage of stores and businesses. Two or three rooms away, to either side of me along the second-story walkway, maid service carts stood idle near open doors. The toilet flushed behind me, I turned around just as Colin emerged from the bathroom, pulling his coat back on.

"All set?" He nodded in the affirmative. I stepped in, grabbed my bag and herded him out ahead of me, pulling the door shut.

I dragged the urchin to the office, we checked out for real. When I asked about ways to get to the Southern State Parkway, the woman gave me two options and seemed ready to launch into more until I hastily assured her she'd given us enough. Colin looked around, bored and unhappy, till the woman noticed him and said hello. I remembered to check for messages from Steve, there were none.

Back in the car, I pulled out onto the Highway, heading east with traffic. One of the ways to get to the Southern State involved staying on Sunrise Highway for a mile or two in our current direction. The other meant turning around and heading west to the Wantagh Parkway, then north to the Southern State. I found myself making a U-turn at the next light and driving west. Another train caught up to us and slowed for the station, disappearing when I abruptly hung a right onto Broadway, going under the trestle. My radar began operating at high alert as it became clear I'd decided to stop in at the Early American, bringing us back toward enemy territory. Not the smartest move I'd ever made if I were actually concerned about being spotted by ex-wives seeking vengeance. Most likely not a very brilliant undertaking. Did it ever occur to you, I thought, that undertaking and undertaker are almost exactly the same word? Probably a good reason for that, don't you think?

I turned on the radio to drown out that line of hectoring. The Early American presented itself almost immediately, we took a hard right off Broadway onto a side street before pulling into a space three or four houses in.

Colin looked around from his spot in the back seat as I shut the engine down. "What are we doing?"

"I need to run into a restaurant and talk to someone. Just for a moment. Let's go, this will be quick."

"I don't want to go somewhere else."

"I know, I don't blame you. I promise it'll be fast."

He gave up with a small show of truculence, undoing his seatbelt and dismounting, his face pinched into his best sulk. I got out and met him on the sidewalk, taking his hand. "You're a good guy," I told him. "You know that? You're putting up with a lot." No response.

We reached the corner where I pulled a sharpish turn, wanting to make cover as fast as my little legs would carry me, dragging Colin along to get him up to my speed, scanning passing traffic for any sign of hostile life forms. He resisted passively, but the restaurant lay only a few storefronts along so we got there and inside pretty quick. Once there, I stood with Colin, looking around, the question Now what? going through my head.

I spotted Maryanne coming out from the kitchen freighted with coffee mugs, three on each hand. I waved, she saw me and slowed, indicating the need to finish her current task. The cups were deposited in formation at a station near the counter, she then came to meet us.

"Hi," she said, looking at Colin. "Who's this?"

"This is Colin."

She extended her hand. "Hi, Colin. I'm Maryanne."

Her attention seemed to bring Colin partway out of his funk. He stared, extending his hand, letting her take it and give it a gentle shake or two.

I nudged him. "Say hello."

"Hello," he said softly, suddenly shy. His gaze slipped away, then returned to her.

"You have beautiful eyes," she told him. "Do you know that?"

He nodded, his eyes on hers, me watching, appreciating her smile all over again. I could get used to a woman like this.

"Listen," I said, "we're about to hit the road and I wanted to leave you with something."

"Oh," she said, showing polite surprise.

"Do you have a...," I made motions of writing, she pulled her pen from her hair and handed it to me. I looked around, made to grab a napkin from a nearby table, Maryanne gave me her billpad. I looked at it, then at her. "You sure?"

She waved her hands, dismissing me momentarily while she left to check on a couple of nearby booths. I rested the billpad on Colin's head, started writing my name and phone number on the back of it. It occurred to me that inflicting this information on her was a mighty optimistic act, assuming as it did that (a) she wanted it and (b) my existence would return to something resembling normal life at some point. And the last part of that stopped me mid-scribble. Sad speculations about what lay ahead commenced, me chewing on the inside of my cheek. Luckily, Colin quickly grew antsy bringing me back before I could imagine too many disastrous futures.

"Hey," I said, "stand still so I can finish this."

"No." Actually, it went more like Nooo-OOOooo-ooo, twisting and turning to match his unhappy physical movements. Big whining, and who could blame him? I set him free, lifting the billpad from his head, relocating to a free table near the kitchen door to finish up. Colin stuck close by, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else.

When I'd finished, printing it all out with exaggerated care so a person unfamiliar with my godawful scrawl could make sense of it, I took Colin's hand and looked around for the reason I'd come. She'd vanished, but reappeared quickly with food which landed at a booth on the other side of the room. A fast inquiry there as to any further needs and she headed over to us, taking the pen and pad from my extended hand. She looked at the front of the pad, saw nothing there.

"Other side," I said.

"Oh," she said, turning it over. After a quick scan, she looked at me, a question in her eyes. "So...."

"So if you ever come back to Boston, please call me. I mean, if that's something you'd like to do. We could get something to eat, let someone wait on you for a change." The tiniest pause, then I hurriedly added, "Do you ever come to Boston? Maybe I should have asked that first."

"I do," she hurriedly responded in turn. "Yes, I do. That would be nice."

"You're not married now," I then asked, "right? I mean, I noticed there's no wedding ring...."

"I'm not, no." The fingers of her right hand gently touched the unadorned ring finger of her left hand.

"I just mean I'm not trying to do anything inappropriate, that's all." She smiled at that, we gazed at each other for a second, the room around us nicely alive with the sounds of eating, conversation, staff in motion. Another waitress passed by, casting a curious glance our way.

"Well," I said, "we should go. I mean it, call me. If you want to. Even from here on the Island if you ever feel like it." Careful, Dennis. You asked the question, don't go overboard. I thought my tone had been safely moderate, though you never know how someone else is going to hear you. I prayed I didn't seem like a lovelorn geek.

"Okay." She looked down at Colin. "'Bye. Nice meeting you."

He'd been looking around, taking aimless steps back and forth by my side. Her words got his attention enough that his eyes briefly met hers before veering off to other things, his mouth belatedly saying a soft, "'Bye."

"Let's go, buddy," I said, pushing him toward the door. I waved to her on the way out, she waved back before turning her attention to a booth to take an order. She smiled, asked if they were ready, started to write out their order (holding her pad so my phone number pressed against the palm of her hand). She stole a fleeting glance at me then, sending a fast smile that made my stomach jump in a nice way, her attention returning immediately to the order being given. And then we were outside, me rushing Colin along the sidewalk and around the corner, peering around at passing traffic, feeling exposed and jittery.

Once we were both back in the car and belted in -- Colin again in the back seat, not amused at the pushy way I'd been herding him around (you always herd the one you love) -- I started it up, then turned it off, realizing I had no idea where we should go.

So. What next? Return to Cambridge, let the police know I'd gotten Colin back and worry about my ex and her consort appearing on my doorstep? Go to the local gendarmerie right now, give ‘em the whole story, let 'em know where Sheila's been hiding out and see what happens? Neither of the above? What other options did I have?

I found myself in mental replay of the festivities on Verbena Lane, particularly the bit at the very end, with Gerry and Sheila bent on forcing me off the premises sans progeny. Impressions of sound and rough contact, the jarring impact of my elbow striking Gerry's face -- his surprised expression, the spurt of blood. I decided I was not eager to hear his feedback about our first encounter.

"Dad?" Colin asked. I looked back, saw his face overlain with concern, fear, anxiety, unhappiness. "Why are we sitting here?"

"I'm not sure what to do next, Col. I'm trying to figure it out."

"Are we going home?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure."

He said nothing, eyes on me, hands in his lap, fiddling tensely with each other.

"Colly, listen, I'm sorry. I know this is not much fun." No answer. He looked down at his hands. I could only imagine what this experience was like for him. Or maybe I couldn't. Maybe no one could except someone who'd actually been in his place.

It might be he didn't want a sensitive father. Could be he wanted someone to take control, get life back on track. Not a bad want. Where could we find someone like that?

Why is it when we first poke our head out from the womb no one gives us any real idea of the kind of things that may lie ahead? Wouldn't it be more considerate to provide a word or two of warning? Some stalwart individual in hospital administration could type up a brief, honest appraisal of the coming uncertainties, one of the selfless medical team could read it to the newborn once things have calmed down. I mean, why don't they give us some idea of the kind of shit that actually flies around in this life?

Something about that grousing line of thought got me thinking about my parents, which brought me back to the box and Edith Ohls. The return address on the box had read Oberlin, Ohio. A long but relatively direct shot west of where we were. A place no one would think of looking for this father and son, especially not ex-wives or bloody-nosed wrestling partners. Or police if it came to that. (Not very likely, that last, I figured. Not much chance Sheila would run to the authorities about her change in circumstance. Of course, it could be some law enforcement genius actually tracks her down to Gerry's suburban palace and learns how I've been using my spare time.)

Hmm.

I started the car up and headed away from Broadway, moving further into the side streets, angling east southeast, figuring I would sooner or later find my way to the next north-south road that intersected Sunrise Highway. The shopping center near the motel had one of those big chain megabookstores, a likely place to track down a road map. Something I'd need for a long drive to places previously untraveled, given that my road atlas had remained in Cambridge.

"What are we doing?" Colin asked as houses, blocks, neighborhoods slipped by.

"Well, we're going to get a map."

"There's a map," he said, pointing to the floor and the old, battered Rand-McNally volume, still resting limply after the long nighttime drive from Cambridge to the Island.

"I want a new one, a current one. And we'll pick up a booster seat for you. And then we're heading west from here." He met my gaze in the rearview mirror, looked away, then looked back.

"What's that mean?"

"It means we're probably gonna do a lot of driving today and tomorrow. We're going somewhere you've never been before."

"Where?"

"Ohio."

A pause, then, "Where's that? Why are we going there?" His voice broadcast confusion, curiosity, impatience, frustration.

"You know we're in New York State now, right?"

"Uh-huh."

"Ohio is all the way over on the other side of the state."

"We're not going home?"

"Well, yes," I said, scrambling to pull together an acceptable answer, "we will. But not right away."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm not sure it's safe right now, Col."

"You mean because of Mom and Gerry?"

"Yes, in part."

"But I want to go home." His voice bore the ragged edges of serious upset. I slowed the car and pulled over, unsnapping my seatbelt and turning to look at him, extending a hand to lay against the side of his face. He took it, but stiffly, remaining tense, unhappy.

"I know you want to go home. So do I." I stared back at him for a couple of seconds, hand still against his face. "I'm sorry this is all such a mess. We'll get back to Cambridge when things have calmed down a little bit."

"Why can't we go home today?"

"Look at me," I said. He did. I studied his face, the small features indicating emotional brush fires that needed tending. Food, rest and comfort. I could find food, I could try comforting. Maybe later I could get him to take a nap. "Right now we're going to find a store that'll have the map and the booster seat. After that we'll get something to eat. Are you hungry?" A shrug, not petulant but not pleased. "What if we can find some good pizza?" Another shrug. For a moment, I studied him, seeing his four and a half years of history. "Try and be patient with me, Col, okay? Things will get better." He didn't ask how, for which I silently thanked him.

Putting my belt on, I took a breath, staring out at the neighborhood around us. The sun had all but disappeared, showing only as a dull spot of illumination behind thickening clouds, the light thin in the way that it sometimes gets before snow. Plenty of houses around, extending off in either direction and on a sidestreet up ahead off to the left. Not all the same -- lots of variations in design, some kept up better than others, some with lawns still green, with nice plantings around their small yard. Indian corn hung on front doors, pumpkins adorned front stoops. A neighborhood, where families conducted lives, had children, raised them up until they moved off in whatever directions life might call them.

Families. Homes. Don't go there, Dennis.

I released the parking brake and pulled out, the only car on the street right then, each passing moment carrying us along in the way they carry all of us, giving few hints as to what lay ahead.

And then I found myself experiencing an odd, unexpected sensation of peace, there in the Swift with my son, traveling down small streets lined with tract houses and trees. One of those odd passages of clarity that descend without warning now and then, brief, without logic, but full of grace. My teeny little brain began trying to figure out why it had come right then, and of course as I puzzled away it ran right through my fingers, leaving me where I'd been to begin with: in a rented car on a long, crowded island, trying to find my way through a dark time.

We finally came to a cross-street busy enough to indicate connection to an arterial like Sunrise Highway. After a cautious peek in both directions to make sure the coast was clear, I took the Swift out into traffic, proceeding south. Up ahead I could see a trestle for the railroad, beyond that traffic on the Highway moving back and forth across the small field of vision.

A lengthy ride west with long stretches of little traffic suddenly seemed like a welcome prospect. We hit the light on Sunrise Highway and headed toward the shopping mall I saw from the motel, the last jog east before turning around and making for the state line.


© 2002, 2009 by runswithscissors



MORE FOCUSED BLATHERINGS


Travels:
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Barcelona
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GONE, a novel:
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THE BASTARD CHILDREN OF
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-- Part 2
-- Part 3

BURBANK SHRUGGED,
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-- Part 2
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Short stories:
Murphy's Wife
Another Autumn
La Queja de Una
  Hermanastra Muy Conocida

Autobiography
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