From GONE, a novel
Wednesday, November 17, 1993
Chapter 8 (excerpt)
Man, there's a lot of highway between Long Island and Ohio.
The Island: after a fast, successful safari to neighboring stores where we scored a road atlas, a booster seat and a toothbrush Colin would accept for the short term, I spotted a bank and got a cash advance on my credit card -- large enough, I hoped, to cover any outlays that might arise during the coming days. On stepping back out into the November cold, we stumbled across a pizzeria, ducked inside for a quick pick-me-up. A serious joint, the kind whose aromas can stimulate chest-hair growth. Colin opted for a plain slice of Neopolitan, familiar and unchallenging. I went for a square of deep-dish heaped with sauteed tomato and onion, which turned out to be so stupendous that I bought and polished off a second before Colin knew what was happening.
Times like that I find myself reduced to a primal state, like a farm critter at a trough. Kind of puts it all in perspective. The kind of gluttonous display my son must find deeply embarrassing.
I remained on high alert as we ate and once back out in Massapequa's version of fresh air, I grabbed Colin's hand and made tracks to the car, juggling a couple of bottles of water that I'd picked up with the food. Inside, I paused to pore over maps. Before I'd finished, Colin had fallen asleep, sagging over to one side, the shoulder strap of his seatbelt holding him up.
For a moment I watched him, thinking about the life going on in that little body. Wondering what he must be making of the mess his family had become. Then I got out of the car, went around to his door to make sure the booster seat was secure, wound up staring at that little face, his head hanging forward as he slept, moving slightly up and down with his breath. He remained asleep as I gingerly checked everything out, remained asleep all the way into New York City, finally coming to just as the car headed out across the George Washington Bridge.
I heard movement in the back seat and the soft snuffling sound he sometimes makes as his breathing adjusts to its waking tempo. Sheila used to make noises like that, though more delicate. Those were the moments I liked the most with her, the passing instances of softness and vulnerability before armor and shields snapped into place.
Colin sat up, watching the suspension wires of the bridge flash by.
"Hey," I said.
"You were out a long time."
A big yawn in response, turning into a pretty good full-body stretch, one fist up against his face, the other in the air at the end of an outthrust arm.
"Where are we?" he finally asked. We were across the bridge and into New Jersey, surrounded by lane after lane of cars and trailer trucks, all jockeying for position, all moving at high speed. I'd been expecting westbound traffic would get siphoned through toll booths, but only eastbound traffic had ‘em, leaving drivers on our half of the road free to fight and claw their way west without interruption. Rather than get caught up in the fracas, I maneuvered into the third of the four westbound lanes where the pace wasn't quite as frenzied.
"We're in New Jersey now. We'll be in Pennsylvania in an hour or so."
He rubbed at one side of his sleepy face with a fist. "Where's Pennsylvania?" he asked, the question coming out more like, "Whuz Pnsuhvnya?"
"West of New Jersey. South of New York." Not a helpful answer, judging by his expression. He sat watching the Grand Prix in the lanes to our left, everything around looking muted and gray -- the cars, the industrial scenery unreeling on either side of the interstate, the sky, the light. I gave him a quick rearview-mirror glance. "How're you doing back there?"
"Okay." A listless form-letter reply, Himself now looking out the window to our right at passing smokestacks and buildings.
"Colin." He looked up front, his eyes briefly meeting mine in the rearview mirror before drifting off to one side. "Are you holding up all right?" Stupid question, but I had to ask. To compensate for feeling ineffectual and guilty, I guess.
"Yeah." Sounding subdued, resigned. He settled back against the seat, a settling that became a dispirited slumping as the Jersey scenery whizzed by. We'd gone far enough west that the industrial ambience had begun to diminish, the road median growing wider, thicker, more ragged with grass, trees, bushes. And in a showy preview of seasonal cheer, the turf and shrubbery were adorned with brightly-colored litter.
I turned the radio on, ranging around the bottom of the dial till I stumbled across WBGO and the swing of jazz piano filled the car. Colin's visage darkened with irritation until I turned the music down some and we continued west, me on the lookout for a rest stop where I could take a leak.
Ever study a cloudy sky? This one had three distinct layers of overcast, the highest a pale, pale gray with traces of another hue -- peach or salmon or something. Below that, darker clouds spread raggedly across the gray expanse, moving quickly east. Lowest of all were tattered fragments the color of charcoal, like thin billows of smoke, moving rapidly and dispersing before the wind. At one point, an airliner cut a line of flight through it all, moving with steady, stately speed against the lighter background of high clouds, the lower clouds obscuring and restoring the view of its progress. Below that, on the far side of the highway, power lines crisscrossed, studded with fat gray birds that appeared to be pigeons.
While pondering all that I managed to miss a rest stop, it registering so late I couldn't carve out a place in traffic to make the exit. Colin didn't seem to care, but my bladder began sending threatening messages. And Colin's, I knew, could act up on a moment's notice. So I figured in the event of extreme personal emergency, we could press one of the water bottles into use as a chamber pot. Be interesting to see if we'd be able to carry that off without spraying effluent around the car.
In a while the environs became more rustic, northern Jersey sprawl giving way to land, trees, less high-density encroachment. Even back in the more built-up areas we'd just come through, one could see how pretty the land must have been before the onslaught of people, long rolling tracts of earth cresting in gently rambling ridges, stretching off away, ridge after successive ridge, in easy, appealing fashion. Moving west, the elevation increased, the area's natural loveliness came more into its own. It was around then that I noticed a small sign on the side of the road that read "Twp of Frelinghuysen."
"What," says I, "is that?"
"What?" Colin in the back seat, still looking unhappy. I told him about the sign. "What's that?" he asked.
"That's what I want to know. I was hoping you could tell me."
"I don't know what it is," he said, his tone telling me You're the grown-up here. Yes, I am. That's partly why the poop's hit the fan in our little lives.
The highway rose and fell with the land, traffic lightened as we moved further away from New York. My bladder became insistent enough that I decided not to wait any longer to relieve it. After cresting a hill, I pulled over, slowing until we rolled to a stop on the shoulder. The land there fell away from the road at a sharp decline, thick with tall grass and undergrowth, the greenery flatter than it might be in the warm season but still enough of an impediment to turn a trip partway down the slope for bladder relief into a task.
"What's going on?" Colin asked.
"I'm gonna make a quick trip down the hill."
"'Cause I need to pee. Do you have to go?"
"Okay. Stay here. I'm gonna lock the doors, all right?"
He made a noise that sounded like an assent, I got out of the Swift as a knot of vehicles went by. Two trailer tractors in a row blared past, their backwash smiting me full on. A moment of rubbing at eyes to ferret out truck-blown grit, then I made sure the car was locked up, hopped over the railing and edged my way down the slope far enough that passing motorists wouldn't be able to see Little Pepe waving around in the breeze.
Another clot of traffic shot by, the noise of their passage loud and unnerving. I thought I could see the Swift shake with the wind from a tanker truck. After another moment's neck-craning to get a glimpse of my kid, I got down to business. As I watered the flora, I surveyed the trash scattered around -- in particular, a motorcycle helmet a couple feet over from where I stood. Someone, at some point, had had one hellacious accident. The helmet bore a rupture on its rear surface and serious, deeply etched scrape marks around the rest of it. Made me uneasy just being near it.
Light misty rain began as I stood there, falling gently as I stumbled my way back up to the Swift, dampening jacket and hair. I got the car unlocked and threw myself into the driver's seat, pulling the door closed before an overgrown panel truck barreled by, the noise of its passing loud then quickly fading with distance, its tone tailing off in a way that would have made Doppler proud.
"Everything okay?" I asked, looking back at my boy. A nod. "You sure you don't have to pee?" He nodded two or three times. Hard to believe, considering his usual urinary frequency, but I didn't feel like pushing the matter. "Okay then," I said. The Swift burped and grumbled when I turned the engine over, catching with a puckish roar as I fed it some gas. I got the wipers going, checked the mirror. The way lay clear, we got rolling.
It felt good to be moving, traffic thinning out as the miles passed, scenery growing more rustic. With my kid sitting nearby, displayed in the rearview. Not terribly happy, but safely in the car with me.
"Want to play a game?" I asked. A shrug in response. "Is that yes, no, or you don't care?"
"What kind of game?"
"You know, a traveling game. Like Horse."
He shrugged again, though his expression had lightened enough to indicate interest.
"All right, game starts first time someone sees a horse and calls it. Right?" A nod. "Good." We both watched the road, alert and ready for anything equine. A quiet minute or two drifted by, the passing scenery remaining stubbornly horseless. "So, Colin," I finally said, "how did you like Gerry?"
Another shrug. "Okay." Noncommittal.
"Was he nice to you?"
One more shrug, but thinking while shrugging, then, "He was okay." I'll buy that. He probably was okay.
"Col, do you mind if I ask about when you and Mommy left Cambridge?" A glance at me, a big shake of the head. "You don't mind?"
"When did Mommy tell you that you were both going to leave?"
"Umm...." He looked off at increasingly mountainous scenery for a moment, thinking. "Before we went."
"Uh-huh. How long before you went? A day? A week?"
"A couple of days?"
"You think maybe about two days?"
Two days. Wednesday then, if Colin's guess was accurate. I spoke to him Wednesday night, around 36 hours before they pulled up stakes. "Did she tell you not to say anything to me about it?"
He suddenly became fascinated by a square inch of fabric on one of his pants legs, eyes studiously focused there, fingers fiddling with it. "Yeah."
"It's okay," I told him gently. "You didn't do anything wrong." He looked briefly up at me, his attention then shifting to the rear of the seat in front of him, fingers still kneading pants denim. "This will all blow over," I went on. "Things will get better." I hoped that was true. I also hoped things wouldn't get a whole lot worse before getting better.
A farm appeared on the far side of the road, a long field spreading into view as we sped past a stand of evergreens and bare-branched ash and oak. Near-dormant grass stretched to a house and barn, from which a fenced-in area extended, containing a beautiful chestnut horse that walked slowly across brown, denuded ground, tail swishing gracefully back and forth.
"Horse," I said.
"Where?" asked Colin, stretching his neck to look around.
"Oh, yeah," he said, sounding disappointed. He scrutinized the farm as the Swift moved beyond it into a long upgrade, his head swivelling drastically to keep it in view until he called out, "Horse!" in sudden excitement, body bouncing up and down as much as seatbelts would allow.
"Where?" I demanded in mock outrage.
"Back there! Another one came around the barn, around the corner!"
"Funny, I didn't see anything."
"Dad! It did!"
"Well," I deliberated, drawing it out as much possible, "okay."
"One to one," Colin said, exceedingly happy to be on the scoreboard.
"Don't get smug there, pal. The game's just beginning." He took that with a comically satisfied smirk, reminding me of a more carefree Colin, pre-family meltdown, and for a few moments we lapsed into a companionable silence, together on the highway in a warm little car. The windshield slowly blurred up from light rain, the wipers cleared it away with a thick-thock sound, a moment later the cycle repeated.
"Col," I said, "when Mommy told you that you were leaving Cambridge, what did she tell you was going on?" He looked in my direction, his expression closing up some as he retreated into cautious watchfulness. "Did she say you were moving?"
"I don't 'member."
"Well, that's all right. Tell me what you do remember. It doesn't have to be perfect."
He screwed up his face a little bit in a combination of thought and discomfort with the subject. "I think she said we were going away."
"So she didn't tell you that you were going to live somewhere else?"
His left hand rose to grip his harness, his right one went to his mouth where his thumb inserted itself for a brief moment. I could feel in my chest how scary and confusing the recent happenings must have been for him.
I changed the question. "Did she tell you anything about me?"
He looked at me, his near eye squinting, then quickly shifted his field of vision to his feet, which swung up and down for a moment in counterpoint to one another. "She said I prob'ly wouldn't see you for a while."
"Did she say why?" His head shook in a wordless negative. "Did you think I didn't want to see you?" His feet swung some more, he watched them, his left hand holding on to the shoulder harness. Finally, his head again moved in the negative. "I didn't know you were going away," I said. "Mommy didn't tell me." He looked over at me, legs still moving, sneaker laces swinging around with the motion. It occurred to me I'd have to get him winter shoes, not to mention warm pants, maybe thermal underwear. More money. Well, what the heck -- the bank kept raising the credit limit on my charge card, as if daring me to spend big, excessive mountains of shekels.
I caught his eye in the rearview mirror. "I didn't know you were going away. When I found out you guys had taken off, I was upset. I missed you."
It looked like he took his lower lip in his teeth, his upper lip extended down over his lower one for a moment. I wanted to look at him steadily but could only afford quick glances in the mirror, not wanting to wind up shooting off-road into the scenery.
"None of this is your fault," I said. "You know that, right?" He looked at me, I could feel his eyes on me, glanced quickly at the mirror meet it then back at the road.
"Did you know we were at Gerry's?" he asked.
"How'd you find us?"
"Luck. I bothered people Mommy knows and got enough information to figure it out." It looked like he nodded slightly. "I never would have let you disappear, Col."
He said nothing, and for a minute we sat silently in our perky metal capsule, zipping westward. I could feel the humming of tires on road through the steering wheel. A lean black car went by in the left lane, going well over 75, moving without effort. The sound of its passing faded as it surged ahead.
We were on a stretch of road that had been laid in long blocks of asphalt, each section joined to the next by a seam, each seam registering with our passing as pairs of light thumps, front wheels then back wheels. Thumpthump, thumpthump, thumpthump. Like a rubber/asphalt heartbeat. We'd ascended into the eastern reaches of the Poconos by then, the land thrusting up around us, the vegetation scrubbier, fir trees standing out among naked hardwood as shards of green amid skeletal browns.
"You and Mommy don't like each other," said Colin, breaking the quiet.
I didn't know how to respond to that. "No," I finally said, "we don't like each other very much right now."
"Well...," I paused for a moment of thought. "We turned out to be very different people, is a lot of it."
"Did you ever like each other?" A startling question until I reflected on how scarce marital harmony had been during his lifetime.
"For a time. In some ways." We liked who we thought the other person might be, we liked how the other person's attention made us feel. We liked sex. For a while there we really liked sex. Long enough to plant the seed that became the third member of the crew.
The light rain had faded away, I turned the wipers off. Clouds hung dark and low in long, sweeping expanses of charcoal and blue-gray. To our right a sign loomed, advertising a truck stop with a gas station and 24-hour restaurant.
"There's a restaurant up ahead, Col. Are you hungry?" Affirmative nodding from him in answer, little haystack of brown hair bobbing up and down. An encouraging sign, as his appetite tended to reflect his stress level.
An off-ramp slid into view up the road, I slowed the Swift's pace and drifted to the right when the exit track presented itself. The ramp rose to a local two-lane. On the far side of that, grassy land rose to a bluff that held a restaurant and parking lot, banners snapping stiffly in the breeze. To the right and behind us, the pump canopy of the truck stop seemed to float in the gray afternoon light, the gas company logo off to one side, perched atop an enormous white pole, riding the cold air -- the modern, corporate version of a ghostly galleon. We turned right, then right again down a side road that gave onto the truck stop entranceway. White concrete below us, canopy and logo high above. And nothing else. I pulled the car to a halt and stared around, confused. No cars, no trucks, no people. No pumps beneath the canopy. No restaurant, apart from the crumbling stubble of a building's foundation, like the lumpy, graying remains of incinerated bones.
"There's nothing here, Dad."
"I can see that."
"Where did it go?"
"It died?" His expression shifted to worry as he tried to figure exactly what dying would mean in a case like this.
"Went out of business. And no one ever took down the sign on the highway."
"How long's it been gone?" He peered up at canopy and sky as he spoke, voice betraying anxiety. Maybe the thought of anything ending, of that kind of finality, didn't go down easily given recent events.
"Don't know. A while." I put the Swift into gear, executed a tight turn and looped quickly back out to the highway, where we faced the entrance to the restaurant parking lot. A large sign to the driveway's left read "Trelingherden Family Restaurant -- Fine Food, Family Atmosphere." Trelingherden. Gott in himmel. The sign had a small, dark brown thatched overhang, suggesting, I guess, a Bavarian motif, the letters executed in a rococo mid-continental style.
A quick peer in both directions to confirm safe crossing, then we scooted over the road and up the hill into the lot, which turned out to be a sprawling oversized affair, considering the modest, bunkerlike appearance of the restaurant. We pulled into a space amid a few cars and pick-ups by a railing that ran along the bluff, overlooking the interstate. Two tractor-trailers sat to the rear of the lot, engines idling, drivers not visible. Maybe inside discovering culinary ecstasy.
I opened my door a smidgen, a chilly wind found its way in and sniffed around. "It's cold out," I told Colin. "Zip up your jacket, okay?"
He mumbled, "Okay," concentrating on seatbelt and zipper mechanics. When he was free, we stepped out into the air, me pausing to look around, watching a car or two skim by on the interstate as I breathed in air far cleaner than I was accustomed to. On the other side of the Swift, Colin used both hands to shut the passenger's side door, leaning all his weight against it.
I joined him by the rear of the car, we started toward the Trelingherden Family Thing. "Did you lock it?" I asked. A nod in response.
The restaurant appeared to have two entrances, one right around the corner from the other, each with its own little entryway. An older couple trudging along from a car parked back by the tractor-trailers disappeared through the entrance to the right, Colin and I followed.
Inside, we found a huge, dimly-lit, high-ceilinged room, as big as some auditoriums I've been in, hazy strata of cigarette smoke drifting in the air. Not what I expected to find given the building's compact appearance from the outside. Booths lined the far wall, with several more behind a partition to our left. Tables filled the central part of the space. To the right, a chalkboard on an easel announced the day's specials (meatloaf w/ potatoes and a vegetable, $5.95; roast turkey sandwich w/ salad and fries, $6.95) flanked by newspaper stands carrying everything from national tabloids to the N.Y. Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Between that and a hallway leading to restrooms stood a thickly-needled artificial Christmas tree. Waiting for post-Thanksgiving adornment. A counter with stools and a register filled the rest of the space, covering much of the area to the right. The ceiling rose to a peak that ran centrally from the south-facing wall over the tables, counter stools and counter before disappearing into another wall. Behind that wall lay the kitchen and who knew what else. The space was way larger than it appeared from the outside, almost as if the owners had managed a bizarre manipulation of space and the laws of physics.
Mounted up on the ceiling, four fans spun slowly, each equipped with a cluster of low wattage light bulbs angling out in fluted glass shades. The only other lighting came from bulbs sunk into the ceiling. None of that provided much illumination down at our level. The few windows strewn randomly around the cinderblock building might have had some effect given sunshine to work with, but not on this day.
For a moment, I stood with Colin, staring around, both of us either overwhelmed or underwhelmed, I'm not sure which.
"Are we gonna eat here?" Colin asked quietly.
"Yeah," I answered, "why not?"
"'Cause it's weird."
No argument there. 'Course, these folks might think life in Cambridge was weird. A waitress behind the counter cast a smile in our direction on her way to the cash register to ring up someone's meal. I took that as encouragement, steering us toward the booths to our left, which all stood empty. Truckers at nearby tables stared at us, cigarettes jutting from their fists. Colin shuffled self-consciously around the partition and started to park himself in the first available seat until I pointed out a booth with a window and made him sit there instead. Nice November view -- muted greens, browns, grays. And the lightest, most ethereal flakes of snow starting to come down: a spare, elegant display of early winter.
Now that our vantage point wasn't so exposed, Colin relaxed a bit, legs hanging out the end of the booth, getting an eyeful of the funhouse I'd dragged him into. His right hand lay on the table, I tapped it with two fingers.
"Look outside," I told him. His eyes slid around to me, then to the window, at which point they opened a little wider. He got up and came over to my side of the table, staring out at the scene, his pupils deep and brown, his mouth open just the slightest bit. I put my arm around him and drew him up into my lap, where he settled back against me, staring out the window. After a minute of that he grew restless, got down, returned to his seat where he remained looking around, feet hanging out in the aisle, mouth moving silently to some song running through his head. A waitress bearing two menus approached, young, short, pudgy with a biggish 'do and a harelip.
"Hi," she said, then "Hi, honey," to Colin with a nice smile.
"Hi," he answered, pulling himself around to sit properly, facing me like a normal human diner might.
She deposited the menus on the table, rattled off the specials that I saw scrawled on the board by the door, finishing by asking if I'd like coffee. I said yes to a cup of decaf, she asked Colin if he wanted anything. He stared at her shyly, looked over at me.
"Would you like apple juice?" I asked.
"Yes, please," he answered, his eyes darting up to meet those of the waitress.
"Okay," she said, completely won over. "Be right back with that."
When she'd gone, Colin turned back around for a further scan of the environs. "Dad," he said, feet sticking out from the booth, his hands in lap, "how come we're here?"
"I thought we were hungry."
"No," he said, sounding both plaintive and impatient, "how come we're doing all this driving? Where are we going?"
"I know," he said, voice tinged with frustration, "but how come?"
I studied that little face as I tried to compose a satisfactory answer, taking in the planes and outcroppings of its living geography. There were times I saw Sheila in it, other times I saw reflections of myself. Sometimes its aspect went far beyond that, into the depths of the two gene pools that had flowed together to produce this animate work of art. It's a beautiful face, a face that deserved an explanation.
"Col," I finally said, "I'm sorry. It probably doesn't feel good to have so little control over what's going on. Here's the deal. After what happened this morning, going back to Cambridge might not be very smart, at least not right away."
"Well, for a couple of reasons. First, it's possible Gerry and Sheila might head up there to try and find us." He stared at me, expression unreadable. God knows what emotional and mental winds were blowing in there. I reached out and put my hand over his. "It's not that I want to keep you away from Mommy. I don't want that. I want you to have both your parents in your life." Angst, mumble, clenched teeth. "But what happened this morning is not an experience I'm fired up to repeat, even though it meant I get to sit here with you now instead of wondering where you've been taken. I don't want any of us to go through something like that again -- not me, not you, not Mommy. So I'd rather let things calm down for a few days."
He looked at my hand for a moment, then out the window. I squeezed his hand and withdrew mine, taking a moment to check out the snow. Still falling, still very light, no danger of accumulation. The view also remained stirring. Until a truck with the longest horse trailer I'd ever seen pulled in and parked itself parallel to the building, eliminating our little panorama. Shit. Still, on the way out I could take a peek in there, see how many horses there were and claim 'em. Or split them with the urchin. We'd see.
Colin heaved a weighty sigh. "So if we're not going back home, where are we going?"
The waitress returned right then, sliding a glass of juice in front of Colin, a steaming mug of brown brew over to me. "Apple juice and decaf." She extended the N in and so that it came out Apple juice annnnd decaf, with just the slightest twang to it. Do they speak with a twang in Pennsylvania or is it some kind of universal country thing? Colin watched her, eyes wide. "You ready to order?" she asked.
"Oh," I said guiltily, pulling the menu open, "we got talking and forgot. I'm sorry." I tried to do a quick, furtive perusal as I spoke.
"No problem. You need more time?"
"No. No, no. Colin, you want a hamburger?"
"A burger for him."
She scribbled on her pad, Colin watched. "And I'll do the..." -- hurry, Dennis; hey, subs... mmm, -- "the turkey sub. With everything."
After we'd finished with that and she disappeared off toward the kitchen, I looked back out the window at the horse trailer. No more snow. Just dark gray sky, lighter gray trailer paneling. "Ohio," I said to Colin, " is west of here. We drive across Pennsylvania and we're in Ohio."
"Why are we going there?" His tone contained resignation, curiosity, and an understandable peevishness.
"Two reasons. No one's going to be looking for us there and there's someone I'd like to talk to."
"Someone you don't know. Someone I don't even know. An elderly woman who sent me a few things recently."
"If you don't know her," he said, starting to tear his napkin into confetti, "how come she sent you something?"
A good question. I told him as much I could, given his age, attention span and level of overload. I told him about the package and a few basics re: the 'rents (mine) -- particulars about the family he'd never heard before. I told him a little about growing up without parental units and the years of foster holding pens. As I tried to figure how much info would be appropriate and how much would be overdoing it, our food arrived. The waitress asked if we needed anything else, we said no-thanks, she wafted off.
The smoke had largely dissipated as the truckers finished eating and left, one by one, replaced by a few elderly travelers, a couple of lone younger types. For a while, talk at our table gave way to the din of slavering and masticating. My turkey sub arrived looking like a little bit of low cuisine satori, big and overstuffed enough that I nearly began sobbing when it landed, like a sloppy mutant zeppelin coming to rest. Tastewise, it didn't quite live up to its voluptuous promise. I demolished it anyway. Colin lost interest in anything but slowly eradicating his burger and fries, which was fine with me.
When it came time to pay, I brandished plastic while Colin disappeared into the men's room, essentially a dimly-lit, funny-smelling cubicle. Before he could close the door, I poked my head in there, made sure he was alone. After which he closed and locked the door. Seven or eight minutes later, he emerged, I took my turn, we returned to the car. I considered asking what he was doing that took so long, then let it pass. Maybe he simply needed a few minutes away from me.
Outside: no snow, just breezy, cold, fresh-smelling air. As we passed the horse trailer, I made a deal with Colin that we'd split whatever we counted inside the thing, even-steven. I'd just applied my eye to a slit in the side paneling when its keeper emerged from the restaurant and asked us to please keep away from the trailer.
"Sorry," I said. "We were just trying to see how many horses you were carrying."
"Not carrying any this trip," Trailer Man replied, pulling a cigarette and a plastic lighter from a well-worn pocket of his well-worn leather jacket, cupping a well-worn hand around the butt to light it. Cowboy boots, I noticed, long past their youth, toes curling up slightly as their owner rested his weight on his heels.
Something moved in the trailer, sounding a lot like a horse shifting its weight around. Colin looked at the trailer, puzzled; I took his hand.
"Thanks anyway," I said to Trailer Dude.
"Yep," he said, smoke streaming from mouth and nostrils to swirl away before the breeze.
We got in the car, scooted to a service station across the interstate and gassed up, me airing out the plastic yet again. And then we were onto the interstate, the speedometer needle surging toward higher numbers.
The Swift's clock read 3:31, provoking slightly disoriented calculation. We'd left Massapequa around 11:30, pulling off the highway here shortly before 3. Could that be right? Or had I been pedaling this little car substantially faster than I thought? Maybe it was only the early commencement of daylight's slow dimming that made things seem out of temporal sync.
As we attained cruising speed the overcast began to break apart, flooding the afternoon with golden light. We moved west through it, the close, high land of the Poconos giving way to the Alleghenies -- broad, sweeping valleys flanked by long peaks, appearing both soft and stark in their early-winter mode. It had been many years since I'd been through central Pennsylvania; I'd forgotten how beautiful it was.
After a while, I turned the radio on, found a distant station. College radio, probably, playing guitar-heavy music that faded in and out.
"Dad?" said Colin.
"You know the woman who brought us our food?"
"At the restaurant? What about her?"
"What was wrong with her mouth?"
"I think she had a harelip."
"What's that?" he asked, looking at me in the rearview, curiosity and anxious confoundment in his voice.
"It's a birth defect. I think maybe the upper lip isn't completely formed when the baby's born and has to be sewn together, but I'm not sure." No answer. In the mirror I could see him staring out the window, looking troubled. "You okay?" I asked. He looked briefly at me then back out at the passing world.
"Yeah." Not sounding like a happy guy. Stop talking about birth defects, Dennis.
Things in the car remained quiet for a long time then, the land around us easing by -- mountains, vales, tons o' farms (no horses), the occasional roadside sign or exit ramp. An exit might bring the sudden appearance of a gas station, motel or business of some sort, then they'd slip by and it would be us and Mother Earth again, along with the occasional other driver. I turned on the radio, played with it for five or ten minutes. Not much to listen to apart from news and talkshow dreck.
And I thought about my life, wandering thoughts that eventually came together around my marriage, an era I could only shake my head over. Or maybe not. Maybe it deserved more than my usual kneejerk assessment. God knows, I had reasons to dismiss my ex with a snide reduction to one or two-dimensional personhood, or thought I did. A cutout figure to plug in as I needed (the lunatic, the bitch, the destroyer, the withholder, the controller, the angry/sultry mystery). I'd also settled into my own unidimensional variations of myself (the wronged lover, the miffed victim, the long-suffering nice guy deserving better), and found myself examining them, wondering how well they served me. There's power in habit, and comfort, but it tends to lock life into certain frameworks. If those frameworks feel good and bring great things, well, then say no more. If they constrict life and limit possibilities, some reflection might be in order.
Habits. Habits of activity and routine, habits of thought, habits of assumption. For instance, when I walk into my apartment, I often have a habit of going straight to the kitchen and staring into the refrigerator with the door open. If something catches my fancy, I eat or drink some of it. I've already related my habit of making noise when I yawn and how it used to irritate Sheila. Habit became part of the reason I stayed in the relationship so long after it should have been lain to rest, or if not habit exactly then settling for the known. Cowardice, maybe; opting to remain with the miserable bird in hand rather than let go and take my chances with the unknown ones in the bush.
And I have habitual perspectives that could stand some retooling. Case in point: me making Sheila out to be a toxic psycho responsible for most everything that went wrong. Fact: I stayed in the relationship in the face of abundant evidence suggesting a bailout might be best for everyone. And I probably contributed my 50% to the equation. None of it happened in a vacuum. She might have been a powder keg, but I put a match to her fuse more often than I'd like to admit, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes not. Staying put until the whole clown show finally collapsed.
So what went wrong? Someone standing a little further out from the epicenter might see it as simple incompatibility. Most times I would probably agree with that. I think the real sitch might cover more ground, though.
Thinking back on the first weeks of the relationship when the attraction was fresh and strong, there seemed to be good chemistry, a nice balance. Sometimes when I say that to people they do this condescending number in response, telling me everyone experiences that when a relationship's new. I know about the honeymoon period, all right? This is something else.
After that first dinner with Sheila in Central Square, I went home and wallowed in the kind of thoughts one wallows in after an exciting encounter with a representative of the opposing gender. Good thoughts, hopeful thoughts. It had been over a year since my last attempt at a relationship. I missed that kind of intimacy. Especially the physical part, the touching. Sex is one thing, but the rest of it, the affectionate touch of someone who loves you -- well....
Simple contact. The feel of her hand in yours, warm and alive. The feeling of her breathing as you hold her. The brush of her lips against your cheek.
I have dreams of waking up in bed in the middle of the night, feeling the inner rhythm of a partner sharing the bed with me, sensing her soft heat. It's not part of my waking life right now, so I dream it -- some part of me trying to supply it as best it can.
Sheila and I spoke by phone the day after the first dinner, arranging to meet at the 9 the following evening. I arrived early and bagged a table by the wall, about halfway back. People all around, some talking, some reading. The smell of coffee, reggae playing, Central Square carrying on in the evening darkness outside the front windows. When she walked in, I felt a pleasurable tightness in my throat. She paused to survey the room, I waved, she made her way along, unzipping her coat.
"Hi there," she said.
"Hey," I rejoined, standing up. I rose before I realized what I was doing, suddenly finding myself on my feet, waiting while she took her coat off and slung it across a chair. "You look great."
"Thanks. You can sit down." I looked at my chair, faintly surprised to find myself not in it. "Unless you don't want to," she continued. "While you make up your mind I'll go, uh...." -- she pointed to the counter.
"Good idea," I said. Mr. Encouragement. While she queued up for a vat o' caffeine, I sat back down and sipped at my mug, watching this attractive woman. And to my hungry eyes she was grace itself. Long, dark curly hair. A great face, features robust, not delicate or fine. Dark clothes -- black jeans and boots, black sweater over a dark blue blouse, filled nicely by the body sporting them. A dark look, which I later found to be coupled with a dark outlook.
She came back with a full cup and sat down.
"Nice to see you," I said.
"Yeah?" She studied me speculatively, stirring a little cream into her brew.
"Um, yeah," I confirmed. She finished with the ritual prep, lifted the cup to her mouth, blowing a little air over the surface of the liquid before sipping.
"So," she says, lowering cup to table, "here we are again."
"Here we are." Sparkling dialogue, Dennis. I noticed the slight, stale tang of tobacco coming from her, together with a more agreeable scent. For a moment, we sat and regarded one another. She wore little make-up; what there was had been applied with restraint.
"Are we feeling a little awkward?" I asked.
"Do you mean us or are you asking if I'm feeling awkward?" Her head tilted slightly as she spoke, her tone taking a slight, seemingly less friendly turn, her eyes gauging me.
"Us. I meant us."
"Why, are you feeling awkward?"
"Well, no more than I normally would in a sitch like this."
"And what kind of sitch would that be?"
I studied her before answering, trying to figure if I needed to choose my words with more care or not. "Getting together for the second time with an attractive woman I barely know."
"Oh, that kind of sitch. I could see that making you feel a little awkward."
"Yeah?" I said, eyebrows raised. "And why is it that should make me feel awkward?"
"Because there might be something at stake. Something nice." Her voice softened slightly for that, her eyes held mine for an instant then lowered as she lifted her coffee to her mouth. Her eyes remained lowered until she'd put the cup down again. Then they met mine again, bright with something, I couldn't tell what. Things were starting to feel a mite complicated, more complicated than our first evening out. Oh, well, chalk it up to that wacky world of dating. Just one big thrillfest.
But as the evening meandered on, the sensation of complication persisted. As if she were purposely showing less of herself, parrying simple chat gambits, as if a chess game of some sort had commenced. Or something. I couldn't seem to find the simple, pleasurable connection of our first encounter. I felt like the nerd who stumbles into a cocktail party with fly at half-mast and toilet paper trailing from his shoes, wondering why everyone seems to keep their distance.
When both cups had been drained, the conversation lapsed and I asked if she felt like doing something.
"Like what?" she asked.
"I don't know. A movie, a meal. Bowling."
"Yeah," I said uncertainly. "You don't like bowling?"
"I don't know. No one's asked me to go bowling since high school."
"We could go shoot some pool. There are lots of possibilities."
"I don't know." Her eyes drifted off, settling vaguely on something in the middle distance.
"Would you rather go home?" I asked.
Her eyes returned to me with that. "No. Why?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but it's seemed like maybe you haven't been enjoying yourself very much."
"How do you know," she said, her gaze intensifying, "whether or not I'm enjoying myself? Maybe I just don't show things in a way that you recognize."
"Well, yeah, maybe. I mean, sure, but how do I know unless I ask? So I'm asking, clumsy though it may be. If I'm not reading you well, please, let me know."
She stared at me for a moment, then looked down at her cup, shrugging. Then looked off to one side, watching people for an instant before looking back at me. "Sorry. I'm being testy." Another slight shrug, coupled with a minute head shake. "Just ignore it."
I said nothing, just watched her. She watched me watching. Finally, she seemed to straighten her spine. "Yeah," she said, "let's go somewhere."
"Anywhere in particular?"
"I don't know," she said, getting up. I watched stupidly, trying to figure what exactly was happening to my evening. She pulled her coat off the chair, slipped an arm into it. "You coming?"
"Yes," I said, rising quickly. She moved toward the door, I followed, catching up outside, just a couple of steps from where we'd linked up two nights previous. "Listen," I ventured, "is everything okay?"
She gave me a look -- sharp but not reprimanding. "I never know how to answer a question like that."
"'Cause there's always something that's less than okay?"
"Always. Which doesn't mean I'm not okay."
"Right," I said. "So. What do you think?" She put an arm through one of mine. Much better.
"You mentioned a movie before."
"I did. I remember doing that." And we wandered to Harvard Square in time to catch a showing of something we both had some interest in. I don't remember much about the film. What I remember is sitting next to Sheila in the dark there, both of us settled deeply into our seats, her coat folded in her lap, my hand on top of it between both of hers, our fingers interlaced.
Afterwards, I walked her home to her little two-room place near the Common, and at the door to the building, as we were trying to find our way through the good-night deal, I reached up and took her chin lightly between a thumb and index finger, asking, "Mind if I kiss you?"
"Why would I mind?" she said softly, and for a nice moment we explored our first smooch.
We talked a couple of days later, went out the following weekend. And what I found was that the evening I've just described became a kind of boilerplate for the weeks that followed: a mix of inexplicably difficult and very tender. And we found in those first few weeks that we both wanted this bugger to turn into something workable. We both wanted it, we both seemed ready.
Was it all smooth? No, but we figured this is how relationships go. Shit comes up, you stumble your way through it, hoping things will get better. That's how they go, right? (Just say yes.) And the first month or so, for the most part, was a poignant time.
Evening fell slow and soft, the twilight stretching on, the clouds clearing away as we headed west. The terrain changed from the grand, wide expanses of valleys and mountains to tighter, more condensed ranges, covered with trees, evergreens and bare deciduous softening the outline of rises and crests against the last light of the day. Later on, the ridges spread out, flattening into low, rolling land. Farm country.
Somewhere in there Colin conked out again. I'd been wrestling with a couple of maps to see how we were doing -- always a good idea when driving at high speeds in dim light -- and was surprised to discover how much ground we'd covered. It looked like it might be possible to make it all the way to Oberlin that night. Assuming Colin would stand for that kind of torture. And if he wouldn't, if we slept over in a motel somewhere, Oberlin would be an easy hike from there.
If someone had told me a week earlier that I would soon be fleeing to Ohio in a rented car with my son to pump an elderly woman I'd never met for details re: my long-absent father, I would have advised them to seek drug counseling. Just goes to show: life has fiction beat hands-down.
The light thinned enough that I had to turn on the Swift's headlights, which spotlit a roadside sign advertising a truck stop. It read (I swear this is real) "Emlenton Truck Stop -- Home of America's Worst Apple Pie." What the hell is up with that? Are people so bored that the prospect of a genuinely wretched slab of pie is something to look forward to? And what do they do to make it so rank?
Sometime after the last daylight had faded, Colin came to. I heard the faint sound of body movement and glanced in the mirror to find him sitting straight up, watching the dark world outside sweep by.
"Hi, buddy," I said.
"Hi," he mumbled.
"How're you doing?"
He raised a hand and rubbed his face. "I have to pee," he said. A tired, unhappy voice.
"Me, too. We'll pull off at the next exit and find somewhere to stop. How's that?"
"Okay." Mumbled, so it came out "Mmkuh."
A few miles up the road, we caught an exit ramp that brought us to a two-lane. A gas station lay a good stone's throw off to our right, the building behind the pumps long and low, the windows empty of signs or products. The pumps were lit up enough to indicate being open for business, but only about half the lights inside the office seemed to be on. A house sat off the near end of the building, one or two windows there illuminated warmly from within. No other dwellings or structures could be seen in any direction.
No brand name on the pumps, no signs of any sort on the canopy overhead. Nothing to indicate amenities, nothing to entice a lingering visit. Just the necessary facilities to vend petrol and take your money. I assumed that last part, since it's the usual arrangement.
I filled the tank, standing out in piercingly clean air, a light breeze clearing away the faint odor of gasoline. Opening my mouth to breathe, a bracing sensation of cold extended most of the way down my windpipe. Winter seemed to have arrived in this part of the country. I had a feeling that if there were sunlight I'd see rows of cornstalk stubble stretching away in the surrounding fields.
When I'd finished with the pump, I went around to Colin's door and waited while he got out and tried to shut the door. A buzzer in the car quietly asked him to try again. "Don't worry about it," I said. "We'll be right out." He ignored me, opening the door then closing it with all his 46 pounds behind it.
I took his hand, we crossed the short stretch of blacktop to the building, stepping into a small foyer. The place looked like it might have once been an old-style service station. The original garage area had become the convenience shop where a young 20ish woman slouched behind the register talking on a phone. The foyer must have once been the office, but apart from the remaining architectural basics, no tokens of the earlier gas station remained. Just a white wall to the rear with restroom doors. Near-featureless austerity, like a petrol-pumping monastery.
Stepping into the lavatory, on the other hand, was a return to an earlier time, from the tiles on the floor and walls to the urinal, sink and fixtures. All the way to the condom dispensers mounted on the toilet partition. Two of them, looking to be classics from the 50's or early 60's, with what appeared to be the original text and illustrations. It was the pictures that caught Colin's eye. The first: a man and woman in coital embrace, sitting up, the woman facing us voyeuristic pigdogs, clearly experiencing intense, almost painful transports of sexual whoopa-whoopa. "New and exciting!" the text read. "Arouse her animal passion with Savage Ecstasy Textured Condoms! Raised ridges!" The neighboring dispenser sported a lurid illustration of what appeared to be a giant, pink blimp fitted out with two alarming sets of long, stiff whisker-like protrusions angled dangerously forward like pink lances. "Original French Tickler!" the text read in large, overexcited letters. "You've heard about them! Here they are! The real thing -- not a gimmick!"
"Dad, what's that?" Colin asked, staring in rapt, startled concentration.
"What's what, Col?" Me pretending to be preoccupied at the urinal, hoping my boy's attention would move to his own bodily functions.
"That up there. What is that? Is that man and woman having sex?"
"'Are' they, Colin. When it's more than one person, you say 'are', not 'is.'"
He refused to be diverted. "Is that what they're doing? Having sex?" So much for the modesty and propriety of the heartland. Sex education never sleeps in western Pennsylvania.
"Yes, Col, that's what they're doing."
"Why is that up there? Do women use this room, too?"
"No, this is just for guys. The women's room is next door."
"Are they making a baby?"
That stopped me. In part because I'd never heard him ask that question before, but also because he'd belonged to the realm of babydom not so long ago. "Well, no," I answered after gathering what wits were on hand, "not if they're using a condom. That's what that machine is selling."
His turn to pause. He stared at the machine, then spoke in a different tone, working hard to put concepts together. "What's a connom?"
I remembered right then that we'd come into the men's wankhole without paying for the fill-up. Whoops. "Col," I said, finishing at the urinal, "I have to go pay for the gas. Go to the toilet, okay?"
"Okay." Still staring, frowning slightly as he tried to make sense of this unexpected batch of input.
"Col," I said, pushing him gently into the toilet stall, "let's go." He closed the door without saying anything, I hurried out to the main room of the store.
The young woman behind the counter still had the phone plugged into her ear, a half-smile on her face. "Yeah," she murmured, "but he don't give a damn about her. He just wants to...." Her eyes fastened on me as I pulled up. "Hold on," she told whoever and set the phone down, looking at a pump read-out. "$9.50," she said. I handed over a ten. She diddled the register, the cash drawer opened, she slipped the bill in, gave me two quarters in change. I said, "Thanks," she said, "You're welcome," then picked up the phone. "You there?" she asked. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah."
Colin hadn't emerged from the men's funworld yet. I paced a small, leisurely circle, scanning the store area. A couple of shelves held loaves of bread (white), a few boxes of breakfast cereal (corn flakes, sugar frosted flakes, chocolate sugar bombs), ketchup, mustard, Karo syrup, a pile of snack cakes. The cooler had some milk, some soda, a container of so-orange-it-must-be-radioactive juice drink. Someone's idea of the basics, I guess. All other surfaces lay stark and empty. No car-care accessories, no papers or magazines.
Colin appeared, blinking into the light of the store as if he'd just woken up. I went to him, taking his hand. "Let's go, buddy," I said, gently moving him with me toward the door.
"Excuse me," the young woman called from behind us. We turned. "A couple of our kittens are under your car." I stared, uncomprehending, then looked out at the Swift. Sure enough, a kitten sat crouched in front of the near rear wheel, another little head poking out from behind the first, both of them maybe four, five months old. I looked back at the woman. "Just be careful is all," the woman said.
"Okay," I said, turning Colin around and heading back out into the brisk Pennsylvania night.
"Look, Dad," Colin said, pointing at the kittens, who stared at us from under the car. I released his hand, he moved quickly toward them. They immediately disappeared under the car, reappearing a second later from beneath the rear as if shot by a tiny cannon. Clearly wanting nothing to do with us. They stopped a short distance away, one staring back at father and son, the other sniffing around in another direction for a moment, then turning and jumping on its companion. A moment of hyperactive roughhousing, then they burst apart, running a few steps in different directions before stopping to watch me and my boy. I went to the car, opened Colin's door.
"Let's go, buddy," I told him. He reluctantly got into the Swift, peering back around toward the kittens after I'd closed the door. I glanced over at the teeny felines as I went around the car, found them still observing me. They watched my feet move, their heads bobbing slightly as I walked. Not very smart, kittens, but they pack a lot of entertainment value.
Back in the car, I pulled out maps and opened them to read by the lights above the pumps. Time to figure out how much more roadwork Colin would put up with and make a plan.
"Okay," I said, turning back toward Colin, holding a map so he could see the layout, "here's the poop." He gave a glance of disapproval at my descent into scatology, then looked down where I pointed. "We're here, I think. Pretty much out in the middle of nowhere." My finger circled around the exit on the interstate we'd gotten off at. "It'll probably take two more hours to get to Ohio, then another two to three hours to get to Oberlin."
"Why are we going there again?"
"To talk with that woman I told you about at lunch. Remember?"
A mumbled "Uh-huh."
"What do you think? You probably don't want to go all the way there tonight, do you?" He shook his head. "How hungry are you?"
"I don't know."
I retrieved one of the water bottles from the floor. "Want some of this?" He nodded, I handed it off, he tipped it up to his lips and drank. When he'd finished and had the bottle positioned on the seat between his knees, I said, "How about this: we'll go for a while more, then we'll find a place to stay for the night and track down a meal somewhere. That sound all right to you?" He nodded, stretching around to try and spot the cats. They weren't in sight, I got out to make sure they weren't under the car again. They were, and flew out from under the rear bumper when my feet hit the ground, streaking off together to disappear into the darkness around the corner of the house. I got back into the car to find Colin's face pressed against the passenger's side window, staring after the kittens. "They're gone," I said.
"I know," he responded, belting himself in. A minute later, we were rolling back onto the interstate, headlights extending out ahead to create a pool of illumination that slid along the road before us, diffusing up into the dark air. Cars went by in the left-hand lane, all with Pennsylvania plates, probably on the way home from work.
Life in the Swift quieted down again. Colin sat silently in the back seat, looking off into the dark countryside, lights from the occasional house sliding by. Thinking about god knows what -- family weirdness, couples coupling, kittens he could be petting.
My thoughts returned to Sheila.
In the third or fourth week of the relationship, out of the blue, Sheila began asking, "What if this doesn't work out -- then what? Will we be friends?" My answer went something like, "I have no way of knowing, I'm not going there."
"Why not?" she'd ask, giving me the big frown. I tried to piece together a reply -- we're just getting started, things are mostly okay, there's no way of predicting the future, I have no desire to start imagining how things might go wrong. Didn't make much of an impression on her.
She brought the question up a few other times, it became a pretty effective source of friction. Which maybe is what it was designed to do. "Look," I finally told her, "I'm not in this to become your friend." "What does that mean," she asked, again with the frown. I explained that I was looking for more than that. No answer from her. She'd drop it, then bring it up again at a later time.
My question: are we earthlings inmates in the galaxy's biggest asylum? Or is there a better explanation for our behavior? If so, please, someone clue me in.
Those first few months were a brain-busting amalgam of tender, satisfying times and frustrating, angst-ridden passages. A disruptive mix that made it hard to build a sense of security or positive momentum. It was the desire that kept it going. Our wanting to make the thing work became the glue that held the whole sloppy, tantalizing, fiery, saddening enterprise together.
After the first few weeks, she seemed to make a decision that the honeymoon period had come to a close. Example: in a movie theater I'd taken her hand as the feature started. A short time later, she withdraw her hand. When I tried to take it again a little later, she moved it out of my reach. I looked over, her eyes met mine, her expression an odd, constricted mix of a conciliatory half-smile and flat withholding. And she did little handholding after that -- anywhere, at any time.
Forty-five or fifty minutes up the highway, I noticed a glow in the sky before us, the kind that suggests businesses, food, lodging, all that. Sure enough, when the exit ramp appeared we could see buildings, signs and high poles with bright lights giving the place the stark atmosphere of an industrial theme-park. I slowed, pulling over onto the ramp.
"You ready for some chow?" I asked Colin. His body straightened slightly from its de-energized slump as he raised his head and looked around, nodding. "Is that a yes?"
"Okay." We followed the ramp up an incline to a local road where we could see the array of fast-food chain eateries and franchise motels spread around us on either side of the highway, a bit of sprawl out in the middle of farm country that fed off the passing traffic. Which included a truck-stop/restaurant with a crowded, active parking lot. I took that as a good sign and headed down the highway toward it.
We found a space, I shut the Swift down. Colin eyeballed a couple of guys walking to a pick-up truck, beefy fellas with thick features and cold-reddened complexions, one wearing a John Deere baseball cap, the other a cowboy hat.
"Zip up your jacket," I said, "all right?"
"Uh-huh," he answered, trying to get his coat zipper started. When he was all set, we got out. I met him at the front of the car, took his hand, we walked briskly toward warmth and food, him scoping out the environs.
"Lots of trucks," I commented. He nodded, looking at them all -- pick-ups, vans, panel jobs. Tractor-trailers lined up in a long row. Loads of noise: voices, motors starting up, the rumble and rattle of diesel engines idling, vehicles pulling in and out.
Inside, we'd clearly stepped into another dimension. Long-haul gear everywhere -- books, magazines, cassettes and CDs (heavy on the country music), belts and belt buckles (heavy on the Harley-Davidson and Marlboro logos), hats, bumper stickers (heavy on Jesus and gun-loving motifs), tools and tool kits. We had to pass through all that to get to the restaurant, where we grabbed a booth. Lots of input for Colin all the way. Bright lights, noise, Tammy Wynette wailing from a massive jukebox over to one side of the restaurant. A large room of many tables and booths, mostly filled, mostly with truckers. Lots of hats and caps atop pasty, pale-skinned or ruddy, sun-wizened complexions, some with long hair, some with buzz-cuts, some with facial hair, some follicle-free all the way around. A few business travelers, both genders, in more businesslike attire. Four women together at one table. A couple of families in puffy cold-weather coats. Cigarette smoke.
I watched Colin's eyes take in the scene. "What do you think?" I asked. A shrug of little shoulders in answer, though his face displayed interest. "Not like Cambridge," I commented.
"Where are we?" he asked, genuine curiosity in his voice.
"Well," I said, looking around, "we're almost in the midwest."
"What's the midwes'?"
"Where we're going."
"Dad." An impatient, eye-rolling tone of voice.
"It's a group of states west of New York and Pennsylvania. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota. Some others."
"Why are they called the midwes'?"
"I don't know. Maybe because it's midway between the east coast and the west. I think the west actually covers about half the country, then there's the midwest, then the east."
"What about the south?"
"Well, that's the south."
"I know, but you said the west, the midwest and the east."
"For some reason, once you get out west, it's all just kind of the west. Unless you live there -- then there's the Northwest and the Southwest. And I think when people refer to the east, they mostly mean the northeast, like from Washington, D.C. on up. Or maybe not from D.C., maybe from Maryland north. And then there's the south. Except for Florida."
Somewhere in there I lost my audience. Eyes glazed over, attention drifted off. I backtracked.
"Colin, things get different when you travel away from home. Folks dress different and act different in some ways. The way they talk changes. Most places aren't like Cambridge."
"'Cause every place has its own character."
"What's 'character' mean?"
My sensors told me we were on the verge of a question jag. I was calculating how I might be able to answer the "character" query without provoking an endless succession of Q&A's when a tall, harried-looking waitress showed up, dumping a couple of menus on the table.
"Hi," she said, eyes alighting on us for a microsecond before flitting off around the room, then back. "Can I get you anything to drink?"
"Decaf for me. A glass of milk for my partner here." I consulted the little guy before sending her off, to make sure I wasn't foisting something noxious in his direction. "Milk okay for you?"
"What kind?" she asked. I stared at her, startled that milk wasn't self-explanatory. "Whole milk," she elaborated, "lowfat milk. Chocolate."
Colin's eyes lit up at the last choice. I quickly said, "Regular."
"Okay." She took off, in high gear, looking in at other tables as she went. She may have been harried, but her beehive ‘do didn't have a hair out of place.
Colin's expression had darkened at my last maneuver, I quickly tried to placate. "Listen, you finish a glass of regular and then you can have a glass of chocolate. Okay?"
For a moment we sat, the sounds of the place washing over us, and it occurred to me that Sheila and I had never taken a trip of any real length with Colin. Which probably made perfect sense for his first two years of life when he was small and fussy, but the thought made me sad. After the split-up, neither of us took him very far away, and now the reason for his first exposure to the big world was first Sheila then me running off.
I remembered I had no address or phone listing for Edith Ohls, thought I should probably get ahold of her number and give her a call, let her know I was going to be in the area, ask if we could get together for some family chat. That ought to make her day. Then I thought about calling Steve again, let him know the turn things had taken. He'd love that. No, really, he would. Sometimes I think I provide him with endless amusement, which I suppose is the least that should come of my madcap existence.
I scanned the area for a phone, spied one back in the store we'd come through, presently being used by a middle-aged woman in a worn, puffy coat, husband hovering nearby. "Col," I said, "I have to go use the pay phone as soon as it's free. Do you want to come or do you want to stay here?"
"What about our food?"
"If the waitress stops by, tell her I'll be right back. Unless you want to come with me."
The woman hung up the phone and stood fiddling with her shoulder bag, husband looking around impatiently. "Okay," I said, getting up, "if you need me, I'll be right in there." I pointed into retail-world, Colin's eyes followed my finger to the phone, a clear line of sight. Clear enough that I'd be able to keep an eye on him while I bothered people long-distance. "All right?"
"Will you be a long time?" The question had a plaintive quality.
"Probably not. You sure you don't want to come?" He thought about that for a millisecond before shaking his head in the negative. Those two brown eyes looked uncertainly around the large space full of noise and people until they came upon a pair of good old boys entering from the store, one tall with long sandy-colored hair and a moustache, the other shorter, with a midriff so sizeable it preceded him into the room. "So," I said, "if the waitress comes back for our order, tell her where I am, say I'll just be a minute."
"Okay." His attention remained on the two men, now looking around for a table, I let it go at that. On my way into the other room, I looked back at my boy and found him watching me. I waved. He watched, then his eyes flickered away, looking uneasily around the room.
When I reached the phone, the couple stood having an exchange, the woman worried about something, the husband answering her impatiently. "Excuse me," I said, moving around them. They looked at me, both wearing thick glasses that magnified their eyes, rendering her expression startled, his slightly hostile. As I edged by, I smelled a faint, tangy odor of perfume from her -- something distinctly, unsubtly floral -- in counterpoint to his aroma of cigars. When I picked up the phone, they moved off, the woman still sounding worried, the husband saying, "Jesus, come on -- Maggie's okay, stop worrying about it."
Maggie. A daughter, a sister, a cat or dog? Could be any of those. Could be Maggie the Counting Horse, experiencing trouble with higher math. None of my business, really. I grabbed the phone, trying to figure out what hoops I'd need to hurl myself through to get Edith Ohls' number. A scant two or three minutes later, I'd gotten a listing for an E. Ohls, Cedar Street, Oberlin.
On punching in the number, the phone rang for quite a while. It's a lonely sound, that. I pictured a phone on a table in an empty room in an empty home, maybe one light on somewhere to ward off housebreakers, the bell sounding through the space with hollow resonance.
On ring number 9, someone picked up, had trouble holding on to the receiver, recovered with some clatter. "Hello," a voice said. Elderly, slightly breathless.
"Is this Mrs. Ohls?"
"It is, yes. And who am I speaking with?"
"This is Dennis Marlowe."
"Oh. Oh, well, of course it is."
"Why do you say that?" Wondering if she meant she'd been expecting me to call or she was a psychic terror, or what.
"Your voice sounds like your father's. Not exact, but similar."
Not what I expected, and somewhere inside I felt a startled ping! Just a brief registering of surprise down in my viscera. "Is that right?" I said, stammering slightly. "No one's ever told me that before."
"Oh, yes, the resemblance is quite distinct. The same kind of pitch and timbre." Timbre? Er, no idea what to say to that, so I made a polite, noncommittal sound. "And," she continued, "I thought it might be possible I would hear from you."
"Your package kicked up some dust."
"I'm not surprised."
I'd been hearing something on the line, an odd, quiet clicking sound. I covered my free ear to hear it more clearly, trying to figure out what it might be. "I'm sorry," I said, "do you hear that noise? Kind of a funny clicking."
"Oh, that's me. I'm afraid my hands shake sometimes, especially in the evening when I'm tired. Must be my ring hitting against the phone."
Oh, that's right. She's elderly, she'd recently suffered a bereavement, she could be infirm. She must have adjusted her grip -- the noise ceased. "Well," I said, cutting to the chase, "the reason I'm calling out of the blue like this is because I'm going to be in Oberlin soon."
"Are you? Isn't that interesting. When?"
"Tomorrow, I think."
"That is soon, isn't it?"
"Sooner than I'd ever expected, yes. I wondered if you'd be willing to talk to me."
"About your father?"
"Yes. Assuming, you know, that it wouldn't get in the way of anything else you have to do."
"Oh, schedule won't be a problem. I've cut down on activities since Bernie's passing. That will change with family coming in for Thanksgiving next week, but right now your timing should be fine."
I noticed the waitress had arrived at our booth and stood talking with Colin. They seemed to be having a fine time, neither of them looking around for me. Dennis Marlowe, extraneous parent.
"Where will you be staying?" Mrs. Ohls asked, bringing me back to the conversation.
"I'm not sure. I guess we'll find out when we get there."
"Is there more than one of you coming?"
"Yes, my son is with me."
"I see. It will be nice to meet him." I made another polite sound. "So. When you get to Oberlin, go right to the center of town. You'll find everything arranged around the Park. The Oberlin Inn is across the street there on the east side. And there's a bed and breakfast nearby, too. Call me after you've gotten settled and we'll see about getting together."
I said I looked forward to meeting her, we made good-bye noises then hung up. I stood holding the receiver, pondering a call to Steve. The waitress had disappeared and Colin sat by himself, taking ice cubes from his glass of water and sliding them back and forth between his hands on the tabletop.
A fast shout to Steven suddenly felt like the right thing to do, I found my fingers punching in what I hoped was his number.
Three rings, then an answering machine. Steve's short greeting did its thing ("Yo, leave a message"), giving way to a tone, then silence -- my cue. "Steve," I said, "it's me. Believe it or not, I have Colin. Long story, I'll fill you in when we get back. Which we won't be doing immediately. The deal in Massapequa got a little messy, so we're laying low for a couple of days instead of heading right back to Cambridge, where certain individuals might come looking for us. And when I say laying low, I mean we are, er, driving to Ohio. There's a woman in Oberlin who knew my father, I'm going there to speak with her." I stopped, started up again. "Anyway, we're all right. I'll fill you in on everything another time. See you soon, I hope." I hung the phone up, stared it for a moment, thinking. Then gathered myself, headed back to the booth.
"Hey," I said, sliding into my seat. A steaming mug of what I hoped was decaf waited on my paper placemat, my hands immediately wrapped themselves around it. A glass of milk had materialized near Colin's water glass. Himself continued to shoot an ice cube back and forth, hand to hand. "Are you playing with your food there, young man?"
"This isn't food. It's ice."
"So," says I, "I saw you talking to the waitress."
"Uh-huh. Why are they called waitresses?"
"When you serve people food at a restaurant, it's called waiting on tables."
"I thought when you wait you're standing around waiting for someone, like me when you show up late at Mom's to get me for the weekend."
"Ah-ha. Well, in a restaurant we sit and wait for our food."
"So how come we're not waiters then?" He cracked himself up with that one, cackling wildly. I watched, enjoying the show.
After the hilarity tailed off and he began to resemble a normal human being again, I asked, "What happened with our food-bringing-type-person?"
"She wanted to know what we wanted to eat."
"What did you tell her?"
"I said we wanted hamburgers." Not what I'd asked him to tell her, but easy enough to fix, I hoped. Colin now appeared to be drawing on the table top with what remained of the ice cube, leaving swirls of moisture, like complex slug trails.
"Do me a favor, Col -- dab that water up with your napkin, okay? I'm going to go speak to the waitress."
After I'd found her and changed our order to include a different entree for me and vegetables for both of us, I returned to the booth. Colin had cleaned up the water, reducing our napkins to wet balls of pulp. He was watching the head of the person sitting behind me, a mostly hairless affair whose salt and pepper fringe spread out from the scalp in unruly fashion, bobbing around as the man talked with hand-waving animation about a new truck. When I sat down I obscured the view, Colin tried to look around me.
"Try not to stare too obviously," I said. "Okay?"
"Okay," he said, leaning to the side to get one last glimpse.
"I spoke with someone we're probably going to see tomorrow."
"Uh-huh." Under the table, his feet gently kicked against my knees.
"Remember I told you at lunch about the woman who sent me the box of my father's stuff?"
"Yeah." His eyes returned to me, a spark of curiosity visible in them.
"We're going to visit her when we get to Oberlin."
"Probably. Is that okay?"
"I don't know." His head had sunk down on his chest so that he appeared to be looking under the table at his feet kicking my knees, which had gotten more spirited.
"Stop with the kicking, would you please?" The foot action ended. "That's who I just spoke with on the phone. She sounded nice."
"When are we gonna get to Oberlin?"
I lifted the decaf to my lips, sipped from it. Bleah. Paint stripper masquerading as coffee. Still, I thought, taking another sip, it's hot, and God knows it's got tang to burn. After it passed through my mouth, my tongue felt like it had grown fur.
Colin waited until I'd finished shuddering, then asked, "Dad?"
I reached for water and took a drag to clear the taste of radioactive waste from my palate. "What's up, buddy?"
"When are we going home?"
I looked at him for a moment and saw the unhappiness in his face. "I'm not sure," I said. "Soon, probably."
"What's 'soon' mean?"
"A few days, most likely."
"I want to go home now." He spoke quietly, not complaining as much as giving me a small glimpse of how bad life felt to him right then.
I reached out and took his hands in mine -- damp, passive, unresisting. "I know. You shouldn't have to be going through any of this fight and flight stuff."
"What's 'fight and flight' mean?" he asked, voice subdued.
"It's what your Mom and I have been doing. It's kind of a sickness that's happened between us." He let me hold on to his hands, but his eyes avoided mine. He doesn't need more words, Dennis, I chastened myself. He needs stability. I'm good at spewing words, though. Isn't that what grown-ups do? Or is it what unhappy children masquerading as grown-ups do? Whoops, don't go there.
"So when," he said, "are we going home?" The question came with a whiney edge, but that's because he was actually making a bit of a plea and it came out sideways.
"As soon as we can," I said, cringing inwardly at my answer. Exactly the kind of vague, unhelpful parental horseshit I loathed when I heard other people inflicting it on their kids, and here it was coming from me. Kind of a capsule definition of parenthood right there.
The waitress appeared bearing plates of vittles whose smell triggered sudden, torrential salivation. Colin pulled his hands away from mine, the food landed in front of us, looking like decent roadhouse fare. The waitress asked a desultory "CanIgetyouanythingelse?" and took off at my negative head twitch. I stabbed my fork into meatloaf, faint wisps of steam still rising from it, and ushered a good-sized portion into my mouth, where it burst into the fullness of tender, nicely-seasoned flavor. My mouth almost hung open in response, but I marshaled jaw action and got chewing, eyes closed for a second in gratitude for simple gifts.
Conversation stopped for a while as we shoveled food at a serious clip, thinking our thoughts (or not). I'd cleared my plate and was scraping away at the enamel for any remaining microns of edible matter when the waitress returned. "Anything for dessert?" she asked, sliding the dish out from under my sadly-flailing fork.
"What have you got?"
She reeled off various cakes, pies, ice creams. I managed to keep myself from saying yes to everything, ordered chocolate chip ice cream for Colin, cherry pie a la mode for myself.
An interesting factoid: before meeting Sheila, stress reduced my appetite. These days, the greater the trauma, the more voracious I become. Good way to get a start on middle-age spread.
I leaned back against my seat to recover and watched Colin still plugging away at his burger and fries. His mini-salad sat to the side, sad and neglected. "Eat some of those greens before you dig into dessert, okay?" He looked over at them as if trying to will them to disappear. "I mean it, Colin. I want you to get more nourishment than burgers and pizza." No comment from Himself, but he picked up a fork and transported a shard of iceberg from bowl to mouth.
"There's veg'able in hamburger," he said as he chewed.
My son the surrealist. "Col, I love you, but there's no vegetable in hamburgers. A cow shuffled off this mortal clownshow so you could have that burger."
"I know, but inside, under the bun there's other things."
"Ketchup is not a vegetable, no matter what Ronald Reagan said." It occurred to me he probably had no idea who Ronald Reagan was, I found myself feeling older and more decrepit by the minute.
"No, there's this in here. Lettuce." He pulled the top half of the bun off what remained of the burger and nudged the ingredients around in wishful research mode. "And onion."
"You need," I said as kindly as I could, "more than the microscopic traces they put in there. In fact, I think we need to pick up a bottle of vitamins somewhere." He looked at me, face expressing nothing apart from utilitarian eating movement. "That's for both of us." No comment. Not impressed. He returned to his main course, then made another half-hearted stab at the salad.
And right then I started getting a glimmer of how much I had to think about, how much I had to learn.
Here is what I began to absorb: there seems to be an inverse relationship between what I tell my son and how much I actually know. In other words, when I spew advice, orders and "knowledge" at him, what I am actually doing is giving myself an opportunity to discover how ignorant I truly am beneath all the verbal frufru. And while I normally might not be eager to open myself up to this kind of potentially humbling awareness, my life at this time had dragged me to a place where something had to give.
I don't know how many moments I sat there in uneasy reflection, but at some point I realized that Colin was looking at me, worry creasing his small features. "Dad," he ventured tentatively, "what's the matter?"
"Nothing." I swallowed and shifted in my seat. "I'm fine. Just thinking."
Colin resumed activity, inserting the last bit of burger 'n' bun into his mouth, then picking up his last two lonely french fries and swabbing them in a pool of ketchup he'd grown at one end of his plate. The salad sat by his elbow, neglected but hopeful.
"I'd really appreciate it if you would eat some of that salad, Col. Please."
He dispatched the fries, picked up his fork and started in on the salad. He'd gotten about halfway through that, complaining only once, when the desserts arrived. After that, greens were a lost cause.
In the time it took to hoover down my pie and consider ordering more, Colin absorbed about half of his ice cream then played with the rest, turning it into mush, exactly the kind of thing I like to do. Eventually, the waitress stopped by, I handed over some cash, we got out of there.
Even with my coat done up, the cold air practically took my breath away. I herded Colin along to the car, we got the doors open and fell inside.
"Turn on the heat," he said. Statements like that come out of my boy's mouth as a hybrid plea/command/complaint. An impressive technique he copped from his mother and perfected at an excessively early age. In a case like this, with so many different tones of voice packed into those four little words, it skips right past most of my processing centers, I pretty much automatically obey. It's only afterward that I stop and think Wait a minute.... Then it's too late.
We got back out onto the local road and pulled in at a motel, a national chain. Wouldn't be cheap, I knew, but also not too exorbitant. "How does this place look to you?" I asked my passenger in a show of democracy.
"Okay. Will it have a TV?"
He looked satisfied, we parked and registered. A cordial middle-aged gnome checked us in, wearing an outfit that she might have gotten from a Catholic girls school. Within minutes, we entered a neat, generic room fitted out with beds, lamps, nighttables, cable TV.
Colin shrugged off his jacket and disappeared into the bathroom. A moment later he said, "Dad, I can't find the light switch."
"That's because," I said, recognizing the same set-up as in my Massapequa motel hideout, "it's not in there." He leaned out of the room and looked around, confused, then followed my pointing finger with his gaze and found the switch next to the doorway. (Probably designed so that it would be easy to turn the lights off on a loved one planted on the toilet.) He flicked it on and disappeared.
I hung our jackets in the alcove outside the bathroom, put my bag on the floor beneath them. According to the small clock radio on the night table between the beds, it was 8:14. Too early to go to sleep, even after a day of big activity and mileage. I grabbed the remote and got the TV going, parking myself on the end of the bed as I tried to find something worth watching. When Colin emerged from the bog, I'd stumbled across Bogart, Bacall and Walter Brennan in "To Have and Have Not." Himself sat down next to me.
"Who's that?" he asked, eyes fixed on the screen as Walter Brennan did his "was you ever stung by a dead bee?" bit.
"Why's he talk like that?"
"'Cause that's the way his character talks."
"He walks funny, too."
No argument there. Conversation lapsed as we watched the story. After a moment, Colin climbed up into my lap, I put my arms around him. Minutes later, he drifted off to sleep. As gently as I could manage, I pulled the covers back and lay him down, head on pillow, drawing the blanket up over him, tucking it beneath his chin. He slept on, undisturbed by that, undisturbed by the drama Bogart and Bacall found unfolding around them, undisturbed for the moment by the sweeping turns his life had taken. I lay down next to him, before the film had finished I'd drifted off to sleep, too.
© 2002, 2009 by runswithscissors