From GONE, a novel
Thursday, November 18, 1993
Chapter 9 (in process -- incomplete)
We arrived in Oberlin the next afternoon around 12:30, exiting a four-lane highway onto a two-lane that gave out onto local roads. Thin sunlight shone through high clouds as we drove into town; faint, slanting shadows from telephone poles and bare trees flickered across the windshield.
Faded green lawns. Houses, some older and gracious, some suburban, nondescript. Yards mostly raked clean, with leaves clustered under bushes and shrubbery. Some apartment buildings.
A small Ohio town.
We knew we'd reached Oberlin center when the park appeared ahead to our left, the kind of oversized town square that would be called a common back in Massachusetts -- a few acres of grass, tall old trees, memorial statues, complete with gazebo/bandstand. Nice. Quaint.
Instead of turning left where Edith Ohls said the Inn would be, we continued on ahead and did a circuit around the park, past grand old buildings and large new ones, all apparently part of the college, past stores on the south side, finally arriving at the Inn. The Swift found its way into the small front parking lot and into a space. "We're here," I said, killing the engine.
"Thank God," said my boy, sounding like one whose patience with life had grown prematurely thin. I looked back at him, saw a face wreathed with lines of unhappiness.
We'd gotten up and out in time to have a truck-stop breakfast at exactly the hour everyone else wanted to eat. Colin quickly burned out on peoplewatching -- by the time our food materialized he'd become cranky and taciturn.
On the way back to the car I considered calling Steve again or trying my place to see who picked up, but Colin's mood had remained dark enough that hitting the road seemed like a better idea. Oberlin would have telephones, Colin might be happier by that time. I could call then.
Before long we'd crossed from Pennsylvania into Ohio, where highway signs bore names like Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland. I played with the radio for a while, finding nothing of interest until a weather announcer started talking about the lake effect and possible flurries.
"What's the lake ‘feck?" Colin asked.
"I think it means they get more snow and rain than they would otherwise because of all the moisture that comes off the lake."
"What lake?" he said, looking around, sounding genuinely puzzled.
That stopped me. Lake Huron? Lake Ontario? Shit. There are five Great Lakes, right? Or is that the finger lakes? "Ehh, er, ahm," I hemmed, "I'm not sure. The lake. Lake Erie maybe." We'd just made it through Pennsylvania, I was pretty sure we'd passed highway signs mentioning Erie, Pennsylvania.
This is why I'd be roadkill on a game show. Ask me a question like Colin's when you actually want the answer, my faculties seize up, squeezing out the informational equivalent of pocket lint and sawdust. But try to get me to quiet down when you'd like some blessed peace, that's when the useless information gushes forth.
Oddly enough, snow began falling lightly right then, descending in sparse swirls, swept before a breeze. "Is that the lake ‘feck?" Colin asked.
"Could be," I answered, masterfully vague.
"But it did this yesterday. Were we near a lake then?"
"Well, we were in the mountains yesterday. The air's colder when you're up in elevation."
"Is the air colder near the lake?"
"Maybe. Lots of moisture, lots of wind. And it's further north."
"Uh-huh." He stared out at the late autumn display, having gotten nothing of substance from me, his attention drifting somewhere internal and sad.
"Hey," I said gently, "what's going on, buddy?"
"Yeah." He showed no annoyance at my questions, also showed no pleasure or appreciation. Didn't show much of anything. How the hell do I get on the short list for Father of the Year when I'm half the reason my son's life is in a sinkhole?
We drove in silence after that, getting off the interstate southwest of Cleveland to head south. Sunlight broke through clouds, the sky showing patches of pale blue as the flurries tailed off.
After climbing out of the car in Oberlin, we stood for a moment, me scoping out the environs. A breeze blew, cold and disrespectful, riffling hair, making Colin fidget.
"Let's go, Dad," he mumbled.
I put a hand to his back and gently drew him along with me, moving toward the Inn's entranceway. "Let's go," I agreed. The warm air inside enveloped us comfortably, the woman working the front desk -- Melissa, according to her nametag -- devoted smiling attention to Colin as we checked in, which he enjoyed shyly. During the process, I discovered we'd be paying a paltry $50 a night for a room -- a BAH-gen, as they might say in Cambridge. Melissa, a hefty, mid-height, 20-something bruiser with a nice smile, said we looked tired, and booked us into a room on the third floor where we would supposedly be the sole tenants. The third floor turned out to be the top floor. Three whole floors -- the big city.
The elevator deposited us into a dogleg at the end of a corridor. We turned the corner to find doors ranged along the left and an array of other things to our near right -- brightly-lit vending machines, an ice machine, a drinking fountain, a closet or two. We found our room across from the soda machine. In better times, Colin would have spotted our proximity to sugar dispensers and immediately started softening me up for the score. This day he just waited as I got the door open and preceded me in, disappearing into the bathroom where the light went on, the door swung shut.
Though the room's set-up was essentially identical to that of my recent Massapequa hideout, this looked and felt more user-friendly, the furnishings a rung up in quality and aesthetics, the framed prints on the walls almost looking like real art instead of mass-produced pap. I liked it. The sole window hugged one corner of the room, a single vertical pane that looked out on a loading dock for the Inn's restaurant, a parking lot and a large building next door whose adventurous design suggested something cultural. A few bare, spindly young trees sprouted from islands that separated the parking lot's aisles. The sunlight seemed to be fading, gray sky gradually taking over.
I grabbed my bag, dumped it on one of the beds, opened it, pulled out the envelope with the photo. Same as in Massapequa, I set the picture up on the dresser near the TV.
The toilet flushed, the bathroom door opened. Colin emerged, walked to the nearest bed and sat on its end, bouncing a little.
"What are we going to do now?" he asked.
"Are you hungry?"
"No." Hmm. I wondered if that should concern me.
His eyes settled on the photograph. "Who are those people?" he asked.
"This," I said, picking up the photo and settling down on the bed next to Himself, "is my parents."
"That's your mom and dad?"
"Uh-huh. What do you think?"
A moment of silence. He took one pointy corner of the pic gently between a thumb and index finger, looked up at me, then back down at the two figures. "They look younger than you."
Swell. "When that picture was taken, they probably were a little younger than I am now." His eyes remained on the photo, his hand moving from the border to drift slowly over the image, the point of his index finger passing right over my mother and father. "This is one of the things that Mrs. Ohls sent me."
"The lady who lives here?"
"Yes. In fact, I should call her, see if she can talk with us today." Colin's attention seemed to have settled on my mother, his finger softly tracing her outline. "That be all right with you?"
He looked up at me for a second, then back down at the pic, swinging his legs so his heels bounced off the side of the bed. "Okay," he said.
"She knew my father," I said, leaning gently against him. "She might be able to tell us all sorts of things. You might hear some good stories." He looked up at me again, let some of his weight settle against me in a subtle yielding. I don't know if he believed me re: Edith Ohls' entertainment value or if the photo had had a softening effect on him or if he'd simply resigned himself to the visit, but I was grateful for a moment of reconnection. It occurred to me that Sheila might be feeling the loss of that connection, and for a moment I experienced a sudden unhappiness at what I'd done. With an effort, I cleared that from my thoughts and sat with my boy, pondering what to do next.
The Inn, I figured, would probably tack on extra charges to any external calls I made on the room phone, even a local one to Edith Ohls. On the other hand, though a pay phone would cost a mere 35 cents, that would mean either forcing Colin to come with me or leaving him alone, neither of which I wanted to do right then. I decided to use the room phone and see what happened.
"Want to see what's on TV for a few minutes?" I asked him, receiving an immediate affirmative nod in response. I got up, returned the photo to the dresser, turned on the tube, handed him the remote. He immediately started surfing. Only four and already such a guy.
I adjusted the idiot box volume to something less eardrum-rending, then rooted around in night-table drawers till I came across a compact local phone book. Edith Ohls' name sat atop a column of handles in the O's. Following the directions on the phone, I managed to access an outside line and dial her number. Ringing. More ringing. Then she picked up.
"Mrs. Ohls? This is Dennis Marlowe."
"Oh, hello there." Her voice sounded stronger than it had the previous evening. "Are you in Oberlin?"
"Yes, we just checked into the Inn."
"How do you like it?"
"So far so good. Looks like a nice town."
"It is. It's a comfortable place to live."
"So," I said, getting down to biz, "would you mind if we came by and bothered you for a while this afternoon? Do you have free time?"
"Oh, yes," she replied with a soft, dry laugh. "Lots of free time. At least until next week, as I mentioned." Thanksgiving -- a week away and approaching fast. For the first time since I'd started this debacle the question of where I'd be for the holidays slithered through my thoughts. Where indeed -- at home? In hiding? In a holding cell somewhere? (Gee, there's a concept.)
She gave me directions, indicating it would be a short trip from the Inn, then asked if we'd had lunch.
I watched Colin, perched on the end of the bed in front of Sesame Street, watching Ernie irritate Bert. "Not yet. I thought we'd find a diner or something."
"Why don't you join me -- I was going to sit down and have some soup and crackers."
"You sure we wouldn't be imposing?"
"Not at all. The company would be nice."
"Well, thanks. We might take you up on that."
"Good. I'll see you soon then."
We rang off and I stood up, my eyes on my boy, my thoughts scattered.
"Col," I ventured, rejoining him on the end of the bed, "Mrs. Ohls said we could have lunch with her if we wanted. Soup and crackers. How does that sound to you?"
Colin's eyes remained glued on the tube for a moment, then swung to me. "Okay."
I put an arm around him. "We'll get going in a little while then." He nodded, his attention returning to Sesame Street. We watched together, learning about the letters C and M until the phone rang. I stared at the thing uneasily, wondering who could be calling. Colin didn't seem to notice the intrusion, his attention having been absorbed by a song about the number 9. I picked up the receiver on the fourth ring, saying a cautious "Hello?"
"Mr. Marlowe?" Edith Ohls again.
"Yes, hi. Dennis. Please call me Dennis."
"Dennis. I forgot to mention that someone called here for you last night, a person from the Cambridge Police."
"The police?" I said stupidly.
"Yes, an Officer Anderson."
"The police called you looking for me?"
"That's right, a short time after we spoke." I paused, trying ineffectually to figure how that could be and what it might mean. "Is everything all right?" Mrs. Ohls ventured.
"Yes, sorry, I'm just trying to figure out how they even knew I'm in Oberlin. Did he say what he wanted?"
"No, he just asked if you were here. I told him I was expecting to see you today."
"Did he want me to call him back?"
"He did, yes."
"Was it urgent? How did he sound?"
"Well, he sounded serious, but he didn't say anything about an emergency."
"They almost always sound serious, though, don't they?" Right, she'd been married to a cop. "Anyway, I just remembered and wanted to let you know. Will you still be stopping by?"
"Yeah," I said, trying to collect myself. "Yes, as soon as we can get ourselves going."
"I'll see you when you get here then. Let me know if there's a problem." We hung up a second time. I sat for a moment, my thoughts not coming together. On the TV, the cranky character that lives in a garbage can spoke with a pretty young woman about something that had him feeling mighty aggravated.
Colin looked around at me, a question in his glance. I met his gaze, producing what I hoped was a carefree, "Hey."
"You said 'the police.'"
How am I supposed to conduct my life when my son is always listening in? I straightened, taking a breath. "Someone from the Cambridge Police called Mrs. Ohls last night looking for me. I spoke to them when I found out you were gone, they probably want to know what happened."
No response. He looked at me, then down at the bed where he saw something that could be picked at and concentrated there, working at it with the nail of an index finger.
"Col, it's probably nothing. They're probably just following up on the missing persons report I made about you. They told me they'd be calling every day for a while -- Boo or Steve must have been at the apartment when they called last night and let them know we were here." Made sense to me. They'd call at night about something like a parental abduction if they couldn't get ahold of me during the day, right? Colin concentrated on the bedspread, lips parted slightly, expression as neutral as he could manage. Another song started up in the background, sung by a crowd of fuzzy, brightly-colored mutant puppet things.
"I'll call them later," I continued. "Right now I need to clean myself up so we can get out of here." Colin's eyes rose to meet mine before dropping back to the bedspread. "Okay?" I asked.
He said a quiet, "Okay," then turned back to the growing musical frenzy. I thought about the people who worked the puppets, about how different their lives must be from mine. They probably weren't dodging the gendarmes, though you never know.
When we finally left the room, the clock radio read 1:46. I searched myself for the directions on the way out, found them in a pants pocket before pulling the door shut behind me. Colin walked toward the elevator, the light from the vending machines casting a television-like glow. As I followed, I searched further in pocket. My hand encountered the rabbit's foot and closed around it, fur soft against my skin, until the elevator arrived.
If anything, the day outside had become more raw, the November sky more solidly gray.
"I'm freezing," Colin said.
"We just got out here."
I'd been thinking about walking the few blocks to Edith Ohls' place, but decided making Colin more miserable wouldn't be worth whatever small gain I'd get from a hike in bracing air. We were quickly into the car with the engine on, me fiddling with the heater controls.
About two minutes later, we turned from West College Street onto Cedar, heading toward Edith Ohls' residence. As we reached the intersection before her block, I slowed and surveyed the sitch. A few cars sat parked along that length of the avenue -- on impulse, I stopped and backed up to park by a long, car-free length of curb on the previous block. We got out and made our way ahead, following the house numbers until we found ourselves in front of 78, a neat, nicely-kept black and white affair near the end of the street. Less than half a block in from the terminating cross-street, which gave off onto green land -- grass, trees, and a stone tower of some sort, a big one. I checked it out, trying to figure what it was for, what it might be doing there. Connected with the town's water maybe, filtration or pumping? Or some eccentric, monied anglophile's medieval fantasy? Life is swimming with mysteries.
We made our way to the front stoop of no. 78 where I let Colin press the doorbell, resulting in a faint bing-bong. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, the door opened inward, revealing a slim elderly woman of medium height, in neat brown slacks, a tan blouse and bowling shoes. Faded blue eyes regarded us through wire-framed glasses.
"Mrs. Ohls?" I said, my breath turning to mist as I spoke.
"Yes," she said, opening the storm door. "Please call me Edith. You must be Dennis and...."
"Colin," I supplied.
"Colin." She studied him, smiling. "You look cold. Why don't you come in." We entered, Mrs. Ohls backing away to allow us passage.
We found ourselves in a narrow foyer, a small, nicely appointed dining room off to the left, what looked like a living room to our right, stairs ahead leading up to a second floor landing. Dark wood flooring showed around old oriental-type rugs. Food odors emanated from somewhere, along with a faint stink of long-dead cigars and unidentifiable aromas I associate with old age.
"Can I take your coat?" Mrs. Ohls said to Colin. He slipped it off, she hung it on a wall rack to the rear of the foyer where it joined a couple of larger coats.
As she did that, standing with one heel slightly raised from the rug, I noticed her bowling shoes were two-tones, the outside half of each one red, the inside green. The rear end of each bore a big white 6. Then I noticed a couple of group photos up on the wall, framed. Taken in a bowling alley, looked like. Hmm.
"So," I said, pulling my coat off, "you're sure we're not intruding?"
"Oh, not at all, no. It's nice to have company right now, especially younger folk."
"She means you," I said to Colin, hanging my coat up.
"I meant both of you," she said.
Colin looked from her to me to her. "Dad's not younger folk," he said. What a guy.
"It probably doesn't seem that way to you. He's still a young man, though." Colin glanced at me doubtfully. I tried to appear youthful and vigorous. Didn't look like he was buying it.
I stole a glance into the dining room where bay windows let in gray light. Three place settings had been laid out on a dark wood dining table. To the rear of the space a door led to another room, the kitchen apparently. I heard someone moving around back there, noises of food prep. My nostrils picked up the rich aroma of soup.
Mrs. Ohls noticed me noticing and addressed Colin, who looked a little lost and uncomfortable. "Are you hungry?" A tentative nod from him. "Why don't you make yourselves comfortable in here," she said, leading us into the living room. "I'll see if the food is ready."
I bleated a polite thank-you, she wafted off, leaving us to check the place out. And the living room itself was fine, nice, comfy. Kind of New-Englandy, with tall double-hung windows looking out on gray afternoon and bare trees, more hardwood floor peeking around an oriental-style rug that showed its age gracefully. And mementos. The space fairly frothed over with mementos, put just about everywhere a place could be found for them -- framed photos on the walls, on the many shelves, on side tables. Citations interspersed among the photos on the walls. And trophies. Bowling trophies, a bunch of them, some modest, some extravagant, some small, some tall, all topped by a little metal guy caught in mid-bowl. And a bowling clock, also featuring a man in mid-bowl, in plastic bas-reliefed full-body profile, his arm swinging back and forth as the pendulum.
Colin stood by a small table, looking through the various photos arranged there. I joined him. In each picture, a younger Edith Ohls smiled at the camera in the company of an older man -- pleasant-looking, an inch or two taller than her, torso not slim, not heavy, thinning white hair, bushy white eyebrows, the skin on his face beginning to sag and pouch -- and other supporting characters. One or two at weddings, one or two at bowling fiestas of some sort, always in the company of the older guy.
Colin looked around as if not understanding how this room had materialized around him. I rested a hand on one of his small shoulders, he glanced back at me before looking quickly away to stare at the environs.
As I stood there by my boy, my free hand delved into my pocket, finding the rabbit's foot. "Hey," I said, pulling it from my pocket, keys and all, "see this?" Colin looked around. "This is something else Edith sent me." I held it out to him, he looked at it.
"What is it?"
"It's a rabbit's foot."
He stared at it, then at me. "What's it for?"
"Some people think they bring good luck." A squint up at me from Himself at that, with no comment. He extended a finger to touch the charm, then stroked it a single cautious time.
"They used to dye them colors like this, I think."
A shrug from me. "Good question. A silly marketing thing, probably. Maybe someone thought the natural color wouldn't be eye-catching enough."
"What are those keys for?"
"Another good question."
Edith Ohls appeared to our rear, opening a door that led to the kitchen, the glow of fluorescent lighting visible behind her.
"I recognize that rabbit's foot," she said.
"We were just wondering what the keys went to." She stepped closer, I handed her the ring.
"These," she said, indicating the two standard-shaped keys, "might have been the door keys to Philip's last apartment. This one," she continued, separating out the flat key, "well.... I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it went with a safe deposit box."
I stared at the flat, squared-off piece. "A safe deposit box?"
"Could be," she said, handing the ring back. "Looks like that kind of key."
"But where? L.A. somewhere?"
She appraised me with a small, kind smile. "It's possible. I couldn't say for sure."
"I know. Sorry, I'm just wondering aloud."
"I'd be doing the same if I were in your position." She noticed my boy looking adrift. "How are you doing?" she asked him. "Are you still hungry?" An affirmative nod in response. "Well then, we can eat if you'd like," she said, moving toward the door from which she'd come.
Colin immediately sailed off after her. I followed, ending up in a large, clean room several times the size of my kitchen, walls sporting numerous further photos from a long, happy marriage. A pretty blonde woman near my age put a cover into place on a tureen containing what I assumed to be our lunch.
"I hope you like split pea soup," she said to Colin. He looked at her, uncertain how to answer yet another stranger.
"This is my niece," Edith Ohls said to me, "Emily. She's been helping me out these last few weeks." We exchanged hellos. Nice smile. Nice wedding band. "This is Dennis," Edith continued, "and that's Colin."
"You've come a long way for lunch," Emily said. "From New York?"
"A long way," I agreed, skipping the details. Colin fidgeted. Edith moved into the dining room, turning on the overhead light and closing the curtains, sheer white jobbies that let in gray light while providing some privacy. Emily hefted the tureen and followed, going to the table to deposit her load where it looked like a white ceramic centerpiece. Colin and I trailed after.
"Are you sure you don't want to join us?" Edith asked her niece.
"Nope, thanks. I've got things to do. I'll stop by again this evening." She moved into the hallway to pull her coat from the rack. "Nice to meet you," she said to Colin, giving him a friendly smile. He said a quiet "'Bye" in response. "Nice to meet you, too," she said to me.
"Likewise," I said.
She zipped up, calling a last "'Bye," and exited via the front door. Edith moved to the side of the table opposite Colin and me, gesturing to the place settings in front of us. "Why don't you sit," she said. I put a hand on Colin's back, gently moving him toward the seat across from Edith. When he'd pulled the chair out and arranged himself in it, I sat next to him, picking up a napkin, spreading it over my lap. Colin saw that and picked up his, pushing one corner of it inside his collar.
Once we were settled, Edith asked for Colin's bowl, he picked it up and extended it toward her. She took it, and while she ladled soup I glanced around. A wicker basket next to the tureen held warm rolls, wrapped in a large white linen napkin. A butter dish waited nearby.
Three or four photos were arrayed around the room, nicely framed and hung, these featuring Edith and the now familiar male, along with two children. Dishes and crystal could be seen through the doors of a china cabinet, along with a scattering of ceramic figures. No trophies anywhere. An austere space compared to the other two rooms.
I realized Edith was waiting for me to hand over my bowl, which I did. When she'd filled it and then her own, she took a roll from the basket and broke it open. Its odor got my saliva oozing and I grabbed a roll of my own, making myself pull it open and spread butter on it slowly, like a sane, well-mannered human, before cramming it into my mouth. Colin followed my example.
"How is everything?" Edith asked. I made happy noises and gestures around a mouthful of split-pea bliss. She watched Colin for a moment, wearing a half-smile, her eyes soft, then dipped her spoon into the soup and brought it to her mouth. After a quiet moment, she said to the munchkin, "How do you like traveling with your father?"
Colin looked up at her, then cut a quick glance over at me before looking down at his soup. "Okay," he said.
"Must have been a long drive."
"Pretty long," he said, dipping his spoon in and out of his soup, one leg swinging nervously.
"Is this your first time in Ohio?"
"It's his first time outside of Massachusetts," I added.
"Is that right?" she said. "And how do you like it so far?"
"I don't know."
I interceded, trying to take the onus for supplying information off Colin. "This trip was pretty much thrust upon him. He didn't come along because he wanted to."
Edith studied me for a moment. "I see," she said. Then, to Colin, "That's no fun, is it?"
Edith said a sympathetic, "Mm," then asked, "What would you rather be doing?"
Colin paused to look at his soup before answering, his spoon sliding back and forth along the rim of his bowl. "I'd rather be home."
Edith gazed at him for a moment. "It's nice to be able to go home, isn't it?" she said. Colin nodded, dipping his spoon into soup. "When you think of home, what do you think of?"
Colin looked down at his bowl for a moment, making a soft popping sound with his lips, finally saying, "Watching TV with Dad."
"Do you do that a lot?"
A shrug. "Sometimes."
"Does he let you use the remote?"
He looked up at her, surprised, then nodded. "Does your father ever read to you?" Another nod. "What books do you like?"
He pondered for a moment, moving his spoon around in the soup like a motorboat, then said, "I like the Zebra family. And I like 'Elmo Goes to France.'" Elmo, the Canadian moose.
"I like that one, too. Elmo finds Knobby and takes him home, right?"
"Uh-huh." He appraised her with more interest, starting to forget his shyness. Knobby: a long-lost nephew of Elmo's. Elmo discovers Knobby's being kept in a French zoo and springs him, they return to Elmo's home in the extreme northern suburbs of Montreal. Happiness reigns.
"I think my grandson has all the Elmo books. Maybe his family will stop by while you're in Oberlin and you can meet him."
Colin looked as if he'd like that and said, "Okay." He let his spoon fill with soup then lifted it to his mouth where it disappeared between his lips.
"I noticed," Edith said to Colin, "you were looking at some of the photographs in the living room."
"Uh-huh." His napkin had started to come out of his collar, I reached over as unobtrusively as I could manage and tucked it in. Colin leaned back and allowed me to fuss, his feet swinging in time to some rhythm he had going inside that little head.
"I have an awful lot of photos, don't I?" A big nod in the affirmative from Himself.
"I showed Colin the photo you sent me," I said.
"The shot of your father and mother?"
"That's the one."
"So you saw the photograph of your grandparents?" she said to Colin, more of a statement than a question. He nodded once more, putting a little bit of roll into his mouth. "You see the man with me in that picture?" She pointed to a photo hung on the wall to our left, by the door to the foyer. "That man and your grandfather were best friends." Colin studied the picture of Edith and Bernie Ohls intently. "Do you know any of your grandparents?" Edith asked. Colin shook his head no, his eyes moving to meet hers.
"They all died before he was born," I supplied. Not exactly true, but close enough.
"You know what it means that the man in the photo your father showed you was your grandfather, don't you?"
"Uh-huh," said Colin. "He was my dad's daddy."
"That's right. And my husband was best friends with your dad's father."
Colin was doing pretty well with all this, but I'm not sure he got the full import of the connection Edith was trying to get across.
"Bernie must have been a bit older than you," I said to Edith.
"Yes, he was. He was the same age as Philip." Far as I could tell, that meant he was around 87 when he checked out. "And 12 years older than me."
"How come he was so much older?" Colin asked. Going by his expression, a 12-year span like that might as well have been the gap between the Pleistocene Era and the Age of Enlightenment.
"Well, I don't know. I met him when I was 19. We liked each other." She shrugged. "It just happened that way." No comment from Colin.
"In the little I've seen of my father's memoirs," I said, "he and Bernie didn't come off as buddies."
"They weren't back then. It's something that developed as they got older."
"What was my father like?" I found myself feeling oddly nervous at what she might come out with in response to that question.
"Oh," she said softly, deliberating briefly, eyes staring down at her soup, "he was a very interesting person. Touching, exasperating. Sad. Such a sad, lost man."
"Lost?" I asked, startled.
"That's how he always seemed to me. I'm sorry, is hearing that unpleasant?"
"No," I said uncertainly, "just strange."
"Do you want me to go on?"
I found her steady gaze on me, the faded blue eyes slightly magnified by her glasses. "If you want to."
She slipped a spoonful of soup into her mouth and looked toward the room's side window for a moment before speaking. "I didn't meet your father," she said, "until he and Bernie had known each other for a number of years. They dealt with each other now and then in the course of their work, but tended not to travel in the same circles apart from that.
"Bernie and I were eating dinner in a restaurant the first time I met Philip. He'd had a meal by himself and stopped by our table on his way out. I didn't see him approach, so that he seemed to materialize next to us. He said something like, 'Hey, Bernie, how's life?' He had a nice voice. Resonant. I remember looking up at him and thinking What an attractive man, at the same time getting the distinct feeling that he could be trouble."
She smiled. "Not that he was looking for trouble or seemed threatening in any way. When Bernie introduced me, Philip removed his hat and took my hand to shake it. Very well-mannered, almost chivalrous. And yet...." A pause here as she gazed at a photo that hung on the wall behind Colin, her eyebrows knit with thought. "There was an air about him. You could sense that this was not a simple person. Quite the opposite. He had an active mind -- insistently active. Which was an asset for his work. But if he didn't have something to aim it at, to distract him -- a case, a book, a game of chess -- he'd start picking away at the state of his life."
She paused to smile at Colin, who was dipping part of a roll in his soup. When the talk stopped, he looked up guiltily, then back down at his food, uncertain whether he'd committed an offense or not. I put a hand on the back of his neck and squeezed gently. He looked over at me, I smiled at him.
"Do you see much of my father in him?" I asked Edith.
"There's a little of Philip in his eyes, I think. And maybe his mouth."
Colin returned her gaze, putting a bit of roll in that mouth and chewing. I studied his profile, not sure I saw any resemblance to the old man there. Looking back at Edith, I said, "How come he never communicated with me?" I tried to make it sound casual, not freighted with feeling. It came out flat, stiff.
"I don't know. I think he kept track of where you were, and there were times when he considered contacting you. He would agonize for a while, do nothing and stop talking about it." She paused and for a moment we were quiet. Sad, restless thoughts squirmed around in my head. "Do you like the soup?" Edith finally asked Colin, whose bowl lay nearly empty.
"Mm-hm," he replied, nodding, then remembered to tack on a "thank you."
"Would you like more?"
"Yes, please." No hesitation there. Edith took his bowl and ladled it two-thirds full with soup. Colin took it carefully back, set it down, picked up what was left of his roll and tore a tiny piece from it, put that in his mouth.
"You know," Edith said softly -- I glanced over and found her addressing me -- "your father took your mother's death very hard." I didn't know what to say to that and remained silent. Colin looked from her to me, then back again. "I believe he loved her very much." Her eyes remained on me.
"So why did he leave?"
She nodded. "That's the question, isn't it?" I said nothing. She seemed to deliberate before she spoke again. "I think I'm not going to apologize for your father. He was a good man." Her eyes looked into mine, their slight magnification making them appear owlishly penetrating. "Sometime after Philip returned from Europe, he ran into Bernie. They went out for a drink. Afterwards, Bernie realized with some surprise that he'd had a good time. He also seemed a little concerned about Philip. They got together another time, then another time after that. I think it was after that that Philip joined Bernie and me for dinner for the first time. Just him, no date."
With that I realized that Edith might have known my father with other women, a thought that I think I'd shied away from before then. At that moment, a little calico cat walked into the room from the kitchen, moving lightly past Colin to pause by the end of the table where she aimed a high, lilting meow at Edith.
"Hello there," Edith said, looking down at her. Colin had already slithered out of his seat and crouched by the intruder, patting its lower back, which elevated in response.
"Colin," I said, "don't overdo it. Go easy on the kitty." No sign that he'd heard me, though he did seem to be attempting contact with more finesse than his usual mauling. And the calico seemed to appreciate the attention.
"What's her name?" Colin asked, hand still patting away.
"That's Trudy," Edith answered. "She's the queen of this chicken coop."
Colin peered up at her, trying to figure how literally she meant that, then returned his attention to the cat. "Hi, Trudy," he said softly.
"I think she likes you," Edith observed. Colin stood up, wiping his hands together, which resulted in some cat hair flying. Trudy aimed another meow at Edith, this one more plaintive. "I know," Edith said, "we're eating and you're not. It's not fair, is it?" Trudy walked a few slow steps in a half-circle, tail up in the air, looking back at Edith, then around the room as if she'd heard something none of us humans had.
Colin slowly resumed his seat, Trudy parked her rear on the rug and began licking the fur way up on her inner thighs. Way up there in the nether region. Just what I like to see when I'm trying to eat.
"How come cats wash themselves so much?" Colin asked.
"Well," said Edith, "imagine that you were covered with hair like she is. So much hair that you couldn't see your skin anywhere on your body. Do you think that might get uncomfortable?"
"I don't know," Colin answered, thinking hard.
"Do you have to wash your hair every day?"
"Uh-huh," Colin said. I thought I heard an editorial tone of complaint there at the unreasonable demands imposed by certain parental units.
"Think how often you'd have to wash if you had hair everywhere." No answer from Colin. He looked back at Trudy, who remained intently focused on groinal hygiene.
"Do you have any pets?" Edith asked Colin.
"Uh-uh," he said, shaking his head.
"That's too bad."
"Yeah," said my boy, additional editorial tone in his voice. "Dad can't have any in his apartment."
"Building regulations," I assured Edith.
"You live there by yourself?" Edith asked.
"On the days Colin's not with me, yes."
"I see." Edith noticed Colin's bowl was empty. "Would you like more soup?" she asked him.
"Yes, please." A quick flicker of the eyes in my direction to see if that was okay.
"Have as much as you want, bub." You take advantage when your progeny actually wants to eat something healthy. Outside a car drifted by, slowing for the stop sign at the end of the block. It's been a while since I lived anywhere that looked out on passing traffic -- there was something nice about sitting at this table with my boy and this elderly woman who provided connection with a part of my life long unknown. The occasional vehicle moving past outside, the November afternoon drifting slowly by. Life going on all around.
Edith finished pouring more soup in Colin's bowl, he carefully took it from her and set it on his place mat. He picked up his spoon, then his attention returned to Trudy, still deeply into a disturbing display of self-care. At that moment alternately licking and biting at one patch of groin fur. Very attractive.
I tried to get my attention off of unwholesome visuals, turning back to my meal. Another car drifted by, slowing down. This one stopped before moving completely out of view, began backing up. Through the sheer curtains I could make out two figures in the car, looking to be scrutinizing Edith's house, the one in the passenger's seat appearing large and male. My inner early warning system began sounding off. They backed up more, apparently trying to find a spot to park. I reached out and grabbed Colin by the arm.
"I think we have to go," I said.
"So soon?" said Edith, surprised.
"You're about to have visitors," I told her. She stared at me, not understanding, then turned to the window.
"That's no reason for you to leave," she said.
"In this case," I said, grabbing my coat and Colin's from their perch in the hallway, "it is." I hurried back into the room to herd Colin out to the kitchen. "Come on, buddy," I said, trying to make it sound more like a request than the urgent instruction it actually was.
"But I'm not done." He was dismounting reluctantly.
"I know, but we need to go."
"Because if we don't, there will be trouble." Not much of an explanation, but he complied. "We need to go out the back door," I told Edith, who had gotten up to look out the window. She turned back to us. "Is it back here?" I said, moving to the kitchen door with Colin, helping him pull on his coat.
"Yes," she said, then added, "You know, you might want to tell me what this is about."
"I will," I said. "Later. I'll call." The doorbell rang. "We're not here," I said to Edith. "Please, just tell them we haven't been here. I'll call you." She didn't look happy or very understanding, but watched us disappear through the kitchen without comment, then disappeared toward the front door. I heard her pulling it open as I found the back door and moved quietly outside onto the porch, urging Colin before me into the cold air.
"Dad...," he began.
"Shh," I whispered. "Wait till we're back in the car." He clammed up, his expression closing down, only hinting at the unhappiness I could feel in him. I dragged my coat on, looking around for a route of escape. We faced a small yard, garage to the left, flattened November grass spreading out from the porch. A couple of bare maples at the back, bushes along the right side of the yard, brown leaves from trees bunched in piles on the ground around them. I pulled Colin along with me as we left the porch, heading toward the yard's rear. Old cyclone fencing delineated the line between yards, stretching left from the far right corner and out of sight behind the garage. The right side of the yard had no fence, just naked vegetation and a gap at the rear corner wide enough for us to step through. Which we did, into another yard, larger, which stretched off to a nice Tudoresque residence. We walked quickly along the edge of that yard, past that side of the house where I could see in passing that the chimney needed some serious repointing. We made it out to the sidewalk and hung a right, toward Cedar Street. Colin stayed with me, I kept a hand on his shoulder, gently drawing him along. Our car lay to the left at the end of the street. At the end, where visibility was clear in either direction, I stopped and indicated to Colin I wanted him to wait where he was, then stepped cautiously forward and peered to the right. Nothing. Faint voices, but no visuals. I motioned Colin forward and quickly, quietly got to the car, let him in, went around to the driver's door and slipped inside.
The Swift started up easily, and after letting a car go by I pulled out, did a fast K turn and headed away from there. In the rearview mirror, I thought I saw two Sheila-and-Gerryesque figures walking from a house to a vehicle, then I hung a right at College Street and they were out of view.
I drove slowly back toward the center of town, not sure where to go. My hands had gotten a little quivery, I gripped the steering wheel hard, taking a steadying breath. A quick glance in the rearview mirror showed Colin staring out the window, face turned away, hands fidgeting with one another. I tried not to think about the effect all this might be having on him.
The Inn slowly came into view, which brought up the question of whether or not S&G had already established a lovenest there. Didn't matter -- the place no longer felt safe.
How the hell had they found me? The only thing I could figure was if they'd gotten into my apartment and seen the package or read the letter. How else could they know anything? I had trouble with the idea they might waylay and hurt Steve or Boo. Certainly not Boo -- Sheila wouldn't want close contact with her under any circumstances, and I couldn't picture Gerry working on her with a hot soldering iron. On top of which she probably didn't know anything. On the other hand, they might not have to torture Steve -- a little intimidation, some threats, might do the trick. He's young, he's no muscleman. I wouldn't expect him to be a hero. And they might actually be wound up enough to lean on him.
Or it might not have been that dire. Maybe they got into my building the way I got into Sheila's and found my spare key. Once inside, they'd come across the box, and Gerry called Edith Ohls with his cop impersonation.
Later, I found out from Edith that her exchange with S&G went something like this:
She answered the door to find two strangers, a strained-looking woman sporting a down coat and loads o' dark hair along with a large -- some might say hulking -- male with a close-cropped beard and leather coat, nose noticeably swollen, eyes slightly blackened.
"May I help you?" Edith said to them.
The male opened his mouth to speak, the woman beat him to it. "We're looking for someone named Dennis Marlowe. Is he here?"
"May I ask who you are?"
"His ex-wife." Edith and Sheila briefly studied each other. "Let me start over," said Sheila. "I'm looking for Edith Ohls."
"You've found her. And you are...?"
Edith looked at Gerry, who said, "Gerry Corcoran."
"Are you married?" said Edith. "I only ask because of your last name."
"We're cousins," said Sheila. "Do you know Dennis Marlowe?"
"I know who he is, yes." They regarded each other for a second. "What made you think he would be here?"
"I know you sent him a package recently and I know he's in Oberlin."
Edith looked at Gerry. "What did you say your name was again?"
"Are you aware," Edith said gently, "that impersonating a police officer is a crime?"
Gerry's eyes widened with surprise. "What's that?"
"Your call last night. As Officer Anderson. It's illegal to represent yourself as an officer of the law if you're not one." She noticed Sheila produce a tight, appreciative smile at that.
"How do you know I'm not a cop?"
"When you're married to one as long as I was, it becomes instinct. Am I wrong?" A small negative headshake from Gerry. "May I ask what happened to your nose?" Edith asked, concern in her voice. "I don't mean to be rude."
Gerry shrugged. "A domestic dispute."
"Ah, I see," she said, her glance moving speculatively to Sheila.
"I didn't do it," Sheila said, a touch impatiently.
Edith looked as if she might make another comment, changed her mind and asked another question instead. "You were married to Mr. Marlowe?"
"Not any longer?"
"No." A flat, one-syllable declarative.
"Can I ask where you're from?"
Sheila hesitated, Gerry answered, "New York. Long Island."
"That's what that accent is," Edith said, nodding to herself. "Yours is different," she said to Sheila.
"I'm not from there."
"May I ask why you're looking for him?"
"I'd rather not get into it."
"It must be important for you to come all this way."
"I said I'd rather not get into it."
"You did, yes." The wind picked up, Sheila wrapped her coat tighter around herself. Edith pulled the storm door partway shut and said, "Well, if I speak with Mr. Marlowe, shall I let him know you're looking for him?"
"Can you call us if you see him?"
Edith considered, buttoning up her sweater. "I'd have to think about that. Where are you staying?"
Sheila looked at Gerry, then back at Edith. "We don't know yet."
"Got any suggestions?" Gerry asked.
"Well," said Edith, "there's a nice B&B not too far from here, and there's a motel. That's a bit further out from the center of town."
"Isn't there an inn? Across from the park?" Sheila said.
"There's that, too. It's more expensive."
"After we find a room, can we call and see if you've spoken to my ex?"
"If you like," said Edith, not unkindly.
"That's what we'll do," Sheila said. "Okay?" she said to Gerry.
"Thank you," Sheila said, as they turned to descend the stoop steps.
"Yeah, thanks," Gerry echoed.
"You're welcome," Edith said, and pulled the storm door shut. For a moment she watched them move toward their car, trying to get a read on their relationship from the way they walked together. Nothing much to see right at that moment -- no conversation, no big romantic gestures. Just two cold people out in the brisk air. She shut the inside door and moved back into the dining room, frowning slightly with thought. The room appeared startled by recent events, silverware askew, napkins bunched limply by the plates, the three chairs angled away from the table. The thump of closing car doors caught her attention, she watched the vehicle containing S&G start up and pull away from the curb, accelerating slowly out of view, the sound of its engine fading as it reached the end of the street. She then turned to the table and began clearing the dishes.
Meanwhile, I figured Colin and I needed to get back to our rooms, if only to hash out the next move in a warm, private, bathroom-equipped enclosure. I figured we'd park in the lot we could see from our room and find our way in through a rear door, bypassing the lobby. Which we did, hustling up the stairs at the end of the wing and into our two-bed cubbyhole, where Colin immediately disappeared into the bog.
I went to the window and peered out. Parked cars, cloudy skies, bare young trees standing naked and miserable in grey light. Nothing else. I pulled the chair out from the room's desk and dragged it over by the window, settling into it to stare outside, trying to figure what should be done.
Several minutes later, with nothing to show for my deliberations, I got up to take a few aimless steps around the room. Then stopped, scratching one elbow. The bathroom, I noticed, was completely silent. Normally, there'd be audible noise of some sort. This time, though, nothing. I tapped on the door.
"Col?" No answer. "Colin," I said gently, "what's going on in there?"
A muffled "Nothing" came in response. I put my hand on the door handle and turned it softly, swinging the door slowly open. The light was off, no one lounged on the porcelain perch, but illumination from the room behind me outlined a small figure sitting on the floor, back against the bathtub.
"Hey," I said, "there you are." No answer. I sat down in front of him, blocking most of the light so that I had trouble seeing him as more than a little body until my eyes adjusted. "What's going on?" I put a hand out and felt his cheeks. Warm, moist. Stupid questions and glibly well-meant statements lined up to be spewed, I managed to keep myself from polluting the air with them. Instead I sat there on the tiles of the bathroom floor with my boy, listening to his quiet crying, me remaining silent. Thinking about the effect his parents were having on his life and wondering what to do about it.
The phone rang. I stared out at the wall opposite the bathroom entrance, wondering whether to answer, then looked back at Colin. On ring three, a decision made itself. I gave my boy a quick kiss on the head, got up and headed out to the other room, grabbing the phone on ring five. "Hello," I said.
"Dennis?" Edith Ohls.
"Edith, listen, " I said, wasting no time on small talk, "I'm sorry. I had no idea my life was going to follow me here and inflict itself on you."
"Well, it was not my usual lunchtime experience, that's for sure."
"Were they unpleasant?"
"Unpleasant? Considering the situation, I would have to say they were not very unpleasant."
"Well, that's good."
"It is." A pause. "Your ex-wife wants me to let her know if I have contact with you."
"You need to tell me what's happening."
I took a breath and spoke. "We have shared custody, she took off with Colin."
"'Took off' meaning...."
"Moved away. Put all her stuff in storage and disappeared."
"Ah. And this happened when?"
"A few days ago."
"And he's with you because...."
"I found out where she was and got him back."
"I see." Another pause. "Are you in legal trouble?"
"Maybe. Not as much as her."
"Do you think it might be smart to go to the police?"
I paused then said, "It might."
"What if you tell me what you can, we talk about it and see what options there are?"
I was aware of Colin sitting in the darkness of the bathroom. Probably listening to me. "Now?" I asked Edith. "On the phone? Or should we meet you somewhere? It's probably not a great idea to start parading around town right now."
"What if I could get us a room at the police station to talk?"
I swallowed. "I'm sorry, what?"
"The police station. No one will drop in unannounced there."
I opened my mouth to say something, closed it, then spoke. "Just us, you mean, right? No police?"
"Not unless you want them there."
"And you think you can get us a room to talk in?"
"Oh, I have a little bit of pull," she said. Well, of course she does, dummy -- her husband was the head cop.
"Okay," I said. "When?"
"Let me make a call. Don't wander off before you hear from me."
"Right," I said, and we hung up. When I looked up from laying the phone back in its cradle, Colin had appeared by the bathroom doorway, looking rumpled and cautious.
"Hi," I said.
"Hi," he replied in a small voice.
"That was Mrs. Ohls."
"Uh-huh." Voice still small.
"We're gonna go see her again. This time probably at the police station."
"We're going to the police station?"
"I think so." Colin remained by the bathroom, slumped against the wall, looking forlorn and tired. "This all sucks, doesn't it?"
His eyes flickered to me then away, he made no comment.
Silence filled the room. I thought about assuring him that things were going to change, wisely said nothing. He straightened away from the wall and moved toward the television.
"Col," I said. He looked quickly around at me. "No TV right now, okay?"
He looked down at his feet, slowly changed direction toward the nearest bed, putting out both hands to support his weight, straight-armed, as he leaned into it and bounced a little. I was wondering if he would be more likely to suffer an early demise from ennui than from parental stupidity when the phone rang. For a moment I watched it, wondering whether to answer, then found myself picking it up.
"Well," Edith said, "we have a small room down at the station if we want to use it. Are you still interested?"
"Good. Why don't you meet me there in fifteen minutes."
"You're sure? You don't sound very happy about it."
"I'm not overjoyed with life right now. It'll pass."
"I hope so," she said, voice softening a bit. "Do you know where the municipal building is?" I didn't, she filled me in -- a modern building, maybe a third of a mile down South Main Street, the main drag that ran in front of the Inn. "Fifteen minutes then," said Edith.
"Right," I said. Ten minutes later Colin and I were climbing into the Swift, the chilly air bringing some color to my progeny's cheeks.
"I'm cold," he grumbled.
"I know," I said, trying to soothe. "As soon as I get this thing going," I continued, fumbling with the key, "we'll turn the heat on." He huddled in his booster seat without answer, hands between his thighs.
A minute later, we were making a left onto the main drag. "I'm still cold," Colin complained, both plaintive and irritated.
"Give it a minute," I said. The municipal building lay up the road on the left, past the stores that lined the street beyond the intersection we approached. One intersection, one traffic light, some stores, city offices/police department. How difficult could getting there be, apart from dealing with my child's misery? The light turned red as we approached, we slowed, the second in a line of three cars. I sat for a moment, watching cars go by on the cross-street, noticing holiday decorations going up in a store on the other side of that street to our right. I put a hand up to feel the air coming from the vent, just getting warm. "There we go," I said to Colin. The faint sound of a car door closing caught my attention, I looked around to the left at the small lot in front of the Inn to see Sheila and Gerry walking toward the lobby entrance. Gerry looked around as if feeling my gaze, our eyes met. He grabbed Sheila's arm, saying something. She turned, saw me and took off across the lot toward us. I jammed the car into gear and pulled out of the line into the right-hand lane, pausing at the light for a nanosecond to make sure the way was clear before hanging a hard turn back in the direction of Edith Ohls' house. I would have shot straight across the intersection toward the police station, red light or no, but cars were coming from the right and I didn't want to risk one of them smacking into Colin's side of the Swift.
I hit the gas, glancing in the rearview mirror to gauge how close the enemy life forms had gotten; didn't see them, assumed they were probably diving into a car to come after us. I considered hanging a quick left at the far side of the common, make a quick, tight circuit back out to South Main, then sprint to the Municipal Building and sanctuary. I considered that but found myself continuing on where I should have turned, putting distance between me and my ex until I reached Edith's cross-street where I hung a left. Then a right at the intersection past Edith's place onto Morgan Street, near the stone tower thingy, then west to Pyle-South Amherst, where Morgan Street terminated.
Colin hadn't seen Sheila and her giant troll. All he knew was that I'd suddenly headed away from the center of town, driving way too fast. "Dad," he said, "where are we going?"
"We're trying to get to the police station."
I made a left onto Pyle-South Amherst, heading past what looked like a country club, figuring we'd find a street at some point that would bring us back to South Main where we could head toward the police station from the south, the opposite of our original course.
"Why are we going this way?"
"Just seemed like a good idea." A lame answer, but he didn't challenge it. We crossed a bike path, apparently a railroad bed in a previous incarnation, and continued south. The road T-ended at West Hamilton, I went left, assuming it would aim us back toward the main drag, which it did. As we approached the turn, I noted how close the country seemed to be to the town, or at least a slightly 'burbed version of the country, then hung a left and headed back toward Oberlin center, keeping a weary eye out for enemy aliens and the municipal building. Without being sure of the make of Sheila's car, I had to scan most every passing vehicle as best I could. An old-age home slid by on the right -- looked pretty nice, all things considered. Kind of odd to find it out in the middle of the Ohio countryside, but what the heck. Could be some people would enjoy spending their twilight years in a nice small town with relatively clean air. Thoughts about my father's brief stay in a like facility started up, I banished them almost immediately.
We passed a couple of parking lots that fronted a supermarket and assorted smaller businesses, I thought I saw part of a building a ways ahead that matched Edith's description, kind of a modern/institutional blend. Next thing I knew, a car coming from the other direction, a blue, mid-sized American make, turned into our lane ahead of us. My foot jammed the brake pedal to the floor, my hands spun the wheel to the right. I saw Sheila's face behind the wheel of the other car, clamped into an expression of straining determination. In the passenger's seat, eclipsing my view of Sheila as their car swung fully around in front of us, Gerry appeared to be trying to find something to hold onto, expression not sanguine. They came to a stop angled across our side of the road. Traffic coming from the other direction -- drivers clearly amazed at what they'd just witnessed -- prevented me from skidding around Sheila's car and up the avenue to the municipal building.
Sheila's door flew open, she erupted out from it, looking wildly intent. Gerry's door swung open, he pulled himself out into the air as if events were getting a little beyond him. Without thinking, I reached around and locked Colin's door, then mine. Colin watched the unfolding scene with widened eyes, wordless, both hands gripping his harness. I reached back and put a hand over his.
A motorist coming from the other direction stopped and lowered his window, calling out something that sounded like, "Is everything all right?" Gerry responded with words I couldn't make out as traffic from the other direction began to back up. The passenger's door of the second car in line hung open, someone stood at a nearby phone kiosk talking urgently, staring in our direction. Then Sheila was upon us and my attention shifted to her. "Colin," I said, "don't open your door." His glance swung to me, eyes showing fear and confusion.
Sheila stood at his door, one hand on the glass. "Colin?" she said. His head swung around to her. "Please open the door, honey." I strengthened my grip on Colin's hand, his head jerked around to me, then back to Sheila, who had bent down a bit so she was closer to him. "Please, sweetie," she said to him, "I won't hurt you."
"Sheila," I said, "back off." She shot me a burning look. "You're not helping anything."
For a fraction of a second, her expression exposed a sudden vulnerability and uncertainty before anger reasserted itself, her features tightening up. She backed a half-step away from the car, then her hand went forward to the glass again. "Colin," she said, audibly holding back high emotion, "open the door. It's okay." Colin looked from her to me, appearing overwhelmed and lost, and I began thinking I'd taken the wrong tack. I glanced in the rearview mirror to see if I had room to back up, maybe turn around, but a car had come to a stop right behind us, leaving no space to maneuver.
Sheila slapped the window in frustration, Colin's body jerking in response. "Goddammit, Dennis, open the door! Please!" The use of the P-word, something that didn't often find its way into her speech, made me wonder if I should get out of the car with Colin. There were so many witnesses around at this point that we were in little real danger. "Dennis!" Sheila said, voice rising, smacking the car harder. "Colin, sweetie," she said then, "I'm sorry -- I'm not angry at you." Colin's body had shrunk down into his seat, his eyes darting from Sheila to the scene around us, the whites showing around the brown pupils. Gerry had come over by this time, looking uncertain about what to do. "Why aren't you doing something?" Sheila said to him, tears beginning to drift down her cheeks. "Help me!"
"What," he said, baffled, "am I supposed to do?" Sheila started to blurt something, then cut it off, a desperate look on her face. "Really, Sheila," Gerry went on, spreading his arms in a helpless gesture, "what do you want to happen here?"
Sheila's mouth opened, nothing came out. Sirens were audible by then, I could see the flashing lights of a police car moving toward us from the direction of the municipal building, traffic pulling over to let it go by. Gerry looked around and saw it, too. Sheila stared in Colin's window, apparently at a complete loss, her face now streaked and shiny with moisture.
I found myself undoing my seat belt. When I opened my door, the sounds from outside expanded in volume and clarity. I unlocked the driver's side passenger door, opened it and leaned in, unbelting Colin and hoisting him from his seat, then carefully out, holding him tightly to me. Sheila came around the car, her movements slow, almost tentative. A patrol car arrived, stopping across the road, another one approaching from the same direction, a few hundred feet away. A sizeable, sandy-haired officer got out of the first car, saying something into the radio-unit mike clipped to his shoulder.
Sheila had her hands on Colin's face, standing close by me, bending a bit so that her eyes looked into our son's. "Hey," she said quietly, trying to work up a reassuring smile. "Hi, sweetie."
"Hi, Momma," said Colin. I felt the weight of his body in my arms, the side of his head pressed against my chest.
"This your car?" I heard the cop ask Gerry, who looked around as if hoping someone else would answer.
"Yeah," he said, "it is. I mean, it's a rental, but yeah."
"Why is it here?"
He cast a quick glance over at us. "Jesus," he said, "if I could tell you that, I...."
"Anything wrong with it?" the officer asked.
"Then get it out of the way," the officer said, pointing to a specific spot by the curb. "Over there. Now, all right?" The second patrol car arrived, pulling up behind the first, the lights from both flashing away in counterpoint to one another.
"Okay," Gerry said. "Fine. Do you have the keys?" That last was to Sheila.
"What?" she answered, turning to him.
"The car keys. Do you have them?"
Sheila started with an irritated answer, aborted it, ran her hands through her pockets in distracted fashion without result. "They must be...." She waved a hand at the car.
"Come on," said the cop, "let's go." The second officer came over, they conferred. Gerry went to the car, opened the driver's door and leaned inside. A moment later he managed to fit his bulk into the driver's seat and got the engine going. The first cop approached our little group as the second one turned away to deal with the traffic lined up from the other direction. I saw a small, black rectangular name badge by his left shirt pocket with white characters that spelled out N. Howard.
"Everything all right here?" he said.
"He has my son," Sheila responded. The cop looked at me.
"He's our son."
"Is that true?" he asked her.
"Oh, God," she blurted, tears starting up again. "Oh, Christ." She covered her face with her hands, looking like an emotional implosion in progress. Colin watched the scene from my arms, mute. The cop studied us, glanced over to make sure Gerry had pulled the car to the side of the road, then said, "How about I hold your boy for a moment while you move this car out of the way. It's driveable?"
"Yes," I said.
"Will that be okay with you, buddy," the policeman said to Colin, "if I take you for a minute?" Colin gave a small, guarded nod, his head moving against my chest. The cop gently took my boy from my arms, noting his expression of alarm.
"There you go," he said as I released my hold. "Don't worry, buddy, it's okay. Your father'll be right back." Colin began moving restlessly. "You want to get down?" A nod from Himself, the cop lowered him until his feet touched the pavement. "Fine by me. Keep hold of my hand, all right?" Sheila moved closer to Colin and put a hand out to stroke his cheek, murmuring something I couldn't hear. Looking sadder than I'd ever seen her. Traffic heading south had begun to move by us now as the other officer stood waving vehicles along.
As I got into the Swift and maneuvered it to the curb, I listened to myself breathe, to the blur of thoughts racing through my head. My hands felt the matter-of-fact solidness of the steering wheel, my ears registered sounds of vehicles and people. I didn't know what to do except continue walking through the moments as they streamed by.
After I'd parked some way behind Sheila's rental car and pulled my tired carcass from the Swift, I saw that Sheila, Gerry and Colin had been herded up onto the sidewalk, traffic now moving slowly by from both directions, drivers happily rubbernecking as they passed. One of the officers stood in the middle of the road waving people by while the other spoke with Sheila, et al., still holding one of Colin's hands while Sheila held the other. As I approached, he held driver's licenses in his other hand, giving them the once over. I produced mine, startling him slightly when he glanced around and saw it proffered. He returned Sheila's and Gerry's, took mine, scanned it, then looked at my face, comparing it to the hideous image on the license.
"It's me," I said.
"It seems to be," he agreed, handing the license back. "So what's the story here?"
I spoke quickly. "I was on my way to the police station to speak with Edith Ohls."
He eyed me. "Is that right? And what's this here all about?"
"Ask them," I said, indicating my ex and her consort.
Sheila seemed to have gotten a small measure of control over herself, though it looked tenuous. "It was a mistake," she said.
She nodded, leaning against Gerry for a second, then pulling away to stand straight again. She wiped at her eyes and cheeks, tears starting up again.
"A mistake," Officer Howard repeated, thinking about those words. The other officer joined us at that point. Officer Howard spoke again to Sheila: "I notice you two share the same last name. You married?"
Sheila shook her head while Gerry looked like he wished he were elsewhere. "We're cousins," Sheila said.
"Cousins," said Officer Howard. "Okay. But you and he..." -- he gestured at me -- "...were married, right?" She nodded. "But not any more." She nodded again. He looked back at me. "Any other information you want to give me?"
Sheila and Gerry watched me as I thought about that. "I guess not," I said.
"You guess not?" He regarded me with a jaded eye, then spoke to the other officer, a slightly taller, younger man whose name badge read T. Willis. "Do me a favor -- this gentleman says he was on the way to the station to speak with Edith Ohls. See if she's there, would you?"
"Sure thing." Officer Willis turned away and spoke into the radio unit pinned to his left shoulder. A burst of static, a female voice responded.
"Here's the deal," Officer Howard said to us as the other cop carried on with his radio thingie. "Nobody was hurt, no damage was done, so I'm going to let you all go on your way. Do yourselves a favor -- don't give us a reason to meet up with you again, all right? This is a small town, we don't have a lot to do. If we get a call and find you all embroiled in more activities that tie things up around here, we'll have to take it more seriously. You get me?"
The other officer rejoined us. "Edith Ohls is there all right. She's waiting on a guy named Marlowe."
"That would be you," Officer Howard said to me. I nodded in confirmation. "All right. Well, please, all of you -- take it easy, okay?" Mumbles of thanks from our group. "You, too, okay?" he said to Colin, still holding his hand. Colin nodded his head, looking up at the figure in the blue uniform. "Good," said Officer Howard. He released Colin's hand, the officers turned and waited for a pause in passing traffic then made their way across the road to their cruisers. I crouched down by Colin.
"Hey, you hanging in there?"
His eyes flickered in Sheila's direction then back to me, he mumbled, "Yeah."
I glanced up at Sheila and Gerry -- her eyes were on me, he watched the cruisers turn around and head back toward the center of town. "Good. What do you say we go see Edith Ohls for a little while?"
He stole a nervous glance up at his mother, then mumbled, "Okay."
"Okay then," I said, standing up. I put out a hand, he took it. Sheila maintained her grip on his other hand. Colin looked nervously from me to her. I looked from her to Gerry, then back. She stared down at our boy, expression unreadable. Gerry loomed over us, impassive, watching.
"We need to go," I said. Sheila's gaze shifted up to me, no friendliness visible there. "To the police station."
"We're coming," she said.
"You're free to come, and you can wait there if you want, but the meeting is with Edith Ohls. You're not invited."
"This is my son. I intend to be there for anything that concerns him."
"This get-together involves Colin, Edith Ohls and me -- no one else."
"Colin stays with me. For obvious reasons."
"Don't dick us around," she said, voice low. "You took my son from our house...."
"Our son. From Gerry's house. After you disappeared...."
She spoke over me, each word squeezed out, sharp and distinct -- "You took my baby!"
"Sheila," Gerry said, "easy does it." Her eyes flickered away, she wiped at them again, they returned to me, shining with anger. "Colin's right here," Gerry continued. "It's okay. Getting into a brawl isn't gonna help." Sheila stood close to Colin, one hand at the back of his head, the other gripping his hand. Colin stood between us, not moving. I felt his hand in mine, still and unresisting, felt my breath moving shakily in and out, watched the mist from it disperse in the cold Ohio air. I looked around, hoping to find a cop car somewhere in view, but nothing doing.
"Sheila," Gerry said again, "come on."
"Help me," said Sheila. "I can't do this by myself. Why aren't you helping me?"
A look of helplessness passed over Gerry's face, though his voice remained remarkably patient. "What do you want me to do?"
"I don't know. I don't know!" Her voice rose as she spoke, sounding tight and fragile. Tears flowed once more, her breath began coming in wet-sounding gasps. She wiped her nose with the back of a hand, her eyes meeting mine. "I don't know what to do," she said -- I couldn't tell who that was directed at. Along with anger and frustration, her expression contained something that looked startlingly like a plea. "I don't know what I'm doing," she said again, her voice breaking. She made an audible sobbing sound, looking as if she were barely holding herself together. Colin stared up at her, mouth slightly open, fear in his eyes. "Please," she managed to get out, "help me."
We stood clustered awkwardly together by the side of the road for a few seconds, cars moving by, the noise of their passing sounding strangely to me like waves at a beach. "Listen," I heard someone say, surprised to find it was me, "I don't want to take him away from you. But I don't want to lose him either." Sheila stared at me, wiped her nose again with the back of a hand, took in a shuddering breath. We gazed uneasily at each other. "Why don't you two follow Colin and me to the station. It'll be all right. I'll talk with Edith Ohls, we'll figure everything out from there." She continued to stare at me, her eyes moving back and forth between mine. After a moment, she made a small movement with her head. Not quite a nod, but close enough. "Colin's coming with me. It'll be okay." We continued staring at each other. "What do you say?" A couple of seconds more, and then she seemed to gather herself, wiping her nose again.
"Come on, sweetie," she said to Colin, sounding like she was attempting a pretense of normalcy. "Let's put you in the car." We walked Colin to the Swift, got him inside. I shut the door and watched her head toward their rental vehicle, Gerry standing observing all this until Sheila had opened the passenger's door and started to get in. His eyes swung from her to me, then briefly away to look blankly at passing traffic before he moved to the car and got in the driver's side.
I got in the Swift, closed the door, the noise from outside suddenly muted and remote. A glance in the rearview mirror showed Colin staring straight ahead until he realized I was looking at him, then his eyes met mine. I smiled, feeling my face relax just a bit. "Cold?" I asked. A nod in response. I got the car going, cranked up the heat. "Still want to go home?" Another nod. "Hold that thought," I said. He furrowed his brows.
"What's that mean?"
"What, 'Hold that thought'?"
"It means it's a good thought. Keep thinking it."
I found a space in traffic and pulled out. After we went by, Sheila and Gerry pulled out behind us. I could see them in the rearview mirror, not talking, Gerry at the wheel, Sheila looking out her side window, expression bleak.
The ride couldn't have taken more than a minute. The municipal building appeared to our right, I pulled in the drive, the car containing Gerry and Sheila making the turn behind us. We found parking out back and made our collective way to the police department entrance, where Edith Ohls stood waiting. Her gaze took in all four of us, then her eyes met mine, one eyebrow cocked very slightly. I produced a small, tired smile in return.
"Why don't you all follow me," she said, and as we trailed toward a further doorway, she said to Colin, "How are you doing?"
He squinted up at her then looked away, answering with a quiet, "Okay." Not sounding very convinced.
"Don't worry," she said. "Everything will be fine." He looked at her doubtfully. "Really," she continued. "I don't say things like that unless I mean it."
We went to a door to the side of the reception window. The door buzzed loudly, Edith opened it and held it that way, we filed in past her. A stocky police officer at a desk looked up as we walked by. "Recruits?" he asked Edith.
"That's right," she answered.
"It's not too late to turn back," he said to the rest of us.
Yes, it is, I thought with relief. Edith opened the door to a small conference room, we went inside.
© 2002, 2009 by runswithscissors