Please Help (part two)
The man whipped round from the window and stooped by the mattress. “Take it!” he told Milton.
This needed a paraphrase. It made no sense. Milton repeated his orders. “Take your phone. Go to the store…how come I wouldn’t just go to the cops?”
“The cops know we’re here.”
If this was the guy’s apartment, Milton guessed he could wave a gun around—he could do what he wanted. So if they were making him go out shopping, better find a newspaper. It was her face, the one on the mattress, he should know from someplace.
He said: “So what? Right? I’m by myself, I can just light off, can’t I…?”
“Yeah, but you’re gonna help us. You’re an angel, chump…what’d you say your name was?”
The guy laughed. He laughed for a minute. “Okay, cause we’re asking you to. We got nothing to eat, like she said.”
Milton was carrying the phone. He was following the signs. The phone itself, fancy little gizmo, gave him the address, and a map to find the shopping center, and he could wake it anytime he felt lost. He shouldn’t get lost. It was only six blocks to the highway, and there were traffic lights he could see from here. The sidewalk had given out with a truncated curb and a manhole cover, but the stores were on the near side. Easy to step along the grass by the ditch. He would get cereal and milk, bologna and bread, bananas, cookies…ice cream, everything he could tote that a twenty would buy.
He figured he’d go ahead and get ice cream. His friend wanted it, and the man had made her blush, heaping too much contempt on a small hope.
“Jesus fuck, be melted by the time he gets back.”
They expected him to come back. He had the punchcode on a scrap of hamburger wrapper, in his pocket. “You see a car with an open window, toss the phone in. You know your way once you get there. Don’t bring it back with you.”
Milton took himself on a parking lot tour, a nervous amble to the rear entrance of the building, where two metal doors at platform height were closed, and the shade of concrete walls meeting smelled like damp basement. There was a car here, just at the curb, with its trunk lid popped. Not many eyes. No one Milton could see standing close. He did a rude thing, improvising—propped the heel of his shoe on the bumper, and made—since he had buckles, not laces—to run a finger around his sock, like he’d picked up a pebble. He wouldn’t have called the drop smooth.
The glass door lurched itself open, and Milton spent some change on a 7-Up, chugging it down before moving from the hot foyer along to the cold fridge aisle. It occurred to him too late that maybe the instruction had been literal. Maybe there was a particular car…maybe he hadn’t been getting rid of the phone, but passing it to another gang member. Well, he had got rid of it.
The pints looked almost as costly as the half-gallons. He spent long moments standing before the open freezer case, wanting suddenly to know what pleased her. Maybe she would roll her eyes at him if he bought cheap. On the wall above the checkout line was a TV, and he caught, glancing up, the dark-haired woman’s face. She had on a red blazer…it was the hairstyle, the bangs, that made him look twice. It had to be her, anyway, or what was she talking about? She was in the news for some reason.
The cashier peered at the carton. “I never had that kind. Is it good?”
It was not the chocolate he thought he was taking a flyer on, but peanut butter. A thing you would never expect. “Yeah, hon,” Milton said. “Listen, what’s that story they had on a minute ago?” They were talking now, he could slip this in normally enough. “That lady, with the guy, getting in the car.”
“Oh, her. She’s supposed to be a witness at that guy’s trial. Not that guy. You know who I mean. She’s been missing for a couple days.”
“You sell papers?”
Well, yeah, it was going to be awkward. Very awkward. The ice cream was getting soft; he needed to hoof it back to the apartment. The story was not on the front page. There was no way to riffle through without sitting down. The one he cared about, anyway, would give him the jaw-drop when he handed her peanut butter. But the other one…he made himself think…guy who was having a trial, famous enough the girl had said: “You know who I mean.”
So he ought to know.
“It’s something weird. I’m sorry.”
Milton had come up empty, going over all the scuttlebutt he could recall. City officer canned for some dumb remark, a bad fire, foreign soccer team coming to play at the arena. He had marked the numbers down wrong, or he couldn’t read them. He didn’t think these stupid mechanisms locked up on you, though…so he looked at the nine that might be a four, the one that might be a seven. and tried them both ways.
The apartment door was standing wide open. After Milton had backed inside and pulled it shut—white plastic bags swinging, one on each arm—the only person he saw was the one he hated.
“Gals leave already?” He asked it for something to say. The gun was not now anyplace he could see.
“Better get that stuff in the fridge. What’s weird, buddy?”
“Gals,” Milton asked again, miffed into insistence, “take off?”
The guy got tight next to Milton in the little space between fridge and counter, yanked at a bag—Milton dropped his arm and let him have it—ripped into the cookie package. Mouth full and spewing crumbs, he said something. Milton brushed his shirt, and rather than, “Say again?”, came back without patience: “What’s your name?”
“Steven.” Or maybe Stevens, he was giving his last name. Milton couldn’t tell because the guy had gone to swigging milk from the carton.
“She wanted cereal. You think that’s kind of rude?”
“Go in the other room and stick your head out the window.”
Now, he told himself, I’m being insulted. But then he thought about her.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)