Neighbors are suspicious.
Yoharie has moved in with his settlement money and his blended family. The Witticombes have a mapping methodology for catch-phrasing and rumor-mongering. Trevor Royce has a website for fans of The Totem-Maker, and another for conspiracy theorists. Jeremiah Hibbler, watch captain, suspects that his good buddies have turned against him…and perhaps even Beatty the dog.
A story of the surveillance society.
What’s going on, here? Yoharie is a novel-in-progress, that I’m crafting on this page. I have a volume of notes for the story; I pull out episodes and write them. Eventually, I’ll start putting the puzzle together. Part of the project is a second book that factors into Yoharie‘s plot, The Totem-Maker, a famous fantasy novel of the early 70s. The Totem-Maker‘s author is known only as Southey, and rarely heard from, though said to be living in St. John, New Brunswick, where his (her?) fans gather for an annual full-costume pilgrimage.
Breaking Up Together
A Mother or a Father
Trevor Royce on discovering The Totem-Maker
As you all know, I started out going chapter by chapter, in depth, and after that, character by character. I haven’t got around yet to weighing the book critically. This post is the first in a new series.
I talked a little about how I got started. I never liked seeing first-person narratives in fantasy. The voice isn’t majestic; it doesn’t come down from on high…that’s what, for me (pardon the pun), it comes down to. And of course, fantasy is meant to tackle heroic-sized themes. It’s not about someone’s interior monologue, his neuroses. If you were Homer (for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll accept the bard’s existence at face value), singing the Iliad, you were not going to have Achilles saying to himself, “I hate Agamemnon. What a jerk!” The point was all in the framing of these events in monumental terms: the conflicts of gods, not men.
But that’s the way it is, with something you don’t expect to like, and end up loving. I’ve dedicated a whole blog to The Totem-Maker, so I think everyone knows how I feel. I’ve organized the pilgrimage to St. John, two years now. (Thanks to Edgar for letting me take over!) So I admit it…The Totem-Maker actually gains heroic status from the fact the narrator never has a gender or a name. And to make this device plausible, one can see why Southey (who, for the public record, hasn’t got a gender either. See my post, “Who is Southey?” for more on the controversy!), chose first-person. It would be hard, through all the hero’s adventures, to maintain that mystery. It would be somewhat affected, even, if the narrator, rather than acceding to the name of “Outcast”, had to be continually referred to as “the outcast”—or a series of other epithets. And there are only a handful of occasions when the character is named by the others even this.
So let’s go to an excerpt, from the start of chapter five, “Winter Alone”:
As no one came this way, I had time enough to be tutored, to learn a strange language…but no records seemed kept. I could, and of necessity, I did, draw near the fire, ladle water from the boiling pot, hold this steaming basin at my peril under the blanket, sitting very still. In that way I whiled my hours thinking, taking myself round the tollhouse grounds, listing for myself all I might do for my greater comfort.
At the spinning of wool I was no hand, had I known, even, how to fashion distaff or wheel. If traders crossed this pass, I would offer for their rugs, if rugs they carried—what…? I asked myself. What can I make or do of value? I can trap, and so perhaps have skins. And I had the stock of oddments the old keeper had left behind him.
The legend told below, recorded in the 19th century from the memoirs of Andrew J. Blackbird, is an example of how peoples who may be considered primitive have varying levels of cultural development; the ways their descendants recall forgotten ancestors, tribes whose history has vanished from ours.
Story of the Underground People
Our tradition says that long ago, when the Ottawa tribes of Indians used to go on a warpath either towards the south or towards the west, even as far as the Rocky Mountains, on one of these expeditions towards the Rocky Mountains my remote ancestors were captured and brought to this country as prisoners of war. But they were afterwards adopted as children of the Ottawas, and intermarried with the nations in which they were captives. Subsequently, these captives’ posterity became so famous among the Ottawas on account of their exploits and bravery on the warpath and being great hunters that they became closely connected with the royal families, and were considered the best counselors, best chieftains and warriors among the Ottawas. Thus I am not regularly descended from the Ottawa nations of Indians, but I am descended, as tradition says, from the tribe in the far west known as the Underground race of people. They were so called on account of making their habitations in the ground by making holes large enough for dwelling purposes. It is related that they even made caves in the ground in which to keep their horses every night to prevent them from being stolen by other tribes who were their enemies. It is also related that they were quite an intelligent class of people. By cultivating the soil they raised corn and other vegetables to aid in sustaining life besides hunting and fishing. They were entirely independent, having their own government and language, and possessing their own national emblem, which distinguished them as distinct and separate from all other tribes. This symbolical ensign of my ancestors was represented by a species of small hawk, which the Ottawas called “Pe-pe-gwen”. So we were sometimes called in this country in which we live, the “Pe-pe-gwen tribe”, instead of the “Undergrounds”. And it was customary among the Ottawas that if any one of our number, a descendant of the Undergrounds, should commit any punishable crime, all the Pe-pe-gwen tribe or descendants of the Undergrounds would be called together in a grand council and requested to make restitution for the crime or to punish the guilty one according to the final decision of the council.
There were several great chieftains of the Undergrounds among the Ottawa who were living within my time, and some are here mentioned who were most known to the American people, particularly during the war with Great Britain in 1812. Most of these chieftains were my own uncles. One was called Late Wing, who took a very active part for the cause of the United States in the war of 1812, and he was a great friend to Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan. Wing was pensioned for life for his good services to the United States. He was one of my father’s own brothers. Shaw-be-nee was an uncle of mine on my mother’s side, who also served bravely for the United States in the war of 1812. He traveled free all over the United States in his lifetime. This privilege was granted to him by the Government of the United States for his patriotism and bravery. He died in Illinois about twenty years ago from this writing, and a monument was raised for him by the people in that state. Wa-ke-zoo was another great chieftain who died before my time in the country of Manitoba, out north. He was also one of my father’s brothers. It is related that he was also a prophet and a great magician.
Excerpt from A History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan, a Grammar of Their Language, and Personal and Family History of the Author, by Andrew J. Blackbird, The Ypsilanti Job Printing House, 1887 [Public Domain]
Below: excerpt from Trevor Royce’s other blog
Don’t be a tool
The Formula for Ensnarement
(Some of this is cribbed from the Witticombes’ cheat sheet, so the language might get a little high-flown. Thank the Witticombes for all the data-crunching, and don’t forget to download the PDF, so you can witness, too.)
The sweet spot, the point where someone hangs inert between being afraid to break away, and regarding his/her controllers as untrustworthy, is what keeps people usefully zombified. If the people who “follow orders” were given authority to issue orders, the acts of brutality they could be tempted into, would become accountabilities. They have some advantage, then, in resisting a change of status; they need this “low man on the totem pole” framing of their position, so that they can seek their pleasures in a permissive environment.
If the low men (women, too) completely trusted their controllers, they would end up not sufficiently locked into keeping their controllers’ secrets. They would think they were part of a good thing; be inclined to boast and share. They must suspect what they’ve been made party to is not a good thing, that its being brought to light will bring ruin (since the low men are the ones who will be persuaded to acts and errands, this for them is likely true), but still want more of whatever the inducement to participate has been.
Ways to the sweet spot include:
- Opportunities for voyeuristic sadism, as applicable to individual tastes
- Opportunities to obtain those things the enlistee finds pleasurable. The controller becomes a supplier to him of these; may offer to the enlistee the guise of good citizenship as cover for his eagerness
- Flattery: general You are one of us; you get what we’re saying.
- Flattery: specific to subject’s wanna-be heroism You are smarter, more uniquely talented, more trustworthy than others; this assignment is very important, the work is vital to the company, the community, the country
- Suspicious-mindedness Other people are “getting away with things”; some law, procedure, benefit, is unfair to you…to us.
- Fear-mongering. But fear played on is often secondary to stated terror, so interpret carefully. Manson may be lurking in the shrubbery, but they will say the bad thing happened because you failed in your duty.
- Dominant/subordinate relationship: use of jargon, clinical speech, veneer of expertise, authority, specialized experience Holding or having held a professional position; doing or having done “secret work for the government”
- Embarrassment of being exposed*
- Abstraction of personal responsibility Here is where “only following orders” fits in, also every sin of omission—failure to report information, failure to investigate claims.
You may ask how someone sees himself simultaneously as a good citizen, and a citizen not personally responsible for his own acts. The Witticombes would say fragmented communication, token speech as substitute for thought.
*Our work is to free people from this fear, by showing them every day the extent to which they are already exposed.
Don’t make a bigger job for yourself, when the one you have is big enough.
Because ultimately, if we suppose these are cold, genocidal mechanisms, that the poor are being tortured remotely with DEW to get them on Fentanyl, to kill them off without “having done anything”, bureaucratization will for once do some good. The more you expand your “mandate” the more you place power—and the greater power of information—into self-interested, incompetent hands. There’ll be accidents. You can’t take it back, once you’ve disclosed. All you can do is pursue crazy-baiting…
And that’s why we CRers don’t want any chemtrails. We want only witness. Each act of witness is data; all data is witness.
We’ll draw a map. The map will show patterns that can be overlaid with other maps and other patterns. We’ll go back to 1950, say. We’ll match witness with what could have been done, technologically. We’ll go forward to 1980, etc. We’ll trace the rise of new types of incidents, in correlation with new types of technology. You all get the idea.
The thing that had made him hate camping.
Rocks had been falling all this time, but the clip that played itself across the screen of Jeremiah Hibbler’s closed eyes was soundless. It was almost a lie…if there had not been so much rooted pain, telling him he had seen this, and it was true.
It was true, Dad.
I saw it.
He saw himself angelic, imbued with chlorophyll and sunshine, floating.
His anchored self said no. No, that’s crap.
The water of the dam flowed, mist in the air where he stood to cast a silver beam that danced, then lay gentle on the stream, and shivering… The air was clean, clean. But he had become his father, not himself. Jeremiah, four years old, was there, perched on the bank, dangling a bamboo rod.
“You watch. Don’t fall in.”
He felt his father’s anger project through himself. Jeremiah…stupid kid…yeah.
For the second time…he’d been thirteen when his father decided…they were going fishing. He was in the back seat, sitting in the middle, no seatbelt. His brother was always sliding the buckle up tight, so Jeremiah would have to fit himself again. Saying without saying. Fatso.
The light all around the zipper, the zipper skirting a U-shaped opening, a canvas door with a mesh window…the light was cold like snow. Zachary’d had an appointment with the orthodontist, and so that Saturday the family was divided. Mom and Zack. Jeremiah and Dad and Dick.
Hibbler remembered really liking Dick, his father’s bud, even though Dick always made him feel bad, one way or another.
Kate would just go ahead and say it. Dick-shit.
It’s okay, a voice seemed to tell him. The voice was Giarma Yoharie’s. She’d cooed it in just this way, told Valentine…Hibbler struggled now, trying physically to rise. Of all the things he wanted out of his head, this picture of Valentine Yoharie, his bambi-ish tucking of chin and wistful smile, disturbed Hibbler most. But Giarma said to him again, it’s okay. You don’t have to like her. You never did, did you?
All this made for a powerful dissonance. He was not in a limitless heaven, but a place where ugly reverberations were possible. If it was all right not to like Kate…not to love her, he chastised himself—she was his wife—then…he was at fault. He was greatly at fault. That much he knew, and didn’t know yet what was the unspoken word.
What he had done.
Busby said, “Hey, Hibbler! Hibbler, you awake?”
Todwillow’s snigger came from somewhere else. “Don’t bug him, man.”
“So if he comes out brain dead or something…”
“Can’t be brain dead. They’d be harvesting his organs.”
Busby laughed. “Zack’s call.”
Todwillow laughed. “Living will. Probably never signed one.”
Hibbler felt something. An intrusive prod, some dull instrument’s pinpoint of contact…a pen, his mind told him, was what this was. Todwillow, who did not wash often enough, and wore drugstore aftershave. Todwillow leaning over him, poking at him, not touching him. This bodily proximity made a picture for Hibbler, of himself, lying down. And…he realized he knew it…they had rules in this place. They threw people out. Why would they not throw Todwillow out?
In fact, there was a voice. Busby said, “Bullshit, lady.”
“When do you think?”
She sighed, a big sigh of being responsible for people who ask the impossible. Farther away, Zack said, “Oh, you think he can hear? Well, I mean…understand.”
Zack, hey Zack, he said inside himself. You here too? When.
Have you ever even spoken to Valentine? What! You have some magic way of knowing the truth? Truth!
He hadn’t even liked Giarma at that moment, when she’d spit at him, these words. Well, like was how he always said it to himself. And when Kate said it, she knew what he meant.
Giarma didn’t swear.
She’d just said, you are such a pervert. This thing you have about Valentine is your own sex fantasy, what else? Be serious! And then you have to go around sharing it. You can’t even get enough just telling it over to yourself. Tell-ing-it-ov-er-to-your-self. She’d rapped it out like that, razor-voiced…so yeah, he knew what she was thinking.
It was like this…
His mind blasted a picture from Sleeping Beauty, a dragon that loomed over some guy—he thought it was a dragon. One of his kids’ movies. This made him think of Todwillow. But, getting rid of all that, he told himself, this was what it was like when these smart people really threw down on you.
The shimmering moiré parting before his eyes did not reveal a church, a minister’s white robe at his left—his right?—and Kate, in a gown of shiny, crackling fabric…structured something like a tent. He recalled that to kiss the bride, he’d had to get past it, and hadn’t known how.
He’d kind of shuffled his feet nearer until the skirt bowed away, his in-laws in the first pew batting it back. Laughs. His face red. Even so, it was a good memory, that day. But the light vanished, and he was not getting married.
It peeped in again, coyly. It roared like a V10 engine. He’d got outside the tent, and there was no time for zipping things up. Jeremiah jogged in bare feet, thankful to have slept in his jeans…but then again. Another crawling RV. They were letting a bunch of cars get backed up behind. He charged between two, just trying to get across, and almost missed another coming downhill.
“God…ya dumb kid!”
That was probably what she’d rolled down her window specially to yell at him. He didn’t think she’d said “stupid”, and knew she hadn’t cussed. But it was like…suppose she’d knocked him down. Maybe she would have killed him. How much would she have hated him then, for making her do it?
He’d taken a really long piss and Dick’s chuckle, growing into a guffaw, had begun to impress itself on Jeremiah. He’d been a little preoccupied.
“You lay off the hard stuff, buddy.”
There was a deep cut, rock cliffs on either side of the river. Jeremiah heard whoops die and watched the last of the yellow rafts tail away. Maybe if Zack wanted to, they would sometime. He wandered for a while, kind of happy in the woods alone. That early in the morning, already up in the eighties. He didn’t like asking his Dad to give him money for a Coke. He crossed the path behind the shelter where they had the trash can, the vending machines, and the map, stepped over the chain, and waded into ferns in the part you weren’t supposed to go.
The sign said: KEEP ON TRAIL.
Rocks around the waterfall were hidden under needles, dried up moss, dead leaves. That was why people would fall off…they thought they were on ground. That stuff would just crumble away under your shoes. Jeremiah, knowing this, smiled to himself. He felt his way with bare toes, then laid on his stomach and inched forward. Right here, chin hanging over, he caught the brunt of saturated air, atomized water. It was cool…in some way, he began to feel smarter.
“Yeah, the theory is, you’d almost never need to sleep. I mean, you could get by on just a couple hours a night. You get a kind of super clarity.” Todwillow. He’d been telling these things to Kate. Then why Dr. Wethers, saying “ox-y-gen”, grinning like it was dirty?
A crack came, the noise of a stick breaking in two. Then, a string of firecrackers, a whole lot of sticks. A bird flapped, chittering, just under Jeremiah’s nose. Another loud bang, and he saw it—a boulder tumbling huge and square, a full grown tree come down, slowing, buffeted aloft by its own leaves, settling into the river a second, a millisecond, before the boulder splashed…sploshed, maybe—a sound more like that—into its crown’s midst. Jeremiah, astonished, blinked at drops of water flung into his eyes.
“Come on, Dad, come on.”
“Get back over here. Jesus Christ, kid. Kill yourself.”
“No, you have to get up to the edge or you can’t see. It was this huge rock. If fell right into the river.”
Dick had walked around to where the chain came to an end. Like it was stupid to climb over. Hibbler’s father followed his friend, and came to a standstill where he couldn’t see anything.
“You have to be careful…” Jeremiah wanted to tell the part about the crumbly stuff.
Dick pushed himself away from the cedar’s trunk. “Nah. I just saw a couple rafts go past.”
And what did that mean? Why wouldn’t they? Hibbler thought his Dad might have listened…he didn’t blame Dick exactly…he just remembered how now and then, his father had been nice.
Giarma Meets Trevor
Roberta swore…or she didn’t swear…
She avowed, maybe.
Dr. Witticombe wasn’t a friendly woman, per se. She didn’t have brio, among her habits of speech. She was, Giarma considered, sort of an exasperated wizard. She came out of her home study, imparted the wisdom you sought from her. Then her eyes strayed to the hall clock.
“He has a blog, Iron Seeds. And another blog, Conspire Right. I don’t really know how he gets his money…advertising, I guess…because, why would I know that? I’m not Kate Hibbler.”
Dr. Witticombe—the other—had laughed through an open doorway. Roberta rolled her eyes. Then she heaved a sigh and shook her head.
“I apologize. I shouldn’t mention the Hibblers at all.”
She’d avowed, though, that you could knock with confidence at Trevor Royce’s door, that his weirdoness was ordinary weirdoness, not the scary kind. Giarma still, home again in her dad’s front hall, putting on gloss in the mirror (of that whatyacallit of Dawn’s…); putting on a fleece vest, to make her shoulder-to-waist area formless and lumpy, resented this deeply. What was wrong with Dawn, she couldn’t do this herself? Was she afraid of him?
Walking to the end of the cul-de-sac, weighed by reluctance, Giarma thought: What a ship of fools this neighborhood is! She also thought, iron seeds, conspiracy…some creepy male vitamins. Does Dawn understand what she wants Val involved with?
He had a doorbell. She found herself riven on Trevor Royce’s stoop, with irritation, certain this bell would play something cute and stupid. It didn’t. He opened the door, after two rounds of classic ding-dong, after a moment in which she’d heard thudding feet approach. He didn’t bug his eyes and jump back, Busby-like, or say, “What can I do for you?”
He did have an ugly beard, like a cartoon-show prospector. He was a little smelly.
“Howdy,” he said. “I think I know you.”
“I’m Giarma Yoharie.”
“I think,” she said, “you’re kind of friends with Dawn.”
“Dawn need something?”
“Um.” She looked past his shoulder.
“Oh, yeah. You wanna come in?”
I sure don’t, buddy. She followed him. “Do you know I have a brother?”
“Yeah. I like your brother. Cool kid.”
His living room looked like the house had been staged by a realtor, and he’d bargained for the furnishings. One wall—the one with no fireplace, no shelves, and no opening to the stairs—was covered in artwork, push-pinned through the paint, drawings or print-outs, most of them, some tacked over posters. They were done in umbers and a persistent purple, brownish-eggplant, a repetition of melancholy-eyed, thin-featured figures, robed and booted. Medieval fashion, as interpreted by comic books.
It seemed to her manifestly not, but she said, “Did you make all that?”
“Nah. People send them to me.”
The purple caught her eye again. A stack of books on his coffee table, the paperback on top yellowed and dog-eared, the hue progressing from book to book, newer and brighter. Oh, yes. That was the thing about Trevor.
“So has Val ever read Totem-Maker?”
Something in this was offending Giarma. She didn’t know what…possibly the insider-y dropping of the article. She said, “That’s a weird question.”
“I’ve never read the Totem-Maker, maybe you’d like to know.”
“Well…so…you have a brother. Sit down.”
She crossed her arms, standing.
“Don’t sit down.”
“Oh, this is getting retarded.”
Giarma pulled a crocheted throw off the recliner, and sat. “Dawn would like you to be Val’s friend. And she wanted me to come over and say so.”
He sat, on the sofa, reaching for the uppermost of his books. “Aren’t we friends?”
“It’s like everyone thinks we ought to be.”
“Welcome to the war zone.”
At this came silence, the awkward one. And her job to break it, because she’d come with a request. “I don’t mean retarded.”
“Because…you think I’d take personal offense?”
She laughed, and Trevor laid the book on the cushion beside him. He drew the one at the bottom of the stack out. “Take this. It’s the edition from 2010. They’ve got an anniversary reboot coming in October, with new art and all. Should’ve asked me to write the foreword.”
“Okay…thanks…so,” she said. Now, a second late, it came to her she should have given his joke a laugh.
“Hey, you wanna look at Iron Seeds?”
He jumped up, tugged on the closet door under the stairs, and where she’d expected coats, Giarma saw a mini-office. He wheeled out a stool. His work desk was the white-laminated-panels-on-metal-legs type, his overhead light, the exposed-bulb-on-metal-arm type. He caught the corner of the desk between thumb and forefinger, and gave it a jog. The screen of his computer lit.
There was no purple here, only black and white. A dark green banner. No art, only a thumbnail of Trevor and his cat. The sidebar had advertising; recent posts took up the main of the page.
“You ought to show this to Val.” It was sort of getting back to the point.
“You got his email, hook him up as a subscriber.” Trevor put his finger on the screen and scrolled to a form. “I don’t want you to give him that book, now. I want you to read it. Fair’s fair.” He edged around her, tapping her shoulder to keep her from crowding him back.
Val was not going to bristle…so why not? For one thing he read fantasy, drew comics. Trevor Royce was his likely-enough soul mate. And, for another, Val drifted with the current. She could have signed him up for a drumming circle, or an artisan bacon club. He would thank her, smile his wistful smile, and ignore the whole thing.
Her dad, though…
The thought occurred. “Trevor,” she said. “Do you mind if I do a little search on your computer?”
A moment later: “Look at that! They really have one. Trevor, can I order something?”
He moved to lean over her shoulder. “Cool.”
She came back to his recliner, and flopped down. “Sorry.”
“Beer and pop in the fridge,” he said. “Or, I’ll make coffee.”
“I’ll make coffee.”
This idea of coins, though I knew they were used in coastal towns, those places ships porting dyed silks, barrels of wine, the horns of animals, put in; and where such things were of great use, and yet of no immediate use…seemed to me a dubious magic. The peddler’s words confused me. That he would give me a thing, a marker in a game…that I would give it back, and by this means have enriched us both. I’d urged on him two of the totems to sell, and he had, in exchange, given me a number of things for my larder. That, I’d thought the end of it.
The totems were nothing of value to me. I disliked their watchfulness, expected evil from it.
But the peddler said even kings would barter for them, bestow titles and estates, if the return proved worthy, if the totem were the right sort. Such grandeur, I took for blatherskite, a traveler’s yarns with which to ply a shut-in.
“I am going to leave you with these, though you don’t like believing in them,” he’d said, and dropped, one by one, a handful of bright gold on my work table. “And when I am back this way, you may like to buy of me something that catches your eye…something more than a loaf of bread and a skein of wool.”
He’d rummaged under the wagon’s canopy, and drawn out a cap, placed this on my head. “Now that’s no use, you not having a mirror. But see this!” He bent, and brought out again a round glass on a handle; this handle some white material that flashed a glorious rainbow in the sun.
“You see,” he said.
I saw a thing I never had, being somewhat shamed to study my reflection in pools of water. The hat was red, with gold braid trimming the visor. The face beneath was strained and dirty.
“It’s what you lack, and why you collect your tolls from pity, and not authority. A proper cap of office.”
“Clink, clink,” Trevor said. He had two mugs. “Just black. I should’ve asked.”
“Oh, that’s fine. If you had some creamer.”
“No, I’ll get it.”
She left his living room, walking her mug with care not to spill it, seeing with a backwards glance that he’d picked up the book, and was checking what passage she’d left it open to on the seat cushion.
The car pulled to the curb, engine running, a hand flashing up to the window. That, over there, the hand was saying to the driver. Well, okay, but why not? Kate grew antsy at Hibbler’s side. She said, tapping the frame of his glasses, an attention-getter Mat Busby used on people, “Who’s in there?”
He didn’t understand her at first. His wife picked up phrases…he’d thought this was one. Like “a penny for your thoughts”, only head-shrinker talk—the kind of thing, again, that Busby came up with.
But she said, “Did you ever see those people?”
Then one of them got out, and still the engine was going. It was a quiet car, maybe a hybrid. The taillights flashed, the noise stopped. The woman climbed the little incline on which the Hibbler house sat, and bent to check a price-tag…Sharpee scribbled on a strip of masking tape. Another woman got out and stood there, holding the driver’s door open.
“Is it ten dollars?”
Todwillow had been getting around all over, walking out to the back yard, disappearing into the garage, long enough Hibbler thought he would just go see what Todwillow was up to. Todwillow seemed next to have slipped inside the house, and left the front door standing open. He came back out, humming.
“Bahp, bahp, bahp, bahp!”
Doing an electric guitar, getting on the other side of the chest. The woman smiled up at him. People did smile at Todwillow, gave him the flat laugh, took a step away…as she was doing.
He’d come out and say, “Messin’ with your mind”, when he felt like saying it. This time he let her in on the joke—that there was one—hovering a finger over something.
“Well, I’m just going to refinish it.”
Kate said, “Do you need help, getting it in your trunk?”
“Are you buying that?” the other woman called out.
“Oh, I don’t know, ten dollars.”
“You know what would be great…if you like doing crafts…you said you were refinishing it?” He saw Kate search for a prop; he knew, all the Yard Sale Success checklists she’d been reading online, she was trying to boost another item. They didn’t have a lot of old furniture.
“I would let you have that basket for half-price, if you’re buying the chest.”
“Oh, I don’t want a basket.”
“Nine dollars and fifty cents,” Todwillow said.
“We have a lot of books. We have kids’ books. If there’s anything special you’re looking for.”
The trunk popped.
The other woman came up, and stood next to her friend.
“It’s ten dollars,” the friend said.
“Up to you.” She, like the first, bent to examine the finish. “Seriously pukey.” She gave Kate a challenging smile. But Todwillow laughed.
“Paint it white.” He grabbed an invisible brush from the air, swished this back and forth. The chest had been pink, magenta pink.
Magenta, a safe name, and crayon-y. Todwillow made that same type of croak, like a minute ago with the guitar, every time he had an occasion to say hot pink, and this in some way creeped Hibbler out. He didn’t call his daughter’s old toy chest hot pink. He’d painted it over in brown, before putting it on the street. The job was cursory. Pukey…maybe a fair call.
“No, ma’am,” Todwillow said. The woman who wanted to buy it had squatted down, testing the weight of the chest. “Hibbler’s gonna put that in your trunk for you.”
He’d done nothing for Cathlyn Burris, when she’d bought the rocking chair and set off towards her house, bumping her knees, half tripping. He’d kept his eyes on her, watched her until she stopped, sat the chair on the sidewalk, sat in the chair, body language humorous, and made (or took) a phone call. He felt keen about this, in a way he couldn’t, to himself, explain; this awkwardness, a sort of punishment.
He could have carried it for her. He felt bad because it hadn’t occurred to him. Or not bad, but fearful of getting away with more than he could hope to. Todwillow was going to use this against him.
So, given the prompt to prove himself an okay guy, Hibbler jumped up, got a grip on, and shouldered the chest. By this inexorability, the bargain was sealed.
Both women edged up to the table.
“Nine dollars and fifty cents,” Kate said.
“No, I know he was joking.”
“No, I have to be fair.”
The woman frowned, heaved a breath, caught her friend’s eye. She put down a ten.
Kate gave her two quarters.
With a little whuff of sound, the car started, then revved, then drew away; the purchaser’s hand in the window again, sketching rationalizing circles.
Kate said, “Why aren’t people nice?”
Todwillow said, “Hibbler, you left a big thumbprint in that pukey paint job.” He pulled his phone out of his back pocket and feigned taking a snapshot of the chest that was no longer there.
The manager’s name was Dawkins; they called him Donk…not clever, but for some reason supernaturally right. Donk’s habit was to cast an eye from Val’s hair to his shoes, a rape-threatening eye. It was the term Val and Sasha, in the kitchen, laughed over, liked using. Donk always said Valentine, in full, because he was saying, you got a girly name.
“It feels like violence,” Val said, low-voiced, and Sasha shook his head.
“Get some green beans out to sides, Red Shirt just went for number three.”
In the ceiling, in dummy sprinkler heads over sides, over meats, over desserts, over exits and the bathroom alcove, were cameras. Customers who brought baggies, usually gallon-sized ziplocks (but some amazingly organized…secreting shopping bags under tables, stacked with snap-lid containers), got ID’d by those with access to the monitors. Red Shirt, Skinhead, Fat Fuck, Bin Laden, Oprah, Cheeto Bandito. These were not, maybe, the Plenty House Buffet’s most valued customers, but Val saw sense in a few of the arguments the ones that got caught offered. It was supposed to be all you could eat. You already paid for it. The restaurant threw a lot of food out. They overcharged.
Besides all that, here was a whole lawsuit waiting to happen…
Sasha had a couple vids taken on his phone. “Yeah, Donk is toast, any time. Any time.”
Val didn’t even think, neither did Sasha, taking into account the one or two people who might on a given day be putting chicken legs down their pants, it was so much the money, as a kind of…state of mind. Donk would say the Plenty House lost thousands.
“But then you have to figure they still got their ten ninety-nine, or whatever. And if people are happy and they come back…I mean it can’t be just, a chicken leg costs a dime…”
“They have to pay me to dump it in the fryer, so that’s chump change divided by a chicken leg. Or a wing. Or is it multiplied? Anyhow, you get the idea, Val.”
“So if you’re full time, and you get health care…”
“Right. More bread crumbs on the bird. Pretty soon, leg costs a dollar.”
“Still, it doesn’t seem right. Isn’t there some kind of thing where you spend money to make money?”
“That’s not Donkanomics, buddy.”
“Yoharie! What’s wrong with you? Move it!”
Val pulled on a pair of plastic gloves. The green bean recipe was only a gallon-sized can dumped into a chafing dish bin, a little jar of pearl onions dumped on top of that, the whole thing stuck in the steamer. The beans were cooked already; it took five minutes to heat them up. There was a clamp-on tool for pulling the bin out, two for lowering it into its slot. He had to wheel his cart out to the floor, get the empty dish set out of the way, drop in the full one.
The gloves were for nothing, since Val didn’t really touch anything, but customers saw you working out there, and it made them happy.
He smiled at a woman holding tongs over baked potatoes, her wrist flopped defeatedly. There was always a runt, a puny spud showcased in its foil wrap, and Val, thinking of all the food they threw out, wondered why. You got no advantage using things up, when you didn’t use things up. Maybe it was for calories. The marketing ideas from Plenty House headquarters could get uberwonky, it was true.
He tried saying it to her: “Take that little one. It’s only a hundred calories.”
She gave a tentative smile, and he coaxed, “Come on.”
She gave a wider smile. “How come you don’t have the ones with cheese?”
“You mean, like, au gratin? Cause you get cheese and bacon, all that shit, over at the fixin’s table.” Well, they called it the Fixin’s Table.
“Yeah, like the casserole kind.”
“Dunno. Better grab that little one.”
She took it.
He didn’t think he’d failed.
She’d been going, not only for the potatoes, but the scones, a kind of weird house specialty. Biscuit dough, dry, tinted orange with cheddar cheese, flavored a little too sweet. Another variety dotted with blueberries. The Plenty House, up at the cash register, sold boxes of these at Christmas (November 1 to December 26), bedded in their candy striped cardboard with shredded green paper—Nasty Old Scones, as he and Sasha called them. There weren’t just four, there were eight. Disappointing.
He’d got a box for Dawn.
“You like those?” he asked, curious to know.
“Oh, I like the cinnamon.” Third type. “Your Dad likes ham on the cheese ones.”
“I gotta try it. Probably takes a lot of greasing up.”
She’d got his meaning, too, after a second.
“I microwave them, hon.”
He’d gone back in, through the front door, to make the purchase. It was really to see Sasha, because Val had been fired that afternoon, for not, somehow or other, getting in this woman’s face enough. She’d got out the door with her side dishes, bent on filling out the Thanksgiving board.
That was Donk’s theory, people did that.
“They pay for a turkey.” He shrugged. “Then they don’t wanna pay for anything else.” This was almost confiding, coming from a guy who’d just sent Val downtown.
It was like that…the Plenty House had a central office in an old mall, and if you got canned, you had to bus in to do your paperwork.
“You don’t fit in well,” the woman had said, and she hadn’t taken her eyes off his piercings and nail color. “With the culture.”
Kate Hibbler and Mat Busby
At one time, it had been the Witticombes, and Cathlyn Burris. Then, awful Trevor; lately, the Yoharies. The Yoharies were different…
“Like every kind of different.”
The annexation was from 1987; the ring of houses around the subdivision’s cul-de-sac once showcases, one for each configuration the builder offered: garage left, garage right, detached garage with mother-in-law apartment, porte-cochère, circular drive, basketball court. One style, touted affordable, was a ranch; one a bungalow. They were beige sided with brown roofs, except for Trevor’s. His idea of dark gunmetal had needed vetoing by the neighborhood association.
And so he’d gone with white, roof green…so acceptable. So (getting away with it) I have to be my own little prima donna self. Even Kate, who didn’t go to meetings because Jeremiah did, could see from hearing him tell it, that Trevor had been forcing the debate. Wasting everyone’s time for his stupid politics.
“Now you’re all having this big discussion, what shade of grey’s too close to black.”
He’d actually said it.
“Well, because, for one thing…” They were looking through Mat’s bay window at the house across the street. It had been a year ago, when the house had sat already unsold for ten months.
“…the whole neighborhood’s old now. That roof had to be replaced. The Karshes couldn’t ask as much as they should’ve.”
Once the median age of the neighborhood flipped, and couples like the Karshes started to downsize…and then, factoring that the economy was changing…
Mat used these words, gestured ineffability, and between the two of them this nutshelled concept—the economy, changing—answered all it was required to.
Dr. Petersen, gone after closing his eye clinic, suddenly, had never been a man you could get to know. Everyone who’d caught him raking, or digging his grumpy fall mums, who’d jogged up to ask him something—would he buy candy to fund the Bombadiers’ Regional Tourney trip; would he sign to protest the trash schedule being staggered with the yard waste—had seemed to catch him on a deadline.
“No, I can’t make time.”
“Just your phone number…”
“I’m not interested, Mrs. Hibbler. Thanks.”
Todwillow’s report: “Nothing goes on in that house. Now and again he gets a call from a patient. Always goes to the answering machine, at his office. Then, I don’t know what, he sits and watches TV. I can pick up the TV.”
He’d kept his mic on Petersen’s house during that period of vacancy, just to see if anyone got in there. In July, a woman came, got out of her car sorting keys; later a van pulled into the drive, a lift whirred down from its open side door, and a man in a wheelchair zimmed out, a second quiet electric motor. Kelly Stomitz, from Stomitz-Burnley, a realtor they all knew, had gone flanking him at a shuffling pace, his wife on the other side.
They’d opened the garage. They’d stalled for a moment first, pointing and discussing. Wheelchair ramp up to the front door. Easy to translate without Todwillow.
“So what’s wrong with her?” Mat, after noting to Kate the guy was probably an amputee from diabetes.
“I’ve got to do something about her hair,” Kate answered him. “I don’t know why she bleaches it and then…” She slued a hand. “Just nothing.”
Quiet had descended, and this was expected. Closing. Then a truck, the type of worker’s truck with tool cabinets on the sides, early every morning. Mat expected this too, and blasted his horn when he pulled out of his drive, took a beat, waved his hand. The workers waved back.
By that time Todwillow had brought intelligence. Yes, a ramp. Knocking out a wall. Putting in a downstairs apartment, a new sunporch. Baker’s—you know, out by the county garage, over on route 203—got the job.
Tristanne was in Grand Rapids, another trip to gather specs from an urgent care center, for the sort of X-ray equipment her company sold. Her travels were those times Kate and Mat fell into pleasant camaraderie, always having their yack at his place. Because of late, Jeremiah tended to be home.
“I think he’s lying and hiding. He comes back lunchtime and gets onto his computer. I know it when he’s on…we have that parental thing for Savannah.”
“You mean old Jer’s sneaking around?”
“No! Women.” She put an emphasis on this, not one to presuppose Mat’s meaning any other thing, but that the idea…Jeremiah, finding some female to have an affair with…was a laugh, please.
Dawn Orse and Yoharie, unmarried—Dawn said so easily—had been moved in for a month or so. Valentine, Yoharie’s weird son…somehow, as Mat thought, they’d had him in the van or something, with his stuff…and no one saw him unload and settle in. Creepy. A girl turned up, older. Mat let his car roll onto the drive, popped the hood and tinkered, catching her coming out.
“Hey, there! How’s your dad?”
Kate gave her name to Jeremiah, snagging him by the arm, jostling his saucer of peanut-butter crackers, drawing him to the window. “See her?”
He’d watched Yoharie’s daughter down the street for a minute. “Pretty girl.”
“Jarmah. I don’t know how it’s spelled. See if she’s on Facebook.”
She wasn’t telling him do it, she just wanted to know. Her husband was secretive until it became clear Giarma Yoharie had moved in, and he had that pretext for lecturing her. Her car was always on the street now.
Thanksgiving, the Yoharies opened their door (Dawn did), at three in the afternoon—coffee, not turkey, Kate and Mat decided—to the Witticombes. Mat had reported Yoharie riding out of his garage on a scooter, since September at irregular intervals; the Hibblers and many others had seen this. Moving at a footpace, keeping company with Dawn.
“You never see her walk alone, though. That’s not really exercise.”
“Fresh air,” Mat said.
Dawn was fat. Kate wanted him to say it. It was one of Todwillow’s talking points…he didn’t let a woman notice another woman’s clothes or figure more than once without cracking one of his lezzie jokes. Because he liked that stuff too much, was Kate’s thought. But scorn (hers for Todwillow) still had conditioned her to reticence.
“That’s how they know each other.” Yoharies and Witticombes, she meant to say. “They go down there to the sac-end and she talks to Trevor, too. He doesn’t talk much.”
“You mean Yoharie.”
“I say hello to him, and he says”—she imitated—“ma’am.”
Mat had two chairs, part of his parents’ old dining suite, featuring round backs that jammed below the shoulders, gold cushions tied on, numbing taped edging that grooved the thighs. These were fitted imperfectly to the curve of the bay window, and the window was uncurtained. The two of them didn’t point or gesture when they talked…not when they were conscious of it. But they looked over their shoulders. Roberta Witticombe waved.
“Do you think I should go…take cookies or something? I mean you don’t, really. It’s not Christmas.”
So it didn’t seem like the Witticombes were nice, and the Hibblers weren’t. That wouldn’t matter if Jeremiah wasn’t a sort of neighborhood ambassador. It fell on Kate as a family duty…she kind of hated him for that.
“Yeah, Beatty, come on.”
Savannah, aged ten, had been so keen on having an Australian Shepherd. Hibbler remembered searching with Kate online for a place they could drive to, open on a Saturday.
Take the girls…don’t take them.
“It has to be both their dog.”
He was against surprises. He remembered never a good one from his growing up years. Kate gave him the point, on the grounds (tacit between them) that Raelyn had been born with a stubborn radar for unfair treatment. She’d bring it home to them, if she felt left out.
(“Honey, can you walk Beatts?” Shrug. “He’s not mine. You better ask her.”)
And yet, their youngest was the responsible one. Raelyn would probably, for a few bucks a week, look after a puppy. Savannah, grown bored with it, wouldn’t.
“Sorry, guys, I’ve got paperwork drawn up for that cutie.”
The kennel owner, saying this, had steered them away from a handsome, keen-eyed yearling with a clean black and white coat. She’d laughed, seeing the girls. “No, I don’t think you’re gonna want that mongrelly one. Look at him.”
The mongrelly one, brindled, splay-footed, had charged round and round in circles, disappearing out the pole-barn door. Reappearing, face decked in trails of slobber. The Hibblers, being played, had agreed…um, yeah…they could put their name on a waiting list, sure…
“I like this one!”
Beatty, in his seven years as a HIbbler, had fattened up…on brownies, grapes, other bad snacks…
Which was a thing, Hibbler interrupted himself, thinking of it.
Because people (like Roberta Witticombe, or way more, Cathlyn Burris) were always waiting ’til you’d done something and couldn’t help it, to get in and tell you…well, in this case, that you were killing your dog.
Beatty didn’t care what he ate. If there was one thing about Beatty, it was that. He wasn’t fierce, even for looking kind of mutant-freaky with his two eyes different colors. No, the dog was friendly, too crazy friendly, wanting to jump on every stranger and hurl himself, with every head pat, into a back-roll.
Cathlyn, who believed in spending money on things like taking your dog to fucking boot camp, was always telling him, “I think Beatty would be very trainable.”
He supposed she thought he didn’t mind if Beatty thudded up against the back of her legs and half knocked her over while she was out jogging. No, Hibbler liked it. He could say that to himself. He chuckled inside when he saw it.
He clipped on his holster, and snugged in the Glock…subcompact, 9mm, street legal; he clipped on the Taser, which he did not take out of its holster putting it away, because he’d accidentally zapped himself with it once. He clipped on his walkie-talkie, to the breast pocket of his shirt, which seemed to him cooler than yet another holster. He had some plastic zip-ties stuffed in his jacket pocket. Not that you couldn’t buy handcuffs, but that Todwillow had joked about him cuffing a perp.
It crossed Hibbler’s mind, true, when he thought of detaining suspects, that he’d never really had a physical fight with anyone. Where there were stakes. He’d done Todwillow’s training exercises—“I give you an F…maybe D minus, cause you try, Chunko.” (Here again, sort of joking).
Hibbler didn’t do a lot of running.
Zack, carrying that gene of fine-weighed judgment Raelyn had inherited—from a grandparent, Hibbler guessed—had never tussled with his brother, either. A little thump on the head, he’d light off. Mom would look out the back door. “Where’s Zack?”
Jeremiah would say, “I don’t know.”
“I thought I saw you guys kicking the soccer ball.”
“Um, yeah, but I don’t know where he went. Just booked.” And this was incriminating. Zack started things. It wasn’t always the older kid’s fault.
“Well, it’s supper time. You’d better find him.”
All the jangle and weight of his equipment gave Hibbler an aura, one donned and doffed…subordinate to Kate in the house, but strong on the street. He was dressed in his black polo and slacks, windbreaker; his cap, neighborhood watch insignia above the bill. He came along with a tick, tick, tick, like a warning.
Giarma Yoharie, bending into the trunk of her car, tensing up. Cathlyn Burris jogging, flipping a hand at him; Roberta Witticombe standing with her camera, deaf to him. Getting a shot, for some reason, of her window boxes.
Well, he knew the reason. She got likes for this dumb shit, and there were other people who posted their flowers under her flowers.
Here’s an old pic of my begonias from 2003. Wow! Can you believe 2003’s such a long time ago now?
He followed everyone’s social accounts. He was jenniesmom; he was ashley13. Todwillow had given him a picture of a little girl, another of a teenager. Todwillow wanted Hibbler to do all of this, and tell him about it, which he wasn’t completely down with. But Todwillow…ex-CBI, don’t forget…was always telling him stories about nasty revenges, weird gadgets that could make you sick, in humiliating public ways, choking and farting. Identity thefts.
Todwillow had Hibbler’s password.
He’d been pretty relentless with his pimping—coming on to Petersen, Kate would say—and still Todwillow hadn’t gotten anything…but that (he said) didn’t prove anything. When Raelyn was selling cookies, Todwillow had wanted her to go knock at Petersen’s door.
“Nothing’ll happen. But if something happens, we just nailed a perv.”
So when they were looking for chaperons for one of Savannah’s class trips, Hibbler had said, no, no. In his mind he wasn’t completely sure this fear was sympathy for Petersen.
He had a problem with that kid, Valentine.
Not just the strip razored around the back of his head, new yesterday…like the blue-tipped hairdo wasn’t enough. Here, it appeared to Hibbler, was another one out of work. Who was going to be around the neighborhood all day, when Hibbler himself had to be at work. In his head, he’d been rehearsing a conversation with Giarma.
“You a lot older than your…brother?”
Instead, he blurted this at her, catching her again at the trunk of her car. Giarma Yoharie always shopped, it seemed, always came back from wherever she went with bags of stuff. Sometimes only groceries…so maybe she at least helped out Mrs…
Nuh uh, Dawn. You had to call her that.
It was weird to Hibbler, that society had got away from addressing women as miss or ma’am (although you did, and got glared at, when you needed to get their attention)…but there wasn’t any answer when a guy’s wife wasn’t married to him. He didn’t want to talk like a friend to Dawn. She didn’t like it, either, wincing and forcing a smile…maybe because he skipped and balked at using her name. He’d just done the same to Giarma.
Her face, as she turned to him, hugging a paper sack with handles, showed undisguised incredulity.
“Oh, Jesus,” she said, and then looked abashed. “What did you want?”
“You a lot older than your brother.” He said it flatly now.
“I’m thirty, Mr. Hibbler. Val is twenty-one. That’s how it is.”
“Hey, hi!” This was Dawn, pulling back the front door.
Giarma darted off. Beatty, who’d been sniffing her boot heels, seemed to bristle like a hedgehog. He whined, wagged, heaved himself onto his back and wriggled. Dawn came out, dropped a black trash bag, crouched and took Beatty by the ears, knuckling his skull. The dog suffered ecstasy for a moment, then jumped to his feet and charged away down the street.
“Silly,” Dawn said. “How’re your kids?”
Hibbler stared at the bag.
“I’ll take that for you, if you want.”
There was no reason for this. The thought had come opportunistically, and in his head Hibbler hadn’t scripted an excuse. He didn’t know what sort of favor he might be offering…but Dawn seemed unsuspicious.
“No, you stupid mutt!” Hibbler yanked him off his back by the collar.
Dawn winced and smiled.
Dawn tapped, passed the open door at Giarma’s sigh, leading with a hanger and floral skirt.
She said: “Here!”
And her stepdaughter (frustrated again, interpreting a call for attention as a request for action) edged round in her chair. “Oh, I couldn’t wear that!”
They were prickly together, trying to become friends.
Yoharie had had no handle on his daughter as a grown-up, and they hadn’t expected her to come to them, just when they’d made the move. She hadn’t visited in the apartment days, but in token, to see her father…pretending hard to see nothing particular about him, and under pressure of the holidays.
At Thanksgiving, she would stop for the length of a meal. “It’s easier traveling in November. I hate driving when it’s cold. You don’t have to cook,” Giarma, confirming, told Dawn on the phone. “Please don’t cook.”
Cooking took place.
Well…her mother needed to be party to family things, too. Dawn couldn’t keep Tina away on pretexts—quickness to suspect was one thing about her mother. She would suspect, she already did, that Yoharie’s kids disliked her. They did. This holiday was a clearinghouse for visits no one wanted to make. Tina brought foil-wrapped casseroles needing carrying up one at a time, a free hand spared for the elevator buttons; things cheesy and potatoey, that couldn’t be served on the couch with sandwiches.
So they had turkey. Giarma picked and sighed.
Tina asked Val, fifteen the year Dawn was thinking of…the year of their first move as a couple (from Yoharie’s terrible little house, and a month or two before Val came to live with them), point-blank if he was gay.
“It’s okay,” Tina said.
That was her mother, saucy gal, tell-it-like-it-is Tina. And if the topic came up, she would tell her friends, too…she actually knows someone who’s gay…
“…and he’s very sweet.”
Well, then. No doubt, Tina would say it. There was no stopping this.
Giarma had sat outraged, saying next to nothing.
“Do you have hobbies?” Tina asked her. “Your name is what? Sorry.”
She’d meant only to start a conversation.
“No, hon, I’m saying. You know when I bought this? Thirty years ago. It’s a size ten.”
“Really?” Giarma put out a hand. “That’s kind of depressing. I wear a six…but this looks snug.”
“Well, that’s the thing. And back then, if you wore a ten, you were fat. You had to be an eight.”
“Hmm…okay. Now I have to try it on. I don’t really like it.” She said this last warningly.
“No, it’s prim…” It had taken Dawn a second to come up with the word, and Giarma had already slipped into the bathroom.
That was how she’d dressed, at eighteen, at her second first job.
Work began with her mother’s friend, who had an H & R Block in an office strip that had just gone up.
“Dawn can come in four hours in the afternoons.”
She heard them from the kitchen. She was cutting slices of cookie dough, quartering the slices, eating two, dropping the others on the sheet. Hearing, not really listening. Her mother caught her on the sofa, on Monday, watching a soap opera. It was still June.
“Dawn! You have to be at work! Put on some shoes. Put on a skirt!”
Her hair in a rubber band, a matronly dirndl (her own purchase, though) digging into her waist under the tee she hadn’t changed, and her patent leather church shoes without hose, Dawn scuttled from her mother’s station wagon, stuck with it.
The office was glass in front, windows over waiting chairs, partitions, desks, a little supply room at the back with a coffee machine. Behind the last set of partitions, two of four, were filing cabinets and a metal typewriter table, sides folded down. Selectric, gathering under its edge hair-tangled paperclips, an emery board, a little pot of rouge-colored glop for dipping fingers…dirty brown stains on the keys.
It all smelled like carpet and cigarette smoke. There was a place two doors away where you took things to have them make copies for you. Dawn’s heels got a good pair of blisters that day.
“Don’t be late again,” Diane said…and she hadn’t been mean. But Dawn somehow held a memory of this.
“Val said he didn’t want it. And I’m finished with it.”
Walking down to the cul-de-sac, she’d seen him in his driveway.
“What is wrong with Jeremiah Hibbler?” had been the thought crossing Giarma’s mind. Her eyes watched Trevor’s garage door jerk, stick, creak, touch concrete. He was just home, just pulled in. And then Hibbler, from nowhere, driving past her…slow…tapped his horn. She’d been within an inch of giving him the finger.
But she’d had counsel on this from Roberta and Cathlyn. And agreed…that an armed creepo needed no stirring up.
“Is he stalking me, Cathlyn?”
“Oh…” Ms. Burris was, like professor Witticombe, busy; her needing to be getting something done present in her body language, and a shying from speech that threatened to grow into conversation. But on this point, she had fallen analytical.
It was the day the Hibblers held their yard sale.
“Well, you can stop by and see if they have anything like a birdbath, or a feeder…something your dad would like.”
Giarma couldn’t counter this, another of Dawn’s subterfuges…a word just bumped into in The Totem-Maker, and not an apt word…
But Dawn, artless though she was, had this idea of pushing Giarma into friendships. Or, at least, neighborlinesses. And she was right. Roberta was right. The instinct to glare at, to frost the Hibblers with silence, would only make Giarma Yoharie conspicuous to them. Kate would call her a snob (she did), and say (to Mat), “I’ve been nice as anything to her.”
She’d met, as she dawdled, Cathlyn struggling up the opposite way with a rocking chair. She lifted her eyes and saw Hibbler, in the distance, struggling with a trunk…to ratchet this into the trunk of a car.
“Here. I’ll give you a hand.”
Giarma gave the logistics a glance and added, “Turn it upside-down. I take one rocker, you take the other…that way they won’t bang into our legs.”
“Hey, smartie…” Cathlyn had just begun, and they’d just been situating the chair, when Hibbler jogged up. The dog Beatty jogged up, lunging nose-thrusts, darting hand-licks.
“I’ll get that,” Hibbler said.
So, lingering at Cathlyn’s for just a minute longer, even though Hibbler had shouldered the rocking chair in the way he’d shouldered the trunk (“chest” he said); lingering because she’d become party to this enterprise, Giarma had asked her question.
“I think, if it matters, he just can’t figure women out. He’s like Beatty with people food. There’s something better than what I get? It’s sexist to say, but don’t you think Kate is sort of a climber…I mean, she’d ditch Jeremiah…? For Mat, I guess. Mat’s got a better house, and no kids.” Cathlyn apologized then, for the dish—as Roberta had. “Ha. Sorry. What a harpy!”
But her idea made Giarma that touch more irritated with Hibbler, his intrusion when she’d been rehearsing a talk with Trevor…
Not a talk…
Just a diplomatic goodbye…
And not a goodbye…
Just a rejecting of his beloved Totem-Maker…
Probably a goodbye…
Worse, she told herself, pushing Trevor’s bell, than if Hibbler were The Creep in its atavistic form, without complications. But that was Kate’s job, to plumb these, if she would…the soul of Jeremiah Hibbler must be securely, therefore—and thankfully—a closed book.
She handed a book to her host and told him she was finished with it. The lie might be apparent. But she’d had Totem three days…had even stayed up past one a.m. reading the first chapters. Before hitting the snag.
“Now, I have a proposition. Maybe you won’t like it.”
She crossed his threshold. He turned up a palm in the direction of the sofa. The room smelled like McDonald’s…the bag was there, on the coffee table.
“Better eat that,” she said. “Don’t let your fries get cold.”
“Have some if you want.”
“No, go on.”
“This time I got you a Diet Coke.”
He went off to the kitchen, and she heard the sound of a hand rummaging in an ice bin. Her hand, though, was in his fries.
Giarma sipped, and waited for Trevor to stop chewing. “What are you proposing?”
“You want half a cheeseburger…?”
“No, no. Maybe a bite.”
He handed it to her. Adapting, she bit, and traded the cheeseburger for a napkin.
“My proposal,” he said. “Take the rest.” He gave her the fries. “You know I have the blog. I always have a ‘first encounter’ feature for newbies. So you’ll let me interview you?”
“I only read part. When I said finished, I meant done.”
“You didn’t like it? That’s okay.”
“I think I do like it…I just think… I got to this chapter, something recalcitrant…? And then the hero…” She broke off. She bit a fry, conjecturing. Trevor was smiling at her.
“Hero or heroine, right? You don’t know. But…The Recalcitrant One.”
“That’s not the thing. Only it’s weird. Or I guess sad.”
“Story of my life. But what’s the thing?”
“He says…I’m just going to say, he…he says, I knew I would die…”
“I don’t know why, when he looked at me, I foresaw my own death in this word.”
“Well, okay.” Maybe, of his favorite, Trevor could quote each line. “You don’t know my life story,” she told him. “Let’s just say I hate anything gloomy-doomy. I don’t want to read a book if people start dying.”
She saw the corner of his mouth twitch. He half-turned—grinning now, she thought— to slug down some coffee.
“It’s in the first person,” he said. “So…think about it.”
Need a moment to think about it. And then: “Oh…”
“…but even so.” Because he was chuckling, because she had his stack of Totems close to hand, Giarma snatched hers back and gave Trevor a swat on the knee. “It’s a fantasy. Do they have rules in fantasies whether people have to be alive to tell their story?”
She saw that for Trevor, this engaging him on his subject meant he must weigh in seriousness a question she cared nothing about.
“I guess I can’t think of one, a book like that, off hand. But I’ll do a post on it, see what the aud thinks.”
“Audience. You know, followers. Whatever.”
The cat, whom she hadn’t met last visit, jumped onto the arm of Trevor’s chair.
“What’s his name?”
“I thought Elberin was kind of a bad character.”
“Yeah, but it’s a cool name for a cat.”
“Should I take it back, then?” They’d had a fading out, and she was still holding the book in her hand.
“It’s yours. What I said.”
At this second silence, Giarma would have got to her feet…apologized no doubt…for not being into what Trevor was into, for not trusting him enough to believe his gift had been a gift.
She would have said, “Sorry. I have to leave.”
She hesitated, though.
The recognition was unfamiliar…how little of what she felt she would have spoken. The little he’d likely have said in return.
They heard voices, on the walk outside.
“Well, you’re not a kid, are you?”
The other was subdued, but his sister picked up Val in the murmur, and then Trevor too could hear him say:
“I’m just gonna go now, okay?”
Through Trevor’s front door, she heard Hibbler state his case, leaden-paced and dogged. “If you don’t ever think about it, then I guess you just don’t care. Bumping over corners, doing wheelies on the street, not wearing a helmet. No, I can’t cite you any law, since you’re twenty-one, and cause technically you didn’t get on the sidewalk…”
Giarma, who had more duty intervening than Trevor, and would have chosen to let it go, rose from his sofa to follow, to stand behind him. Val never wore a helmet. Right now he was walking his bike, Hibbler backing in front of him, hands flapping mannerisms of a man repeating a thing for the second time. Trevor ushered her off, pulled the door wide, pushed the storm door open.
“Hey, Jeremiah. You know, sometimes I see you go by with your gun and your radio, clattering around the neighborhood…and I say to myself, I wish I had some of that gear.”
“Royce, shut up. You think you got a point, and you don’t.”
“The point is…”
“The point is,” Hibbler said back, “I teach my kids to be safe. I don’t set a bad example.”
“Well, yeah, that’s your job, setting an example for your kids. Other people are just living their lives.”
“Hey, Giarma,” Val said, soft, his bike maneuvered clear. She thought him stymied, fleeing, by what stymied her. To stand, to witness someone defend you…to not yourself step to the plate. The phrase was wrong. She’d just read a scene echoed now by reality, in The Totem-Maker, the language lofty, but the character’s guilt her own.
“Come on in,” she said to her brother.
And so I sat, on a cold evening; a spring evening that promised frost—as it seems one piece of ill-luck must come in company with another—at work by dim hearth-light. If no one wanted me, I liked this hour between dusk and dark for repairing my few garments, my rug and blanket, my shoes and tools. I had never in my life asked that any new thing be given me. The old woman had treated my outgrowing of clothes as a willful act, vaguely embarrassing…as though I might by stealthy trading, aim for a rise in status.
I sewed, and paid no mind to voices at the door.
I heard one say what I was called, the foundling. The sneer was there; a joke now, those expectations I would have proved a blessing, a prophet to inspire pilgrimage—to make the locals rich.
Someone peered at me, through the door, and withdrew his face.
“Yes, tonight is better,” he said, to Elberin, or to Elberin’s servant.
“How much of your own do you need to gather?” The stranger stepped into the room. He lunged for my basket, but only to snag the handle on one side, lift and drop it. “Is this yours to take away? Will your things fit?”
They would, I told him…because I would make do with whatever could be thrust in the basket, and yes, it was mine. This was my station, not to offer protest, never to query. My confusion would waste his time, and I saw already in these evidences, that he was my master now.
“Chapter One,” Trevor said. He shut the book, his own, hardcover. “Val, you want Chapter Two? You wanna do this next week…or tomorrow…? Or, sure, if you’re not liking it, forget it.”
It was evening. Trevor had started the gas in his fireplace, dimmed to a low blue fingering the fake log. They had two pizza boxes on his coffee table, his books, a pot of dirt with no plant, a curling clot of Post-Its sticking together as one, and a cat, on the floor where Giarma sat, her back propped against the sofa, legs stretched under the table. She saw this as a bad habit; her job—if they were having dates—to start nudging. Trevor seemed to eat junk all day. And she doubted Val, silent and unsociable, was in. But for herself, she would like to come back.
“I’ve got to work on my stuff tomorrow…” she told Trevor. “But I can take Two. Whenever you decide.”
“Come on the weekend. Sunday’s when I give myself a day off.”
“She doesn’t have any stuff,” Val said.
Giarma pried a crust from its greasy outline.
“Have this,” she told her brother, offering what was on hand to offer, testing. She had let Val live with her when he’d dropped out of school; she’d been his confidante then, or partner in crime, not thinking his whereabouts any of Joanne’s business…since this exile was Joanne’s fault. Giarma had read it between the lines.
She couldn’t at this moment judge whether Val was kidding, mad at her, or only downhearted. He chewed and looked across at them, sprawled on his belly on the sofa, phone between his elbows.
“Reading out loud,” he said.
Mostly people were really gross, and mostly you hated talking to them. You’d be like, “Hey, awesome!”
You’d get thx. Maybe a poor lil heart.
So, like, I get you. Bitch.
That was one way to be.
Who cared? When she had an assignment, she’d speak all the English her Mom could wish for. She’d buckle down and get it done. The thing her Dad would say.
Savannah joked, but got in answer the Pained Look. Course, Jeremiah was always pained. And Kate was always…impossible.
And Lil Rae, always cold. Cold lil bitch. But in truth, Savannah admired that in her kid sister. No stopping Rae. They could be friends; they just weren’t.
I’m the loser.
She pushed back her chair and something was catching under the wheels. Her black sweater, fallen off. Knowing it, knowing it, she jerked the thin lambswool out of the metal…thing…
She didn’t say fuck, because she didn’t actually use language, by herself. She did it for Kate. She would have to tear that sleeve half way down until it was falling, and then not say anything.
Her mother would say, “Oh, what’d you do to your sweater?” And on the word sweater her voice would pitch up.
Savannah saw bright pink yarn, Frankenstein stitches. That would be weirder.
You were supposed to picture (for this “biography”), you’d become whatever it was people who knew what they were going to major in in college knew they’d be doing for the rest of their lives. Jeremiah didn’t have any college degree, too bad…and Kate had told Savannah she’d have to go to a state school, unless she wanted to take the SAT again. Never in life.
Savannah Hibbler: Female Assassin, she wrote down. Savannah Hibbler: Doctor of Death. Savannah Hibbler: Dictator for Life.
She used glitter pens.
She drew a skull wearing a tiara of flowers.
She said, “Jesus!” out loud, and rolled her eyes.
She began life (she typed on her tablet) as a normal girl.
Then those people came.
Savannah felt bad for Valentine Yoharie. He’d just moved in with his dad…that was sweet, wasn’t it?…poor Mr. Yoharie, his kids coming to stay. Snooty Giarma.
I wish I had all her stuff.
He’d got to drop out of school, Valentine, which was most decidedly awesome. All of a sudden—for her sake (though perhaps unbeknown)—he had to be an example of what that kid down the street was going to turn into, according to her parents.
She subscribed to Trevor’s blogs because her father hated him.
She used Totem-speech.
I would not have asked to be born
A freaking Hibbler.
At Roberta Witticombe’s blog, she looked with envy. If you were friends with the professor down the street, maybe you’d get in on a recommendation. She just liked this thought of Kate, her stingy pride, confounded.
Someone, posting on Roberta’s blog, put up a link, and a picture—a plate of mini bunt cakes. Each had drip icing, white, dusted in purple sugar, and a flower, real.
Candied violets, it said.
Seriously? (someone wrote) Just like the ones in the yard?
Go grab you some. Check out the link! Easy-peasy.
Yeah…but it’s the peasy that gets you.
Savannah had a vision. That you could make something…and it would work out, and people would say, “Oh! That’s so great! Could you make one for me?”
It would be a whole thing to do for a living. And she could leave right away.
“There’s speculation Southey only did it as a kind of meta-joke…not to be inclusive, the way we talk about it now, but just to make a puzzle. One no one could work out the answer to. The few times his publisher issued any communication from him…I say he…”
Trevor looked at Giarma and shrugged.
“Anyway, it was pretty clear he hates Hollywood. He wouldn’t take money…not any amount…to work on a script. Not that we’re talking about a lot. Five figures…it was 1974. So if the creator wouldn’t fix the character one way or the other, no one else had the guts to.”
“But how is it anyone’s got the rights, if Southey doesn’t want them making a movie?”
“Oh, well…you have to take that as a joke, too. It’s sort of legendary he sold the option to Sterling Brodrich.”
He waited. Giarma shook her head.
“Did a mish-mash of TV projects…you know, those days…like a variety special with Dolores del Rio that never got aired, some comedy thing that was a knock-off of Laugh-In…and really, profoundly, not funny. Brodrich was sort of successful with his one cop show…they were gonna slot it into the Mystery Movies, but it was too much like McCloud, so he took it over to ABC.”
Val moved his shoulders, his face an apologetic flinch. It crossed Trevor’s mind to say, “Hey, bud, you’re among friends,” but the mannerism was prelude to a remark:
“I never heard of any of that.”
“Never heard of it?”
“I don’t watch TV.”
“The show’s called Sutter. They got some bad vids on YouTube. Doesn’t matter. It’s just I pick up little facts doing my research, and then I gotta check em out…I write about these things. Anyway, serious people were after Totem. Southey let Brodrich have it for three-hundred fourteen dollars. Pi in your eye, right? He knew the movie couldn’t happen, or if Brodrich got it backed, it would end up a cheesy piece of crap. But things changed, you know, by the time your generation came along.”
“What are you, Trevor, like forty?”
Trevor took a beat, and smiled. “Thirty-five.”
“No,” said Val, flushing. “I mean…I meant it the other way. You said my generation.”
“To be fair…”
His glance again took in Giarma.
“It goes back farther than a couple decades. It was a feminist idea, I guess, that the Totem-Maker ought to be a woman.”
“I’m not in charge of feminism,” she told him.
He looked at her with something like pride. Confusing.
He said, to both of them:
“Things have got polarized, don’t you think? Guys who hate the idea of making female versions of male superheroes, for instance…I mean, you say next movie Spiderman’ll be played by a woman—you get death threats. These days. And then, the last time anyone actually got the project started, there was boycott talk right off…from feminists…”
“People split hairs like crazy,” Val said.
Trevor nodded him on, and Giarma discovered in her brother an unexpected conversance with Totem-World. “Like,” he said, “how could the character challenge her enemy to combat…if she was a woman…and not have Mumas refuse, or at least say something?”
“But Southey was careful about all that. I mean, yeah…there are contrivances, ways the story skirts the issue.” Deadpan, he said aside to Giarma, “Ha ha.”
Then: “But, you have Burda the priest—not priestess, right?—and you have Lady Nyma, who sits in the high seat of judgment in that part of Monsecchers. You have the free-lance fighter who gives the rules in the hearing scene. So the culture doesn’t seem to always make distinctions. Male role, female role. Now, there’s a good article I have in the archives…I’m not gonna tell you who wrote it…
“The experience of the person who holds the low place in society is not exclusively male or female, she says…when you’re powerless, you have to weigh everything in terms of how much will you be punished, whether you can risk standing up for yourself. At times you have a chance to obtain something material, or someone will give you a little responsibility, a little respect…”
“And it turns out you’re good at even the crap work…uh huh. They don’t want it back, but they still hate you.”
Yes, Giarma thought, towards her brother, who’d dodged his head…I am going to talk about my job.
Thanks to this habit of thinking things through, idled in fair contentment on his adjustable bed…maybe prompted by all those daytime shows (Yoharie liked his TV going, the noise didn’t bother the birds), during which all those women hosts called a lot of bullshit on a lot of people, he had been counting his faults.
Not that he never the whole time hadn’t figured himself in the wrong…even the first failed marriage, Michelle from high school…
Who might be anywhere now…
She might turn up on the TV.
He thought he wouldn’t know her face, and her last name would be something different. On reflection, he couldn’t recall what it had been to begin with. Johnson came to him…and he was sure it hadn’t been. Like that, though.
He’d dropped out, cause he’d been given a job driving a truck, and what could be sweeter? The two of them got hitched… They were going together, and he wouldn’t see her at school any more, and there were no adults to say otherwise. His mother more or less favored the idea.
(“Because she’s like Tina,” Dawn had said, and in a three-pack-a-day rasp mimicked, “No, he’s not mine…he’s my grandson!” She did another voice, “Oh, hon, you can’t be forty yet!”)
Michelle’s had said, “Yeah, if you guys’re fuckin around, you better.”
Yoharie chuckled, remembering the ten dollar hole. The way his uncle lectured him, reamed him out, for getting the root ball set too high, not peeling back the burlap right…
And then there’d been all the taping and the staking. His smart daughter, who’d (knowing where you did, anything) looked it up on the computer, what the birds wanted…
She’d ordered him that little bubbling fountain.
He’d watched her through the glass, back stiff, white booklet in hand, waving directions over a crossed arm. The pond liner, that Dawn and Val hid under the rocks…
Yeah…these rocks were a tad, maybe…
“Putt putt golf.”
Val said it, twitching the corner of his mouth, like he did.
“Flintstones.” Yoharie almost heard Giarma say this. Louder: “But the plants will fill in…they’ll get moss after a while. It’ll look okay.” Most of the handiwork, planting and raking in mulch and so forth, had been Dawn’s. The kids helped her dig the hole. Yoharie laughed. Hundred-bucker at least. Giarma had stood reading off the instructions for the pump. Val dug a little channel to bury the cord.
And only native plants for his feeder station…his daughter’d steered him to a sumac, a viburnum… Kind of flowering bush. A dwarf hemlock…who knew they had those? Nick used to carry blue spruce, barberry, Norway maple… But coneflowers for Giarma, and big bluestem grass out in the sun, ferns in the shade. Lots of pretty things were in the catalog you weren’t, by her rules, allowed to put in a pond. But some irises you could plant on the margin.
“That’s a way of putting it,” he’d said. “Margin.”
“I didn’t make it up.”
To finish his thought, Giarma had said also…and, he thought, ticked again, “You don’t have to stake trees, Dad.”
His uncle was still living, down in Florida. Nick had never met Giarma or Val. Now…he might ask Giarma if she could hunt down the address. For a year of staying with her dad, she was starting to ease up.
Yoharie scanned round and spotted his phone. He had the hang of this, too, calling his kids, even though they were in the house…a thing that would not have occurred to him. He hated phones, basically. From his growing up years, when his mother would pick up the receiver, sometimes just cut in and say, “Bub, you better hang up.”
Grandma would’ve called Uncle Nick…or an ambulance…why wouldn’t she? He’d told his mother that.
“Shit, you don’t even know what kind of thing could happen!”
Anyhow, his talks with his buds or Michelle were local…mostly. They had comedy shows on HBO, and he would stay on the line, tell all the jokes over again. Yeah, his Mom paid for cable. It was time he’d been wasting, he guessed.
She saw it that way, the son (like his dad) loafing on the sofa… From junior high on, Yoharie never bothered doing homework. They were gonna flunk you, so what? When you were sixteen, you’d leave. And no lie, at sixteen, he’d got down to the real work. Not until the accident ever stopped working.
No…he finished this second thought…he’d always be getting a call at five a.m., the answering machine always catch it before he could haul himself out of bed. It was always one of his bosses, wanting him to fill in someone’s shift. Yoharie had got the habit of dreading that sound, the ring, ring, half-ring.
The person at (whatever his number had been) is not available to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone.
So they’d called him. There you go. He’d been on the rig ’til nine the night before, working under lights…company hell-bent to get the job done. Penalties in the contract.
Report from the Trenches
She’d taken atta girl from her boss a couple of times.
The trap, being a complex edifice—capable, for taking knocks, of resettling once more into a workable balance; and partly held together, like a wall grown over in ivy, by organic intrusions—you couldn’t anticipate how an ordinary human impulse might transmogrify into a guilty plea down the road. You didn’t know you were in danger. You didn’t even know how you felt about things.
“It was like you’d say, golly gee, or something. A kind of ha-ha self-consciousness you’re talking funny. Cause, I mean, atta-girl…it’s nineteen fifties, gal Friday stuff. So…I was the only one on the team. I felt like, someone has to joke when I do a good job…it’s like, there has to be that little buffer… He can’t commit to it, being serious, if he’s only talking to Giarma Yoharie. For that matter, he can’t even say my name without that tone of voice, you know, that little tee hee. And you know,” she told Trevor, “it’s been my name my whole life. I’ve heard it. Whatever your stupid comment is.”
Without a doubt though, before she’d crossed the line, the daily clown show had been teasing, in its nature. However.
Trevor was making his face and voice blank, saying this. A proof he offered, maybe. But she didn’t know him.
“Trevor Royce,” she said, folding her arms.
Naïve, starting life, you got advice from magazines, from websites, talk shows. The hosts were chipper, the solutions: “How to Deal with Toxic People”; “Try These Five Office Hacks If You Want a Promotion!”…worked in their scenarios…and you said to yourself, why not?
In Giarma’s case the bad counsel had been, turn it around! Sometimes people just need to hear what they sound like!
Her boss had been late with her performance review…that she was supposed to read and sign. He’d popped out of his office, laid it on her desk, said, “There you go.”
And she’d said: “Atta girl.”
She had thus painted the target on her own back.
Brandon, who joked a lot, by his own account, took it as a jab at his manhood…or maybe upstartery from one too lowly to dare it.
Which made Giarma think of another thing. She told Trevor: “So one time the radio was playing…it was oldies, that song Oh What a Night…I don’t know who that is…”
“Frankie Valli. Or someone else.”
“Covers it.” She half-smiled. “So anyway, I was kind of singing along…I didn’t even know her name…but I was never gonna be the same…and you know, it was like…” He waited, and she gestured in search of expression. That they could pretend to think a woman singing the lyrics to a song was playing into…
Or giving a jumping off point for…
“That kind of lezzie fantasy guys are always so gaga over…cause it was that all day long… And other stuff.”
One of them…because Brandon got his acolytes to pile on…had happened across a weather forecast. And she’d trusted Joel at the time. With innocent eyes, he’d asked Giarma to check and tell him what the temperature was.
69 degrees. Tee hee.
The Theramain Health Group administrative offices housed the worst collection of people in the world. This was no secret at MSW Benefits, where even the Brandonettes dreaded the call. Also, Theramain had once employed Brandon. He told Giarma, “You’ve got a special relationship with the guys. I’m giving that one to you.”
This was his friendly way of saying, “Bitch, I’m gonna throw you in the snake pit.”
She and Brandon always at that point had put on their faces, and smiled at each other through their teeth.
And when she moved to the conference room screen, the Theramen, as she thought of them, took out their phones. She put her flash drive into the company-provided laptop (she seriously did not want to set up her own on their wireless, and they’d been dangerously cooperative at this demurral).
USB device not recognized.
Next: USB flash drive not formatted.
Next: USB drive cannot read media.
But, when she’d rooted in her attaché for the binder with the printed material, one of the guys came up, and sort of swirled his hand over the touchpad.
“I don’t know what your problem is,” he’d grinned at her.
One important member of the team had been away, on “family business”. Giarma, being special to the Theramen, found herself back within a week, one on one with him in his office.
Trevor frowned, and so she said to him: “No, he wasn’t handsy…just SOS, you know?”
The password he gave her was wrong. It wasn’t wrong, of course…she keyed it in one-fingered, careful of capitals, just as he read it out to her. But it wouldn’t take. She got locked out. He dialed for her. She took the phone and spoke to the IT guy. She got a new password. She keyed it in one-fingered, careful of capitals. She got locked out.
She was sensitive to the critic’s take.
Of walls (stone), that she’d seen erected a million times—“Get a sense of humor”; “Grow a thicker hide”…and the several variations: “C’mon, the guys are just letting off steam”; “I dunno…that stuff doesn’t bother me”—the implication was reliable. She’d asked in HR if people ever complained about harassment, an oblique approach to finding some safe patch of ground on which to (in case she did) make a stand.
“Are you wanting to file a complaint?”
What a question.
Go that route, and by all accounts, you might as well go jump off a bridge. But how could Giarma answer no, burning it?
She answered, “Um.” She started to qualify, bit down on the word “no”, and said, “I’m curious.”
She left with a pamphlet.
“You’ve got that thing,” she told Trevor.
His face struggled over a quip, and to his credit, he settled for, “Elucidate.”
“The blog with the conspiracies. Just because…you know how people get paranoid, right?”
She hoped, now it was over, Giarma Yoharie having definitely scurried off in defeat, two things. One, that all their busy planning had become life to them, a time-occupier, a reason for cozy phone calls and hallway tête-à-têtes; thus, that they could not relinquish the daily scapegoat without the wrench of an addict giving up his drug.
So, two, that they would fall into repeating this pattern of behavior; that months must pass and nothing the Yoharie had touched could remain. Failures could not be her fault. Giggly pranks…not to wish evil on others…would have to be played on some up-and-coming stooge.
She’d fallen, herself, into stopping at fast food places for hoagies, snacking on kettle chips, actually dropping the grocery entryway’s BOGO donuts into her shopping cart; a swinging back and forth between comfort-eating and guilt (bulging in your skirts a bad idea anyway, where your tormenters pretended to see tight clothes flirtation).
Slugging coffee, taking long walks, evening declining to darkness, no work done.
The work was watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Or scrolling Twitter. There was real work going begging, but she’d put the kibosh on doing any of it at home. It would never be right; it would never be finished.
Her dad and Dawn had got their new house—bought late summer, move-in ready by All Hallows Eve. Until then, Giarma couldn’t have helped with anything; the drive was ninety minutes both ways, and to lose a weekend day just brought her closer—with less recovery time for herself—to the grinder, cranking up fresh Monday mornings.
Dawn made her crabby. Her dad made her crabby…and guilty. And he hadn’t done anything, only said now they lived where she could come down, he wished she would. He called her Giarma, taking care. Because there was no sweetheart, no kid, no pet name…no dad and daughter history…and every time he called her Giarma, following a painstaking, humble pause, she steeled herself not to feel bad about this, too.
She’d gone at Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, the nothingest holiday…
“…I mean, that you have to feel bad about. Another thing. Mother’s Day, you send a gift card. Easter, I buy the M & M’s, that’s all… But Thanksgiving, everyone has to eat turkey, which you would never normally do…and cranberry sauce, which…what is it?”
“Ground up cranberries.”
Because nature had infested her with a pointless empathy; thus she felt other people’s efforts, other people’s failures, so acutely they were like her own, Giarma found Dawn’s brave household almost unbearable. Tina would be there, ruining things. Val, living at Dad’s as an Alternative Adult, could come out of his room or not.
He didn’t…though a forlorn place setting represented him.
“I’m surprised,” Tina said to Giarma, “what with that insurance stuff you do, you can be so quiet.”
Dawn stood, and Giarma did too, for no reason.
“Are you all ready for pie? No, Mom…”
Tina was slow at rising and sitting. She was probably arthritic and didn’t deserve to be hated. Giarma scuttled to the coffee maker, and Dawn asked:
“Do you want ice cream?”
“No. I don’t want any of it.”
There’d been apple, and pumpkin, and pecan. And a plate of cookies. Something of Tina’s…a Sara Lee pound cake, with raspberry syrup and Cool Whip. You could cry.
But Dawn, a rock, truly…beyond all possible thanks for the way she looked after Dad…Giarma wanted never to be rude to.
“Oh…listen…I think I have to quit my job.”
And Dawn, whose patience was not untriable, but whose gallantry was such she was going for the pound cake, a big piece on her own plate, pumpkin pie for Giarma’s dad, glanced up over her shoulder.
She caught Giarma’s eye squarely. She said, “Do it!”
Out along the edge of the landscaping—the spirea bushes and the Japanese lilac, the forsythia, the azalea, the “Aurica” juniper—Hibbler saw his daughter bent, crouch-walking the rubber strip, picking something and putting it in a bowl.
The first owners had planted these shrubs long ago, that Kate had been sold on—“Flowers, no maintenance…pretty good deal!” (per Kelly Stomitz)—or maybe it was the builders, veering from mid-century yew, who’d been sold on this highlighter-pen-color-combo, yellow and pink. And Hibbler, wanting daffodils, had planted King Alfreds under the mulch.
Raelyn, wanting tulips, had asked for pink ones…Angelique. A name she’d rechristened her Barbie. Now and again he talked about tomatoes, melons, corn…and Kate decided they wouldn’t. The girls’ volleyball net was always up, always bisecting the yard, one pole with a poison ivy vine you couldn’t weed-whack, he hadn’t yet got to tackling.
“What’s she doing?” he asked Raelyn.
Hibbler looked down at his untroubling daughter shifting away, moving her iPad into brighter light, punching its keyboard with a pinkie finger…in a way that struck him resigned.
Angelique the Barbie was stuffed away now, in a drawer someplace.
“Are you doing homework?”
Savannah, to this gambit, would answer, “I never do homework.” That was a year or two ago, the topic still live, but Hibbler had spotted the trap. He wasn’t ready to have a whole conversation about homework. He wasn’t now.
Raelyn told him, firmly…even less believably: “Yes.”
Hibbler backed from the inglenook, glancing again out the sink window as he passed, and paused at the door to the deck, hand on the handle. He was going to call Todwillow, was what he decided. Next he decided he was going to visit Todwillow.
Because he’d have to.
He would take a little stroll. There was no harm in it. He would get the weirdness worked out, and he would tell Todwillow he needed to see the cameras.
It was from Todwillow moving to the neighborhood, getting in with Mat Busby…
All the stuff. Hibbler put it that way. They were kind of alike, those two. They talked alike. Their faces both sort of weaseled in…narrowed, that was, towards the nose when they side-grinned at each other. So, pals. And Kate was, with Tristanne. He froze for a second, putting on his vest…not, for today’s purpose, would Hibbler fully accouter.
Yeah, though, Kate was friends with Tristanne; Tristanne was married to Mat. That was what it was.
The Busbys were throwing a tailgate party. This was where you barbequed in your driveway, and watched a game on the garage TV, and made like you were at a college stadium. Hibbler, of the six of them, had never been to a college stadium. Hibbler and Kate, of the six of them, were the only ones with kids.
“The girls can come over for a burger, anyway. Course, they can stay and watch the game. Do they ever?”
“Rae might,” Kate told Tristanne. “Savannah thinks beef is destroying the planet.”
“Well, I mean chips, salad, whatever.”
Savannah did take a burger, a corn-on-the-cob, a kebob of grilled watermelon, and Dr. Wethers teased her about having a beer. She stopped talking, finished eating, left them…but Rae stuck around, playing with Tristanne’s cat.
“See, Dad, Beatty’s okay.”
He pretended he didn’t hear.
Rae wanted a cat. She wanted to show him the dog was safe with a cat. Hibbler wanted no more pets. Rae’s eyes drilled him for two sharp seconds…she got up, and started the walk home. Tristanne, then, edging amidst Adirondack chair and strap-lounger, blocking the TV from guest to guest with a tray of salad things—ranch dip, broccoli, dried up little carrots—had done…he didn’t really know what…or why it irritated him to this day…
She’d paused to catch his eye, and jerked her head, with a sort of sappy frown, in Rae’s direction. Like…what? Hibbler, asking himself this, had spread his hands, frowned back harder, batted with loathing her damn vegetables, knocking the tray against her belly.
Nothing spilled. He’d said sorry. She’d said never mind. He thought Tristanne had taken against him, though, for that. Maybe it was Tristanne who said things.
Todwillow came to the neighborhood watch meeting, and told them they didn’t have a neighborhood watch. When, that time—as he meant—they’d abortively tried having one.
“You know, guys, there are actual ways of doing this.”
He was on his feet and gesturing around, while the rest of them sat. Of the planning committee, the Wittecombes occupied the Busbys’ window seat, Cathlyn Burris one of the dining chairs; Kate, far opposite, another. Hibbler fidgeted on a folding chair from his basement. Dr. Petersen, mouth expressing regretful contempt, perched on its duct-taped mate. (Tristanne had said bring chairs, he’d brought chairs…how did that get to be a loser move?)
Mat had withdrawn to the stairs. His feet jutted into the room. Dr. Wethers chuckled between the dieffenbachia and the hutch, into which niche he’d scooted a third dining chair. Tristanne’s was flush to the table.
As per Hibbler’s rule with Zach growing up, his own Savannah’s with Rae (“I’ll kill you if you take that. I’m sitting there!”)—Mat’s wife sat not in situ. Being hostess, she buzzed, going into the kitchen to check the coffee pot, coming out with bottles of Sprite and Diet Coke no one wanted.
The living room was a gym. The downstairs bedroom, stocked with computer stuff, the Busbys’ office. The den, Mat had sound-proofed, blackout curtained, recess lighted, for his movie viewing. When they entertained the gang, they liked using their pimped garage. When they entertained the profitable, Mat’s golf club.
The Busbys’ dining room, unpurposed, served for those invited/not really invited…the Witticombes, Cathlyn Burris, Petersen.
The Hibblers had never been asked to the club.
But it was the Busbys’ thing, this neighborhood watch. The old people, the Karshes, had been party first time they’d organized one…
Trevor Royce, current occupant of the Karsh house, wasn’t asked.
He was, though, kind of the instigator. Wethers said it first; Mat took it up, and Hibbler, for coming to know Todwillow pretty well, still didn’t know which of them was his original friend.
“Stupid, I’m just gonna say it,” Todwillow said. “You’re writing down everything in a notebook, and you’re passing it every month to whoever’s captain.”
He saw Cathlyn steel herself. “Because, we didn’t want a martial…” She looked at Roberta Witticombe.
“Oh, vibe or whatever. Because it keeps things democratic. Normal.”
Todwillow put on a face. “Keeps things normal. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“We had a spreadsheet.”
“Can I finish?”
Hibbler scanned the group, and saw body language divide them. Kate, Wethers, Mat (so far as he could tell), leaning back, heads tilting. The Witticombes and Cathlyn Burris upright, arms crossed. Petersen, odd man out, and Tristanne, slouched their embarrassment…though, as Hibbler thought of it, everything Petersen did carried that same air of delicate disgust. Tristanne, of anxiety.
“So, did your spreadsheet have a password? No, why would it? Everybody in Dogpatch trusts everybody else. You made it in someone’s WordPerfect from 1988, and traded it around on a floppy disk, right? And then every month, it’s her turn…” He jabbed a finger at Roberta, at Cathlyn, “…and then it’s her turn. Shit! Did you people know you might get a grant to cover your expenses, if you can manage this thing professionally?”
“And so, we’re going to learn how to be cops…”
“Here it comes.”
Cathlyn shifted, almost rising. “There’s no reason for that!”
“What? For what? What are you people mad about? You can have your little pisant neighborhood klatch, if that’s how you like it best. I’m just here to make a few points. There’s a lot more work involved, really getting this off the ground. You don’t like cops, I just hope you don’t have the kind of trouble it looks to me like you’re gonna have in a couple years.”
“You see, what I don’t like here…and as far as I can see…is that you’re saying the Karshes left, and we got Trevor…and then, some of the other older people are bound to leave…”
“Right, right. Now, if you think small time, you’re gonna be small time. Even at this level, you have analytics. There’s a lot of ways thieves can case a neighborhood. The first rule is, you can’t use information, if you can’t touch information.”
“I don’t see why…” Roberta spoke on, as over the voice of a classroom disrupter, when Todwillow broke for emphasis. “…what amounts to a normal pattern…older people do leave. Younger people do come in. They bring their own cultural values, and they usually have less money…”
“So…if a blue car turns up parked on Endeavour, then a month later, a red car goes driving down Atlantis, and if Jane and Alice are the ladies who spotted them, and wrote them down in the little notebook, but maybe it’s Jer’s turn here, and Alice hasn’t brought him over the blotter, so he sees a white car on…you people got an Enterprise Street?”
“Avenue,” Wethers said.
“Figured.” (Mat and Wethers chuckled.) “You have information. What are you gonna do with it? If you don’t know you have it…”
“Why, speaking of data, we would make assumptions not supported by any. Trevor is my next door neighbor. He hasn’t done anything that I know of…”
“So. Think about what happens when you can’t put these three cars together and recognize a trend going on. Nobody knows you’re under assault until the assault comes…”
“Oh, come on, assault! And what the hell? It’s not cute calling us ladies…it’s not cute pretending our names aren’t worth knowing!”
Cathlyn was all the way on her feet.
Dr. Witticombe, the husband, spoke.
“Roberta,” he said, “if I’m not mistaken, Mr. Todwillow is a sort of salesman. This training, or organizing, or whatever it is he’s offering, is a thing we’ll be expected to contract for, coming up with the money…as I would gather, by determining among ourselves some amount we will each contribute. Now,” he broadened his argument, with a nod to Cathlyn, encompassing Kate, Wethers, Hibbler…and Tristanne, just back with the coffee carafe, “if we’d taken the notion of joining, say, a window box club, and the man came with his slideshow and his seed packets, we’d hear him out, I think. We wouldn’t insist on arguing the merits of privet hedges instead. We would, presumably, have settled on the desirable option in foliage, before we’d asked the salesman to make his presentation. The salesman,” he forestalled Todwillow’s vindicated grunt, “might be an obnoxious jerk. But that’s not really the point.”
“I can’t stay.” Petersen rose, patting his belt.
“He’s an eye doctor, and he gets emergency calls?”
Todwillow made the question rhetorical. He’d followed with menacing raptness Petersen’s mute exit, the shutting of his door across the street.
“Maybe he does.” Tristanne looked at Hibbler.
He made himself not notice it. At the clinic—open ten to three, Hibbler locking up a little after five, giving Petersen the berth he needed (so they didn’t leave the parking lot together and have to chat)—pretty much nothing happened. The eye doctor’s security guard didn’t carry a gun. He had a walkie-talkie and no one to talk to.
He’d worked years, his third job out of high school, as manager, appliances, Sears. Held this job when he married Kate, met her through it. They’d closed Sears. Savannah and Raelyn, three years ago, fourteen and ten.
A recruiting firm was what Busby claimed he was regional vice-president of.
“What do you recruit?”
“To introduce people to our products.”
Tristanne’s job made sense, though…her medical stuff. Sense enough for Hibbler, clinical gadgetry he had no reason to care about, but understood the fact of, the physical existence of. As she also sold things, both Busbys travelled, and Hibbler, being at home, was asked by Mat to sign for packages, “wander” over and let workers in.
All his new neighbors’ remodeling, that later…it must have been a Witticombe speaking…was said to be skewing property values just as much as people like Trevor and the Yoharies…
He’d kind of thought he was their friend, but Kate knew more. “Look. When Savannah graduates, maybe we can scale back. There’s no way right now I can be the only one earning.”
“What about Mat’s thing?”
“No. You don’t have the money for that.”
It was a test, Hibbler decided. You had to actually sign up for a seminar, pay cash, or Mat would count it like giving away his product (services) for free.
Hibbler had found a job he could do, selling ATVs. It was part-time. Days were dead, the place way out on the highway. Cathlyn Burris, oddly, told him Dr. Petersen might have something. It was like, again, people talking about his problems and not letting him know they did.
So Hibbler, for humbly asking, now sold ATVs second-shift, until nine o’clock at night, sitting days in a chair at the eye clinic, falling asleep watching training videos…waiting for trouble, if Petersen said so…the Medicare crowd shuffling in and out. The cumulative hours were rough—he felt sometimes like he lived alone in his house, like Saturday morning reminders he was still there, still crumbing up the butter tub, his bacon drippings dotting the counter, got on Kate’s nerves—but he was up to two-thirds his old salary.
Todwillow, later, said, “He was just trying to cover his ass.”
Some records Petersen kept went missing. There definitely hadn’t been a burglary. At least, the alarm never went off—but it was Hibbler’s job to set it.
“No, see”—Todwillow in that jeez-you’re-stupid voice—“he had it planned. But he had to look like he did due diligence. Anyway, you being there spread the responsibility, right?”
Petersen was said to be in Florida; the case against him not criminal as yet. But that dodge, moving state to state, was how bad doctors kept practicing. (He was probably, though, an okay doctor…just a fraudulent biller. Hibbler did not defend Petersen to Todwillow.)
Witticombe’s point having been grudged him by the women, for an hour more they watched their guest lecturer hunch over his laptop; this embedded in one of two attaché-sized plastic cases he’d brought along. Mat and Wethers crowded behind, so Todwillow’s examples—“See what I mean about hiding places…” (some pictures he’d taken walking around their neighborhood); whatever he was mousing over, saying, “I can teach you this software in ten minutes”, were lost on Kate, Cathlyn, Tristanne, both Witticombes, and Hibbler.
Todwillow, to the room, said: “I got three names I’ll print out for you, local law enforcement. If you wanna get in touch with any of these guys, fine…they know me. They’ll get you set up for nothing. Use my name when you call. My experience, you won’t keep up with it. But you’ve been that route, you oughta know.”
He talked on, to Wethers and Mat. Cathlyn said something to Roberta.
Hibbler sat cooling his ankles by the floor register, ears not picking up either conversation.
“Come on, Jeremiah, you’re gonna be watch captain. You need to get on the stick.”
Maybe he’d meant if you’re gonna be… Maybe Todwillow, with his sources, knew something about the future the rest of them didn’t. Hibbler came over and peered around Wethers’s elbow, clueless.
He heard Cathlyn say, “Tristanne, thanks. I’m going.”
Roberta: “Yeah, I think we’re done. Call me, though, if you come up with any ideas.”
“English has a perfectly good neutral pronoun. I happen to have said that the people who think they can’t say one, as in one earns minimum wage, one aspires to form a neighborhood watch, one asks oneself what is the meaning of life, should comprehend, at least, why xe or thon would be bothersome to others. I happen to have gone on to say, that it would be most appropriate to use she where the unknown actor would likelier be she than he…if she were shopping, for example. No,” Dr. Witticombe said, “I am planning to retire in full next year. A semester at home doesn’t make any difference.”
“Bullshitting son of a bitch,” Todwillow murmured. Not that they needed to lower their voices inside the Busbys’ house. Todwillow had opened his other case, got out what looked like two broken stereo speakers. They were now listening, amazing Hibbler, obviously not Mat or Wethers; not Kate, whom Hibbler had never seen surprised—and not Tristanne, who’d rushed back to the kitchen—to three who’d come to a halt a block up the street, having met with a fourth…Trevor Royce. The Witticombes and Cathlyn Burris were telling him how stupid the meeting had been. They’d got off-topic, onto Witticombe’s news, boring their audio voyeurs.
Royce and Witticombe’s wife laughed together, the low chuckle. Against-the-Norm Professor Witticombe, proving again, “He would say a thing like that”.
“So, anyway,” Cathlyn said. Laughter again. Maybe she’d made a face. “But you know, I told you about Cole. One thing he was always doing…he’d get these horror stories from the internet and copy them to everyone. FYI. ICYMI. Our whole job is going to people’s houses talking to them…while we’re supposed to also, you know, be assessing. How does the director try to terrify everyone if they do what they have to, they’ll get gang-targeted, and so forth?”
“He is right, though…no.”
Laughter. “That I don’t think we’d stick with it. The takeaway”—Roberta speaking—“ought to be we all just communicate with each other better. Most of Todwillow’s stuff I think you’re right is a bad trend. What exactly is the demonstrable threat, what needs to be addressed? There isn’t anything. We’re safe. Not supercalifragilistic extra safey-safe…but safe. Fine. So one or two people…Mat Busby…has got a general concern…” A second of nothing, possibly a gesture in the air. “Which is your fault, Trevor.”
“Well, shit, I was joking about painting the house black. I know…you shouldn’t mess with people. What else have I done? I guess I’m a slob. I don’t keep the yard up…I’m counting on the pampas grass.”
“You’ll hate it,” Dennis Witticombe said.
“Yeah, I’ve been hacking it back from the walk.”
Todwillow shrugged at this turn, and switched off his microphone.
“Mat Busby,” Mat said, pitching his voice high.
They really had made him be watch captain. Hibbler couldn’t see it rewarding to feel out Mat, knew he couldn’t Todwillow…
But he thought it sometimes.
Spying on people was shady…well, it had to be.
No one was going to knock on the Witticombes’ door—
“Hey, by the way…”
No. The thought was…it meant something to have been…picked out…made party to a secret. Of this kind, not really on the up-and-up. So you couldn’t tell. You’d be telling on yourself.
Hibbler was a reluctant thinker-through; he would like to postpone all this for some later date when things would probably be different, anyway. He had no confidante to search souls with. Back home, on that day, Kate had said, “Just don’t make a career of it, Joe Friday.” Her eyes strayed to the DVD shelf, a twitch at the side of her mouth telegraphed an edit: “Drebin”.
Again, she said, “You can’t afford it, Jer. Farting around with Todwillow.”
He’d won, by virtue of not quitting his job, the late-shift manager’s slot at the dealer’s. He was earning less than his two-thirds, because Petersen had, a month or so after, shut down the clinic overnight. Hibbler, going to work ignorant, found himself mobbed by Petersen’s patients outside the locked door.
Mat crossed the street to talk to Dawn Orse, Dawn the one seen outdoors most often, after the moving-in, prolonged, builder’s vans lining the street…this time, on the Yoharie, not the Busby, side. Word got around Mr. Yoharie had had an accident, was disabled, an amputee.
Busby got around. But Busby was Robin to Todwillow’s Batman.
Maybe…not wholly fair.
“You home with the kids?”
Mat laughed. “So…you’re out of work.”
“No,” Hibbler said again, but felt…uneasy. That was it, seriously—the idea of making Mat ticked off with him, made Hibbler uneasy. He guessed he didn’t like Mat. They went on being friends.
“No, I’m over at Tri-City.”
“Yeah, with the go-karts. Nice work if you can get it. What you know about Petersen?”
A silence, Hibbler racking his mind for small talk. Some friendly word, gratitude for Mat’s attention.
“So come over.”
That day, he met Todwillow. Todwillow asked him, grinning, about the Yoharies. And then, somehow, Hibbler gave all he could about Petersen.
What’d he’d got was, “Wait til you see that kid.”
“She says they never talk about it, and she doesn’t care.”
And a joke. Yoharie had one thing going for him, anyway…he knew how to pick the right woman. Jer?
“I get you.”
People didn’t have to be married.
They didn’t have to be “like everyone around here”.
Hibbler preferred both, but he repeated these mitigations, like everyone. The Yoharies, though, seemed to just get more interesting. The realtor’s sign came down for good. The contractors packed up; Dawn stood on the grass and waved. The kid Valentine, moved in, started coming out. On his little bicycle.
Todwillow by then, long since, had got onto his thing.
It was almost sarcastic…or not sarcastic…disrespectful, in a kind of way. Like, Hibbler thought, when you were in school, and you had a new backpack, maybe new sneakers. And someone scratched all over your stuff, some insult in Sharpie.
What for, but that they’d spotted niceness, possession, pride.
Todwillow made things of things. He was like a…
(Hibbler had reasons for not wanting to say predator—)
But like: “Now yours belongs to me”.
He never found satisfaction in these explanatory trials, yet believed what he suspected, that Todwillow, for hearing Cathlyn Burris describe some guy named Cole…and because it bugged her, evidently…had taken up the habit.
Blood in the water…
Cathlyn had to put herself on the list, so did the Witticombes. Their association was voluntary, not formalized, Roberta strong (and by herself, calling up all her powers, as Hibbler thought of it, strong enough to rule) on forbidding dues, on no-waying liens. So the list was the least you could do. If you wouldn’t, what were you saying? I don’t care about my neighbors, not even to read an email? The Yoharies agreed, Dawn always wiftily up for anything to help, “…but, you know, I can’t leave the house for more than an hour or two.”
(Giarma though, later, when: “Do you wanna be on the list? I need your email”, had given Hibbler that struggling-to-grasp-the-weirdness-of-it face. And: “No.”)
So everyone, most, got Todwillow’s friendly news and tips. So they knew…especially…what drugs teenagers were into, what new slang they were using for code. They got a heads-up, white slavery rings were kidnapping schoolkids in Cleveland… And maybe some people didn’t mind being sorrier than safer, but there were signs to look out for—a check-list Todwillow under this subject line passed along—to tell if the pipeline run by illegals in Florida was beachheading in your area.
“Your girls get along? They good friends?”
It was a game day, Kate doing books at one of her salons, and since Tristanne had greeted him by asking, “How are the girls?”, Todwillow’s appropriating the segue seemed natural enough. It was hard for Hibbler, distracted wanting Tristanne not to sit with them, to frame this proposition in his mind. Did they get along? Were they friends? What would Kate say?
He said: “Hey, if you don’t want Beatty in here…”
“Oh, he’s fine.”
He was stinking up the room, in fact. Dog and cheese popcorn together…not a good thing. Hibbler wasn’t even the sort of person who’d bring Beatty, foisting his mutt on friends. Only, going out the door, you couldn’t get rid of him.
And then, it was the dog he was trying to hinge on, in a way…
“So when Savannah goes to school, she’ll have to take Beatty with her.”
Rae had said this, coolly declarative.
“Oh, jeez,” Savannah said.
“Okay, don’t answer.” Todwillow chuckled. Like he knew kids.
Hibbler said, “Savannah’s going to school in a couple years. I guess.”
“Well, then.” Sarcastic.
“I used to hate my sister. When we had to share a room, growing up. But…”
Tristanne’s were always like Reader’s Digest stories; her anecdotes (a word Hibbler had learned from Reader’s Digest) always uplifting. “When she was in chemo, I went out to live with her for a year… I quit my job…”
This was news, to Hibbler and Todwillow. Somehow Tristanne skirted the outcome, and only Mat would know it. Todwillow, thus, while looking keenly interested, said nothing, and Hibbler said nothing.
The Busbys’ theater set-up meant get-togethers, a few of the gang, or people Mat knew (but not often). Super Bowl, Oscars, March Madness, Kentucky Derby, World Series, Ohio State-Michigan…Penn usually out by then, but not always…
Sometime later, Todwillow commented, “Your older kid’s going through a phase.”
Then they’d had a longer talk…and Hibbler, paying attention since the subject had been raised, could offer a little more about the girls’ rivalry.
He didn’t like the word.
There was Zack, for example. He couldn’t recall their basic not-liking-each-other as a competition. Beat your rival, win the championship. But if his brother hadn’t been there somehow, he couldn’t imagine his growing up years happier for it, his dad less hard on him.
That…he’d let himself ponder aloud…wasn’t (he didn’t think it was) the way things were between Savannah and Rae. His face was red, but the lights were out, and the screen was making everyone’s face blue, green, yellow. Hibbler wasn’t hard on his girls. They wouldn’t think so. He was a good dad…an okay dad.
These steps, plain habit took him through.
He looked, as he walked his beat, for new ideas, ones that could shed a forgiving light on the burden of his theme. Hibbler’s parade of memories, trodden out as he checked one side of the street, cars parked there, anything visible up between properties, might circle one day and come shining home, if he allowed it to.
Some kids were playing basketball. The Kennedys, who lived here, had that type of driveway that went behind the house, so from the sidewalk he could see one back up, shuffle a foot behind the other, catch the ball, vanish. Thump on the backboard. Another kid glided across, hand going, c’mon, c’mon.
He got a picture in his mind, a TV kind of scenario, where he’d wander back, hook the ball, impress the kids with some sort of move, strike up a conversation…use the right words…
They’d trust him, and when he asked, so, you heard anything about some plant you can pick in the back yard, something I guess kids are smoking these days…
Then, the thought came that he’d got this image from Police Squad.
She made him jump, Mrs. Kennedy, yelling out, turning out to be there, watering big Boston ferns lined up on the deck rail.
“Ha! What you been up to?” she said.
“I gotta take down that basketball net. Randy uses it sometimes when he comes home from school. Now it’s just a nuisance. So…you getting rid of them? Run em off?”
“Well…sure. You don’t know who they are?”
“Ask.” She stretched the word, telling him, obvious, isn’t it?
One slammed the ball hard on the concrete, so it ricocheted off the garage door, past Hibbler’s ear. Then they all scrambled…but in truth, more jogged a few light paces, bunched up and sauntered, laughed and cast back a glance or two.
He’d gone, fearing she’d pop out of cover again, catch him off guard while the kids were watching…maybe, after embarrassing him into doing it for her, just run them off herself, which she had the balls to do.
“You kids from the neighborhood?”
He got out his phone, heard them tell each other:
“He’s taking our picture. Oh no!”
“Look out, man.”
Well, it wasn’t as lame as that. Just he couldn’t remember every face that belonged on these streets. He was going to Todwillow’s. Todwillow would be happy to have the picture.
It was a thought too close to home.
The inroads Todwillow made were by formula, or it had begun to seem so, Hibbler catching pattern in it all…while yet, he was tempted to tell himself no, not. Why hadn’t they just been having conversations?
That would be fine, he would not have to hate Todwillow, count him…basically…
And Hibbler got a sense, creeping over the nape of his neck, that he might be in danger, for even thinking this…to mentally name Todwillow these things.
The alternative, though, was to own the act himself, and he couldn’t do that.
“Jeremiah, where’s Beatty?”
Fresh on his humiliation with the kids, was this, the voice that had come to grate on his nerves. Cathlyn Burris made him angry, thud, thud, thudding along in her jogging shoes, wearing those shiny, tight pants runners wore. She made him angry, waving past him, before he’d recovered his social face and an answer.
“Not with me.”
His manager: “Who’s that? Jer. The lady you were talking to?”
That had been Cathlyn, at the Home Depot, shop lights in her cart. Todwillow, spotting such, would say, “Weed.” Cathlyn had said, “These are a nuisance to put up, aren’t they!”
Hibbler had been a little speechless. She did that to him…
Because you couldn’t be uncommunicative, what she might have said. She had training for this; she diffused tensions. She was cheerful, encouraging, constant. He would never shake her…he could be a meth-head, waving a gun. That was to say, a situation dire as that.
“Did she ask you a question?”
“No. Adam. She’s my neighbor.”
“Oh, yeah? She must like you, coming all the way out here.”
Why had she? But, from now on, if she did, he’d have to grin and bear it…
A cartoon they used to have.
He’d been worried, appeasing in the house, clerking part-time, still shouldering two jobs. So Kate would shut up, that he wasn’t trying. Worried, a little, though, that Royce, especially Royce…
Might do whatever his type of idiot did. Make home-crafted medieval weapons, maybe. That he’d turn up, that he’d find some way to tell Kate. Which, Hibbler conceded, was a lot of information to pick up by happenstance, shopping. But here again, Todwillow would have said…
But he wouldn’t.
“I’m busy. Sit down over there.” And more friendly, looking over his shoulder. “Get you in a minute, bud.”
Hibbler would sit, and maybe there’d be a printout, or a magazine, or a newspaper with a can of beer, that when he picked it up to look at, there’d be a ring. Marked, only by accident, maybe…Ten Worst Crimes Inspired by Video Games. Kids that killed their parents.
Then: “So, Jer, how’s it going?”
And it was Hibbler’s job to say it, and he always had to say it. He hadn’t yet got this shorthanded, a thing that could be done, got out of the way because it had to be. Not mentioned.
His daughter, he’d met passing through the sliding doors.
His head bent at first, over the rolling cart, twenty-five pound bags of potting soil, a vacuum cleaner in a box, big tub of dog treats, two dying rosebushes on clearance. Right now he was pushing, and the customer was pulling…not helping, obstructing…because people didn’t really like someone hefting things for them.
(And anyhow, on her own, getting the heavy stuff out of her trunk.)
Savannah, pocketing her phone, raising eyes, had gaped at him with an unfeigned dismay, tingeing towards horror. He hadn’t spotted her anywhere when he’d come back inside, stopping at the cashier’s to say, “Got her,” returning to appliances.
And then she’d said Sunday, at the breakfast table. “Mom. Isn’t Dad still working at the place?”
“What, Tri-City? Or what place, Savannah?”
Rae sat up and looked at faces, with interest. “He got a part-time at Home Depot, Hanbo.”
“Oh. I guess I never heard…”
“Why not the one close?” Savannah said a minute later. Since he was sitting there, all this had been a little off-kilter for Hibbler. His daughter didn’t listen, was the answer, but it was possible, also, that Kate hadn’t wanted to tell.
So he ought to say, “Yeah, I was going to say hello…”
Or any normal remark that would make this family chat normal. But he hadn’t said anything.
Kate, sharp: “Why are you asking?”
He left the table. The corner of his eye caught his younger daughter roll hers, flip back hair from her shoulder. It wasn’t anger, though…what his mother called a snit. People were misunderstanding Hibbler these days. Only that he’d heard in this tone of voice, a whole picture his wife must have got in her mind. He embarrassed Kate; she thought people were gossiping.
I dunno, Savannah said. But, jeez.
He embarrassed Kate; he pretended to her he’d put in for a manager’s slot, when he hadn’t, and wouldn’t. He told her it was all he could do.
“I mean, I’m doing everything I can. Jobs are tough.”
He told Adam his daughter was having a rough time in school, and he needed to be home…home in the afternoons, as much as possible.
They were always tough. But, in his Sears days, he’d seen himself climbing the ladder.
Hibbler could ask…he never had…had he been liked by his salespeople? Had his boss—tall old guy, big head, thin white hair blackened by the grease he slicked it with, long skinny legs, huge gut, voice like Fred Flintstone—liked him? There was a kind of…he didn’t know…place, old people held when he had been their junior. Jeff McElroy boomed out friendly greetings, he moved fast, slapped shoulders, left his office door cracked, but no one went in.
Hibbler didn’t get his own juniors. Sometimes these days, they filled jobs like Adam’s bidding them out online. The Adamses came from other places, they didn’t root for your teams. They didn’t cut you slack because you were Zack’s brother, and Zack was cool…Jeremiah supposed he was. Zack was a lot like Mat Busby.
Online, people could downrate you. The customer could take out her phone, while you were still trying to help, and say: “What is your name?”
All reasons he didn’t trust working anymore. But—
He was doing a job. No one else did this
In a lot of cases, no, being watch captain…like with the basketball kids, kids especially, Hibbler thought… Disrespect. Even so, also, people asked him to take charge of things…stupid things, things they were lazy about… But they asked him, washing their cars, walking their dogs, just throwing open the door, just to ask, what’s going on? Hey, Jer.
Like he was mayor of these streets.
How come they have that sawhorse thing and the green sprayed over by the storm drain…right in front of my driveway, practically, what are they doing?
Let me make a phone call. I’ll email you, tonight or tomorrow.
Thanks, Hibbler. Thanks, Jer.
It was crap, in some ways. City Hall had a website. But Hibbler sort of was boss of this, now. For the people I serve…he was comfortable, not quite with saying it out loud, not to Kate. But going to have a look at whatever. Putting their minds at ease, in case there was any danger. He knew what he’d learned, and it was worth something.
So, Jeremiah Hibbler, Watch Captain. He cared, and they didn’t. They weren’t taking it away.
“We’re raising kids. I get up every day and go to work. Jer, I mean.”
She’d been going to work, saying this, his wife darting and grabbing, that shiny, shiny thing she did to her hair making it swing and hold together like liquid. He felt a little clinical…
This wasn’t sexy.
It was vaguely alien.
“She’s thirty-five, right? Still.” That, from his mother, new.
Once, when he’d been about twenty-six, and Kate had been about twenty-six, she’d been some larger size. Whatever sizes were. She was looking for a floor model…or, with a dip of the head, an okay I admit it smile…a washer-dryer set would be ideal, discounted.
“A warranty would be great. That’s why I don’t want anything from the classifieds. I’ve got tons of towels.”
“I don’t sell towels…” For that second, that she preempted his upselling her, had seemed plausible.
“No, my business. I mean. I have a hair salon.”
“I like your name,” she’d said, when they rang up the sale.
“Ask her out, Jer.”
It wasn’t conscience speaking…it was Jeff McElroy. They wouldn’t, otherwise, have gone to Red Lobster.
Hibbler’s birthday was coming up. He would be forty-six. Kate, if getting younger, was getting also scary-skinny, a thing for a year now noticeable. She’d just borrowed money to open her third salon; she was truthful in this, that she worked all the time. She was becoming drawn, not worn, but in eyeliner and purple shadow, matte beige complexion, contoured cheek hollows, face-framing highlights…if he understood so much.
“Set an example. Or get therapy. I don’t have to make that call for you, do I?”
When he’d asked her, once, “So how… Did you go to school?”
“Well, yeah, you have to. To get a license. But, I have a degree, actually. I was an education major. I just decided.”
She could decide, having that temperament—to chuck it all, buttonhole a helper, score her discounts, her financing…
Hibbler couldn’t, and had never known until this slide, until Petersen, Todwillow, what he might like to do. He’d graduated from high school knowing Zack would go to college. He’d leant, a little, towards police work…but he was Jeremiah Fatso. He’d always had a plan to do more, get it together (without meaning much by saying it) when he could shed some weight.
So what about setting an example?
There were two messages here. Take care of your family, bust your ass, do any work you can scrounge…which, technically, his family was okay. The money existed, it was hers.
Or dream it, believe it, make it happen…
And with kids, wasn’t that what you had to say?
Kate would pretend both were equal, both could be true at once. Not, though, pretend…kill the topic: “Oh, please!”
It was that way, when they got into it, and Hibbler had his choice. Start the yelling, or shrug. “Sorry.”
He’d reached Todwillow’s tree stumps. Todwillow had cut it all down, mowed it flat, the two corner crescents of evergreens, the two maples. He’d bought sod, hired it rolled in. He ran sprinklers, wrinkling noses. Cathlyn, jogging, arced out around his wet sidewalk.
“It goes into the storm drains,” she’d called out to Hibbler, since she couldn’t not say it, and couldn’t say it to Todwillow.
A little oval of metal stuck in near the curb advertised the Green Kings, who kept his yard bright and fake. Hibbler could fancy the stumps trophies, conquered carcasses, rude gestures at the Witticombes, at Cathlyn, probably at Giarma Yoharie.
He walked up the drive, about twenty feet…this particular house made with the garage prominent, the front door niche platformed behind a railing. Todwillow’s American flag flapped, hiding and unhiding visitors, who shuffled past a window, its off-white drape linings, to ring the bell.
He wasn’t ready for this. He left the concrete and went onto Todwillow’s grass.
Tristanne had emailed her news.
She was getting married, in Grand Rapids, the guy a clinic administrator. Friends would be very welcome…she and Bob understood the cost of travel made sharing their day impractical…they were prepared to help, with the hotel at least.
“They’re divorced?” He was a little incredulous. He saw Mat a few times a week. Nothing.
“Not yet. October. Didn’t I read that to you? Well…”
There’d been something in this well. For Kate to be wrong was almost for Kate to let down the barricade. Almost a move to be friends. “No, I don’t know when the divorce is going through. But before October.”
“I don’t see how they can set a date already. It takes a long time… Legal stuff.”
“Why should there be legal stuff? Mat isn’t contesting.”
“They don’t have kids,” Kate had added.
By this, he knew that she knew more. Mat isn’t contesting…
Mat says so…not to you, Jer.
He could, he’d have to get the address off his wife’s computer, accept this invitation. “Listen, Tristanne, the hotel would be great, also if you can pay part of the airfare…”
It was a little funny…
Fairly sure Todwillow was watching, and laughing, as he feinted about, pretending to inspect the empty back yard, Hibbler tamped the smile. Tristanne would be awfully sorry.
He could picture her (he couldn’t picture Bob): “Oh! I can’t stand him!”
But Grand Rapids was a place to look for work. They’d have to introduce Hibbler to their guests, so he’d have a foot in. He would not contest either, though he didn’t think he could survive without Kate.
“You coming in, Jer?”
The voice was Todwillow’s, with that weird quality of nextness, while when Hibbler turned, the back door sat just open, unlatched. Just a little. Todwillow would have stuck his head out and yelled, the noise would have come to Hibbler’s ears from the right direction, with the expected volume, not like something on the radio that popped from the air where the frame of his glasses sat.
He went in. The back bedroom was a kind of command center, ell-configured tables, a bunch of screens, a bunch of binders. Todwillow had what he called a stack, in a closet he’d set up specially air-conditioned.
“You can be alone if you want,” Todwillow said. “I’ve got a place to be. Just…” He clicked in his cheek, and mimed turning the lock button.
Hibbler found himself dry-throated, mute.
Todwillow laughed and left.
You didn’t want the camera feed on any machine of your own. Kids are smart these days. Stuff gets stolen. Todwillow’s private server was the only safe choice. He wasn’t gonna push, he’d told Hibbler, telling these other things, “…but you are the only one who knows your password. I don’t know it.”
As to that, Hibbler had no confidence. Todwillow knew everything. Realistically, he could get the password. You had to trust him, take him for what he claimed to be. You had a daughter who cut classes, whole days of school, threatened to just drop out, said she didn’t go anyplace, just drove around, who cares? Rolled her eyes, wrapped her arms tight and looked oppressed, when he asked (not wanting to, Todwillow’s thing) if she brought boys to her room when he and Kate were at work.
It was set, the view, soft-focused, colors faded, he would not see the things that made the phrase pop into his head. But it was possible to sharpen up, if Savannah sat long hunched over her desk, or another person entered…
The other person was Rae. Rae listened, dismissed something, shot a sidelong look that riveted Hibbler…but she hadn’t looked at him, directly through the lens. Not really.
Rae shook her head, slid to her feet, stooped and picked up a thing, Savannah’s phone, handed it to her.
He took the focus off.
Savannah seemed to have rolled over and buried her face. She cried a lot.
Kate would say, teenagers.
It was this, of course.
It was Giarma he pictured confessing to…because she was young…it was what he thought, of his motives. Being more of a contemporary, she would remember what kids got up to. She would be cooler about it all, because…people her age were used to the gadgetry.
She wouldn’t say, “You let Todwillow put a camera in your daughter’s room! When was it ever, Jeremiah, you didn’t know what that was about?”
Well, it was more his mother’s voice he heard.
And the phrase: monster father.
It would be a bad moment for Yoharie, if someone rang the front bell. He wanted Dawn and the kids to get out—leave him alone, yes—but above all, since they had this nice place, and there was a little money at last, let em get some enjoyment out of life. The settlement was meant to be in lieu of the living he couldn’t make. He didn’t think you weren’t allowed to, aside from paying off the hospital…the therapy…
The bed, the chair…
Done deals, all that stuff over with. He’d let himself get talked into things, and wouldn’t any more. He was not going to buy newer equipment, or start a different line of medication, worry about his breathing or his fiber, get just the one leg that had a knee-joint fitted with a prosthetic, learn to cane himself around for the exercise. Yoharie, in spite of his daughter, didn’t mind if this was fatalistic.
“What are you saying? It’s been eight years since the accident. You waited a long time to get a lot less justice than you deserve, Dad. Don’t talk like you’re giving up!”
He couldn’t argue. He didn’t know Giarma so well, but knew she had arguments already conjured up (she wouldn’t like it if he put it that way) for stuff he had no opinion on anyway. But private in his head, Yoharie had determined to give up therapy. He had an appointment that afternoon; Dawn was coming back to take him, but he wasn’t going. Headache, he figured. He was working on it, how he would get back control of his own information, so he could stop all of this…
And if attrition was the only way, he would stop it one excuse at a time.
“Treat yourself, sweetheart”—that had been the phrase in his mind, the direction he’d been heading. Yoharie balked at this, though; it still sounded likely to cause trouble. That guy from across the street had made a kind of hostile, clucking noise in his cheek, still grinning. But pointing a finger down at Yoharie’s chest and saying, “Three mil. Cool.”
Well, not three mil. Only about half that to begin with, subtracting out what insurance wouldn’t cover, legal fees, buying this place for cash, so the kids could have it one day free and clear. The remodeling. Their neighbor, he thought, had caught something in the paper. Yoharie had puzzled on it, and concluded it was his name.
Different. People remembered.
“No, Dad,” Giarma told him later. “Mat Busby? He googled you. He probably googles everyone.”
Yoharie saw one of his squirrels hanging on to the new suet feeder, trying to nose in through the wire mesh. Now, he told himself, if those rodents won’t leave enough for my woodpeckers…if my little downies (Yoharie had discovered and got fondest of these, next to his hummingbirds) start getting run off all the time, I’ll have to check the Amazon store…
And then he told himself, “Why don’t I just do that? I could have a couple more feeders if I wanted.”
He shoved aside his spiral notebook. He watched it skitter to the floor and settle, splaying itself open. He heard a musical reverberation. The front bell… Westminster cathedral, or something. The kid rolled his eyes whenever this sixteen-note sequence went off, but Yoharie didn’t get tired of it. He’d bought a wind chime, liking the other thing so much, for his flower bed…massive, long tubes of chromatic hot-pink and aqua steel. He was braced for a complaint from the neighbors. But he’d be just as happy having it indoors next to his bed, where he could reach out a hand and start it going.
He had a sort of intercom arrangement that let him speak to callers. Only every time, he had to get the gadget going and figure it out fresh. He could peep at the front porch…if he managed this…on camera. If he wanted to.
He was going to ask Giarma—it occurred to him just then—to find out if you could get the UPS guy to bring packages round to the back.
There was that dog got in the yard sometimes. He thought dogs might be a question…but it was a nice dog. He was moving himself, ruminating on these things, towards the edge of his bed, where he could lower onto the wheelchair.
And there it was, nosing up to the glass. Baird…or Beany.
“Beatty!” Jeremiah Hibbler came up the ramp. He put his own face to the glass. He yelled.
“I don’t want to bother you, Mr. Yoharie!”
“Come on in. Just push the handle.”
Hibbler admonished the dog a couple more times. “Beatty, sit! Beatty! Sit!” He cracked the door and put his head round; Beatty’s came nudging between his knees. “If you don’t mind, I thought I might do you a favor.”
The dog barreled in.
“I don’t know, Mr. Yoharie, if you’ve ever had someone give the place a security check. Did Mat tell you about the neighborhood watch?”
Yoharie hadn’t, a hundred percent, found himself liking Busby. Mat got involved—that would be a nice way of putting it—and so it was looking like Mat would take on the role of representing Yoharie to the neighbors.
The dog plunged into the trash, got out a suet cake’s plastic wrapper. Hibbler, fast, clamped the snout, pressed down on the lower jaw, thrust fingers through the stream of drool. Beatty growled and wagged. Hibbler yanked a raggedy remnant free, flung it dripping back in the can. Yoharie, feeling bad and apologizing, watched Hibbler drag the dog and shove it back outdoors, all in grim silence.
“Uh,” Yoharie said. “Take a kleenex.”
Hibbler wiped, and looked over Yoharie’s equipment: the motorized chair, the hanging grip Yoharie used to haul himself in and out of bed, his tablet, his printer on its stand in the corner…the camera in its box.
Valentine (“Yeah, pretty soon. I mean I’ll get around to it.”), or Giarma, (“Sure, Dad, I can…I will…but wasn’t it Val’s idea? Shouldn’t he set that up?”) or Dawn, who wouldn’t know how—but would, whatever time Yoharie asked…needed to install it, and then he could string a video of his birds. Something Uncle Nick might like, down in Florida.
“Wireless,” Hibbler said, pointing. Yes, there was that too, the doohingus with the flashing lights.
“Your printer.” Hibbler put a finger on the tray and rifled the stack. “You send pictures from your phone?”
Yoharie could not get his mind around the nature of this question.
Hibbler didn’t wait for him. “Here, you want me to hand you these things?” The top thing was a printed photo. Hibbler’s fingers stuck, it seemed, for a second; not long, but long enough to put a special emphasis…
(That there be no mistake about it, Hibbler also leaned and peered, handing across…at one of the framed pictures on Yoharie’s rolling table).
…on Valentine, as a topic raised.
“I see you have two daughters. Or am I wrong?”
Son of a bitch, Yoharie thought.
Giarma would have been his best counsellor here. He couldn’t call to mind any of her sayings that seemed exactly right…maybe this particular attack had never been launched when Giarma had been there to help. Dawn would say, “Now, Yoharie, sometimes people are just stupid. You have to give them a chance.”
To prove it.
Hibbler answered himself. “I guess I am.”
“That’s Val. A few years back.” Yoharie said.
“I don’t know if I told you…lemme see. I met you that time they were unloading your stuff from the van. You remember I came over.”
Hibbler had come over, from out of Mat Busby’s garage, and started waving the driver into position…getting his temper worked up, as Yoharie recalled. (“No! Hold it! You gotta pull it forward, pull it forward! Aw, Christ! No!”)
“You got a neighbor likes to help out,” the moving guy had said.
“And then,” Hibbler said now. “You remember seeing Kate and Raelyn. I think my older girl was there for a while. Over at Mat’s. Thought…um.” He faded.
Yes, Busby’s place seemed a conduit for Hibblers…
Moving day. Giarma hadn’t then come home to live.
Yoharie found he’d lost the picture of that apartment in Rochester. And something persistent interfered with Renata’s face…a woman from the shopping channel who looked like her.
“Dawn,” (he’d ask) “where’re those old picture albums? I think the one I want’s got some kind of pink cover.”
Giarma as a little girl.
Anyway, that would be home to her. He put an end to this interior scene with dialogue. The thing was, Hibbler’s wife got started thinking Valentine…she must have seen him get out of the car…was a high-schooler, that Savannah (very much not the case, as Dawn reported) might like to make a new friend. Val was puny. That was why he needed his Dad’s protection.
“Thought my son was a girl?”
“So, you know I’m captain of the neighborhood watch.”
Now…Hibbler had done that a minute ago, brought up a thing and backed off it…
Yoharie began to think he knew he was having it both ways. And not for the world would he autopsy his own kid, so what was he going to do, pick this fight? Or let it be.
“Sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t hearing you.”
“I could go around the house with you, make recommendations. You might want a motion-sensor light in the back yard.”
“Well…yeah. I think you gotta go around with Dawn. I’m not too good on my feet.”
This was a score. Hibbler blushed. It was something, Yoharie told himself. But at once he felt contrite. He had come to this neighborhood wanting to get along with everyone.
“Busby over there was saying something about changing the door locks. He had some kind of thing where you’d punch in a code.”
“Yeah! You ought to always change the locks when you buy a place. Here.” Hibbler came round to the other side of the bed, where Yoharie’s tablet sat propped in its holder on the rolling table, and where Hibbler’s belly left no room for angling towards this, though he took a couple of feints.
“Take that thing.” Yoharie gave it a nudge. “If you wanna look at it.”
The velcro caught Hibbler off guard. Picture frames clattered over, one against the other.
“Hey, what’s your password? I don’t wanna lock you out, trying to guess.” Hibbler bounced into Dawn’s chair.
That seemed courteous. Why was he trying to guess?
However, he was captain of the neighborhood watch. Yoharie didn’t even know whether, like the HOA, the watch had special powers.
“Um. Capital D, small a, capital V, small a l, capital G, small i, fifty-nine. I mean, the numbers five, nine.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll never remember it.” Hibbler stayed absorbed, bent over the tablet, for five or ten minutes. “Here you go.” He showed Yoharie a site he’d found, one that sold wireless locks. “Good idea for you. You could use your phone to open up. You want me to screenshot that? You got any passwords on your drives?”
“No.” This seemed best. Yoharie had no idea what Hibbler had just asked.
“I’m gonna stick it on your desktop, okay?”
He lingered, and Yoharie began to feel he’d have to say, “Dig into that refrigerator and help yourself. Or start up a pot of coffee, if you want.”
He had those two things on his porch, for his own happiness. It took him twenty minutes or so to move all his gear out of the way, pull himself onto the chair, motor over to the credenza. He’d never needed to navigate around playing host before. But Hibbler jumped to his feet.
“So, did you want me to do that survey for you?”
Only after Hibbler bustled through into the kitchen, and Yoharie could hear him walking, swinging doors on their hinges…only after a minute of this, Hibbler talking to someone on his phone…did Yoharie understand what politeness had kept him from prolonging a silence over.
He’d changed his way of putting it, Captain Hibbler. This was the security check Yoharie guessed he’d just agreed to.
His daughter, hashing it out with Dawn. No, he didn’t fight with Giarma, not because she’d beat him hands down, but because he wanted her to love him, this adult who’d been a child once.
“All you see when you look at Val is a boy who wears makeup. Anything else has to be in your own head, cause it’s not there in front of you.”
Giarma canted her head towards the street side of the house. “Them.”
She wouldn’t have it, that he could have messed Val up, having the accident…
(He kind of entertained the thought Jo shouldn’t have named the kid Valentine, but Giarma wouldn’t have that, either. “Cave-man psychology, Dad.”)
Yoharie kept for his daughter a sober, attentive face.
“There’s nothing wrong with Val, is there? No, Dad. So there’s nothing to question, is there?”
But a thirteen-year-old. Yoharie at that age (but sure never saying) could still get nightmares from stupid TV shows, like Kolchak…guy with the rotting skin hiding under Seattle…
Man, that was cool, that underground city. He loved that show. Get it on Netflix, he told himself.
He thought Val had taken it hard. He knew Jo had left, not for that, but because…well, Dawn was a trained LPN. Stuff was easier for her.
He picked up the tablet. On the desktop, he repeated. Yeah, I think I get it. But Yoharie couldn’t find which icon was Hibbler’s.
He put “70’s TV” in the search bar.
“But places the landscape was uniform in appearance…which might be desert, coastlands, tropical forest…and, of course, among the Mediterranean nations early mariners generally kept within sight of land… So we see the building of monumental works—statues, temples, mausoleums. They were navigation aids, practically, as well as the majesty of a god incarnate. Peoples in alpine regions, who of course had a great deal of stone at their disposal…northern Italy, much of Central Europe, being surrounded by natural peaks, divided by great river systems. And in northern Italy again, the Auvergne in France, a peppering of volcanic lakes…picture the imaginative impact of that deep blue jewel, that to reach one must climb a height, arduously…
“And so of course,” (Roberta’s teaching speech had a peppering of of courses) “all these would be invested with the powers of individual gods, each to his own mountain, her own lake, et cetera. These peoples had no need, either of landmarks, or of conjuring awe from manmade things. So we have the theory of lost civilizations.
“My grandmother’s old place… For one, there’s the foundation…beams and clapboards long gone…but, big rough-cut blocks of sandstone, structurally arrayed. Then the concrete cover over the wellhead my father and uncles put down in the 1960s. If you froze this plot of land…in fact, there’s still a fairly intact shed…and plastic bottles, styrofoam, pull-tabs, metal caps… The point, of course, Giarma, the period represented by all this is only about a hundred and eighty years. Would you say plastic bottles and peg-built barns are of the same civilization? That is, if, having no other information, you were comparing finds at some archeological dig?”
Her name invoked, and this rather amazing free education coming from a Totem-World devotee unsuspected, Giarma put effort into the question.
“But…you want to say…”
“Exactly. The ancient record is sparse. The periods by which we measure developments in Egypt alone span millennia. And why would we suppose no one lived in a place for gaps of centuries, merely because we can’t find evidence of what we call civilization? We don’t suppose it, of course… Yet we don’t know. We don’t know where the lines of demarcation are between technologies and peoples. Greece and Rome declined into barbarism, by the canonical way of calling these things. We would of course today have a different valuation of Visigoth or Hun culture…but by tradition there was a Dark Age, there was a Renaissance. Very old and unknown civilizations are no more likely to have progressed linearly.
“And then a drought, a volcanic winter, rumors of plague, a hostile invasion. Almost everything you might produce by handwork, including finished masonry blocks, but also, going back to the idea of the peg-built barn… In the 1830s, when my maternal ancestor’s family raised it, the practice was commonplace enough—to dismantle and move barns, houses, whole. It was logical. Either you would not find the materials you needed in your new home, or you would duplicate labor to no purpose. Provided in leaving, you had time to load wagons.”
“So, cutting to the chase, Roberta—and our Lady Mondegreen is an influencer—puts Totem-World in Etruria. At least a sort of proto-Etruria.”
Giarma, on coffee today, shot Trevor an over-the-rim meeting of the eyes.
She was in a minor social bind. Chapter Four, the character’s reckoning passage before Lady Nyma’s court, was to be read for them by a surprise guest. So he’d emailed. Val had opened Trevor’s door, smiling. With portent, she might (Totemly enough) have said. Trevor had shaved off the beard.
And then Roberta, leaning in to wave from the kitchen. Bustle and food.
And if Professor Witticombe, a hostess Giarma deferred to, did not invite her comment…
Had he maybe changed his picture, online? Or she’d passed him driving home, saw without noticing…
Or did he not want her to notice…would that be the way of going wrong?
In Totem-World, everyone had a moniker.
“You should join in. It’ll say you’re there listening, people’ll say hi. Welcome, Giyo…say you call yourself that… Just ask a question…that’s a good way to get started.”
This mild prod, last session. She wasn’t mad, but she wasn’t ready. (What had Trevor looked like then, specifically?) Reticence had been the right call…to scorn the Totems and find out a person she respected was kind of their doyenne…
She asked: “Is Etruria a real place?”
“You heard of Tuscany?”
Her brother had lately been knocking her with these mumbled, mild rudenesses. He hadn’t wanted her to move home… She shrugged. Dad and Dawn’s wasn’t home. There was no such thing. She didn’t care, either—to be unreasonably irritated with people, she could as well decide unemployment was her thing, that Val poached on.
Trevor handed across his phone, Wikipedia’s entry.
“Oh, them! I love them. Do we think…”
She clicked the image, scrolling on through other Etruscan art than the lounging tomb-couple. The chimera (“Oh! Truly fabulous…”), the god statues, with their non-European faces, and strange authority. “That the character looks like that?”
Here was the special vocabulary. The character, by the author, had not been made male or female. Hearty debate in the World, did Southey have a preference, did he/she plant clues, were phrases such as “…an ex-slave, bearing his mark…”, evidentiary, or only grammatical, was the use of “it”, and “creature” a sign the character was not even human?
No, with emphasis, per Roberta.
(“That is a language equivalent; those are ways of speaking to an inferior. Not without affection, as Pytta, for example. We see several words of the actual languages of the first and second countries… And the structure of the narrative tells us the character writes from a third place, has become by then something like an Abbott/Abbess, or Bishop, in status, and gained…elderhood, if you like. Chronicler of these events. So, going by my own theory, we might take English as a stand-in for proto-Latin…”)
The character had no name, so always was discussed as such, otherwise The Foundling, Tollhouse-Keeper, or, of course, The Totem-Maker. As to appearances—
“Well, there…some of our group make a good case for North America. Southey lives in New Brunswick. The indigenous people near St. John would be Algonquian, Micmac…the word totem is Algonquian. Which may not mean a thing. Totem was written in the 70s…people weren’t over-conscious.”
Roberta held Giarma’s eye for a moment, as if to say this was it—the moment—if she felt inclined to represent. (The How Dare generation? No.)
“But, Central America, also North Africa. You have people who are used to themselves, dark-skinned, dark-eyed, amazed then, to see the parents of Darsale, so pallid, and…probably…red-haired as well as freckled. Does that need to mean a Germanic people versus a Mediterranean people? The geology of the first country is volcanic, a subduction zone; the second…the mountains described must have been formed by continental collision. And the ‘map’ fits, the direction traveled, west to east. If you think of Etrurian Italy, and then Croatia. And lost civilizations, as I was saying…
“You see that in ancient times the thing truly lacking was global trade. If you had developed metalworking, but were forced to leave your home, you might not recreate that level of civilization, supposing the new country had no metal ores. Think of the apocalyptic scenario, the human race scrapping for survival in nuclear winter. We would not forget we’d had computers, we’d had TV, airplanes… We wouldn’t just become knuckle-dragging morons…quit smiling, Trevor—
“Inside ourselves, as it were, we would still be advanced.”
“So you could look at the Cascades and the Rockies. And even Mount Mazama being eight thousand years ago, the huge Crater Lake eruption. Because actually, witness of it has come down…the Klamath Indians have stories. She rags me cause these things have been hashed over in Totem-World ten thousand times. And maybe I am a knuckle-dragging moron.”
Trevor, earnest of eye-contact: “We used to have a ‘thon’, where everyone would make their best case. Actually, the thread’s still live on the blog. In post ice age times you could have a body of water, that would be like a sea, between the two mountain ranges. Or Vikings, being the first Europeans in North America…”
“Only…” Giarma said. “It’s fiction. It’s fantasy.”
“Southey has channeled the ancient spirit, from the lost continent of Atlantis. So it’s all true history. You just have to read the signs.”
“No. We don’t allow it.” Trevor, to Val, a little bit losing patience. If he’d added, “Stay or go”, inside herself, Giarma would second him.
This little book club was a saving grace, she felt it. Life right now reminded her of a huge snowstorm from when she’d been a kid, she and her mother holed up in their apartment. Plenty of good junk in the fridge, nothing to do but watch TV. And then the power went out.
Why was her brother, once regressively anti-social…going back, in some way?
Not over his job. He, she, as long as Dad and Dawn let them under their roof, didn’t need jobs. Need need, knock wood…
Glance over shoulder.
Neverers wanted no movie, no TV series, no prequel, no sequel, no reimagining, no fan fiction, no take-offs, no CGI, no cartoon version, no graphic novel version, no stage version, no video game version, no merchandise. No conventioneering, no costuming, outside their own group’s pilgrimages. (Fair? Well, stay or go.)
And the sanctity of these was preserved by the Neverers Creed: the only dress must be that actually described in the book, the only enactments scenes verbatim from the text. Theories on the War-Maker’s game, and the games of fortune-telling, were acceptable fodder for debate; also after-fates of characters, and these excursions into history, and…topography.
“We don’t allow,” Roberta said, “witchy stuff. Mystical signs and wonders, whatever. People taking the book in that vein. You feel a certain sympathy…with fantasy on general terms, because it reaches people who badly want mysticism. They want to belong and feel safe in the world, and they’re pushed so far to the outside, that a sign, some proof, the kind that fits so tidily anyway, within the tropes of fantasy, is terribly appealing. But you have a problem, one, that this detachment gets encouraged, and people who may need help…
“Um, well, there is a point where the human mind can convince itself apart from what it knows to be true. Believing a book, movie, et cetera, speaks to one in a personal way…”
She did not, in her pause, make either Val or Trevor conspicuous by looking at him. She spoke to Giarma.
“Because magic has always been real, you know. Culturally accepted, practiced. It still is. Now, be comfortable. I mean magic we believe in has psychological power to change our expectations, and so our decisions. And so, our outcomes. In Totem, it is never clear what the iron seeds are. They seem to have wills of their own, that guide or reject the character’s shaping them into idols, to bestow on faction leaders in the war. Their faces and powers may be hallucinatory. Second, then—and I’m not hopping around—you have Todwillow. You know how people who think they’re smart will drink in the wisdom of some tin pot who pulls them into a little corner and says, you don’t believe in witches, I don’t believe in witches. But there are people out there…”
Tap on the temple, mimicking some wiseacre signaling Mat Busby would practice, more than Todwillow. Maybe. Giarma didn’t actually know Todwillow. She thought he was a behind-the-scenes player, Busby his stooge…Hibbler…
“Giarma. Cathlyn is an atheist, she says so.”
Giarma, not to look uncomfortable, drank dregs of cold coffee, nodded.
“She has this nook in her garden, where she has a statue, a trio of female figures. I think even nudes…I don’t know what for. No one would know unless they asked. And I don’t. But. You can imagine.”
“She’d shut him down, though…”
“You’re an optimist, dear. Cathlyn is a perfectly nice person. I would shut him down. But remember there’s Todwillow’s clown, Hibbler. Now look at this.” She picked up her phone; a few seconds later turned face-out an Egyptian god, a dog-headed figure, created so in resin. “Anubis. I made my own shrine. Solidarity.”
Puppet-master, stooge, clown. The hierarchy seemed apt.
“How much? I have to do this.”
“It was like coming out, you know? We were a bunch of losers, and by ourselves, we were all passionate about this book. So, 1995, you’d get in a chat room and you’d say, okay, here’s what’s cool. And get like, a whole nerdvana discussion going. When I graduated from high school, my mom gave me money so I could do a road trip.”
“Nerdvana. I’m laughing. By yourself?”
“Why not? You’re an adult. Or I was, eighteen. My mom didn’t get Totem-World, but she didn’t care either. Once I was on my own, whatever I did. So I drove up, not by myself, six of us, one guy riding the bump in back. My mom’s Citation. She said if I didn’t kill it, I could keep it. The people are really nice, St John. They would kind of shrug and say, never heard of him, Southey. I don’t know that‘s a common name around here. Is it French, maybe? A couple bookstores we stopped at, the owners said they never heard of Totem, either.”
Val took Trevor to be conveying some sort of gag. Besides, “like coming out”. The thing you didn’t want, of all the things you didn’t want, was that bullshit. Like, for Dawn’s sake, he would put up with Tina, but Jesus! Let me grab a kleenex and weep. I never thought anyone could understand my struggles until you.
“So, you really make a living?” He said this instead.
“Not a huge living.”
“Why would you go stalking Southey?”
“Stupid kids.” Trevor shrugged. “But it’s always been questionable whether he/she really lives in St. John. Lips are zipped.”
Okay, the gag. Trevor and his friends getting their legs pulled.
“Still, we hold the annual gathering in St. John, and you know, it’s like Bigfoot.”
“Southey? No wonder you don’t know if it’s he or she.”
“Ha. What I mean is… I’ll paraphrase myself. This is from the other blog. Like say, a moose or a mountain lion left the place they normally live, and people here started seeing it. Reporting they had. In the real world, news stations…or just anyone with a phone…would be mapping these sightings. You’d be able to check their Twitter, see if the moose was close to your house. Someone from Wildlife might, if it was dangerous, get in the woods with tracking dogs, set up cameras… If you look at YouTube, there’s every kind of video with mountain lions and moose. And bears, and alligators, and so forth, getting onto porches, getting inside houses. Pretty much, they’re all clear, full-color. Easy to see what’s going on.”
“And the guy who spots Bigfoot always has shaky hands and a Kodak Instamatic from 1980. You’re saying Southey can’t be that much of a phantom.”
“Can’t by himself. Well…there’s a little interface between fantasy and conspiracy theorists. You might notice the people who don’t take you seriously are the same ones who attack on every stereotype for…I might as well say…the tin hat crowd. Which, you know, if I saw a floating light in the sky, I’d take a video. And someone on social would attach a link, to prove I’m a rube who got fooled by Chinese lanterns. But the thing is, people exist who want to get away with actual cover-ups. Our government, very truly, has done experiments on citizens who knew nothing about it. So it can’t be every conspiracy is always stupid, no more than that thing, fantasy can never be literature.
“I mean, there’s plenty almighty crap. But you measure, you use a system. Is the magic metaphor, is it just deus ex machina, are the language, custom, history, consistent, do you believe in them as much as if you were reading about a real place? Do the characters’ dramas have to do with human nature, fighting themselves, or just…they’re getting chased around by some warty, sub-human race you’re allowed to hate, because the Wart People are not really people? Is the whole thing just another missing-heir-to-the-throne-story, or nice-little-elfin-creature-finds-enchanted-doodad story?”
“But, isn’t that Lord of the Rings?”
“Lord of the Rings is the bible. But that’s the point. I admire something, it’s the kind of story I like to read. I set out to make it myself.”
There was a fair question in this you-get-me pause.
Val thought, I want to know how to talk to people. I want someone who’s my friend to go on being my friend. The sad truth…Sasha was a work friend, they were not friends. But they ought to be. No. So, the character is a kind of outcast, only powerful too, a kind of shaman. And it always says, I’m so humble. This was what Val wanted to dislike about Totem. But even that, false humility, the character had a line for. It was like Southey was the shaman, saying, “I know you, reader.”
The question. You want more from your shaman…you want more product. More answers, more comforts. So then you try to be the shaman…the Totem-Maker…and you fail. Not so badly, maybe, you can’t get published.
“And, I don’t know,” Trevor said. “My own taste is a little towards fantasy that almost isn’t. I’m probably a poor judge. That’s why I only talk about Totem.”
“Why are all those people talking about sleeves?”
“On Conspire Right. The sleeves. You have to buy them. You won’t get the vibrations, the sleeves protect your joints. You shouldn’t throw your money away on doctors. The sleeves and the bands. Someone says, you can cut up an old pair of Spanx. And someone says, at the fabric store you can get four-inch elastic. What is all that?”
“The microwaves, right.”
After a second, Val said, “Nothing. What would I mean?”
“What I was wondering. You have an opinion?”
“No, I never heard of it. I guess I would’ve thought, nobody does that. Would do. Could do. Someone doesn’t want you in their neighborhood.”
He wanted Trevor to guide him here, have it turn out this stuff was debunked. That jokes like Hibbler and Todwillow were only funny, not…
Still funny, but in a sick-horror way.
“Someone,” Val said. “Thinks you’re gay. Or anything they don’t like about you. So they’re, like, putting that rat thing on you? Like on TV, you plug it in the wall…you know what I mean?”
“There is no that. It’s a grey area. Microwaves. Ultrasound. Something on the radio spectrum. Which by the way, of course radio waves come through walls, we know that. You’re only asking, can they be concentrated into a beam? Does it even work that way, like an aimed weapon, or is it more a kind of imaging, mapping? So…I think it’s helpful if you look at the Kennedy assassination. That is, why Lee Harvey Oswald? There were others on the scene.”
“Oswald didn’t do it?”
“He did some of it. Adlai Stevenson gave a speech in Dallas, late October, 1963. The radical right organized to protest. Violence, arrests. One of the men was from Irving, the same place Oswald was living. You know Apis, who engineered the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, had been grooming a handful of potential actors. He let them start themselves, basically.”
‘You got me way lost.”
“Read. Who else was in Dallas? Richard Nixon, two days before Kennedy.”
“Nixon did it?”
“Nixon told the audience he was going to work to get the Kennedys ‘out of there’. He said America didn’t need four more years of ‘that kind of administration’. He was fanning the flames. It just means whoever advised Kennedy to go to Dallas had to know what a freaking hotbed it was. No, nobody important, nobody known, would be needed for a job like that.”
“Propaganda. Someone raises an argument easily refuted. Or one so offensively challenging people squirrel around trying to disprove it. Your sickness can’t be caused by ultrasound, so you’re not sick at all. Well, how do you know what’s causing it? You know what you know. Are you hysterical? Have you done anything like this before? Is it rewarding, having your credibility questioned?”
Val winced (both truly and for Trevor’s benefit). “There’s some connection between all these assassinations and microwaves?”
“No…well, a few of my followers believe, or they want people to think they do, in a kind of hypnobeam, a Manchurian candidate thing. No, that’s a long ways from where I’m going. When you look at the Zapruder film, a couple of things stand out in the 312-314 sequence. One, you can run this two hundred times, you can prep your mind to see the bullet coming from behind, where Oswald was. And you can’t do it, I defy you. It didn’t come from in front. But it’s not just that it hits someplace above the right ear, that you see it happen that way, but…common sense. How does a bullet going through the back of someone’s head avoid going through their face? I mean, it was coming down. The arc of trajectory can only bow upwards…I don’t mean upwards…” Trevor sketched a flattened rainbow in the air. “See, like a frownie, not a smiley.”
“Live with it. There’s an autopsy photo of Kennedy. The right ear has no underlying bone supporting it any longer. The top of the head is mush under the hair. Sorry. But the facial bones are intact. So people think it was the grassy knoll. I’m in line was the actual Book Depository. The best place to hide your second shooter. Cause there’s a big difference in positioning, between the corner Oswald was in and the opposite corner…the one down the street. And then, did Oswald fire three times? Possibly, a cartridge was still in the chamber of Oswald’s gun, that he ejected before he loaded the next one, so there could have been three spent cartridges. But, suppose he only shot twice?
“The car comes away from the sign. Kennedy has been shot in the neck. Jackie is leaning towards him. Someone looking at the back of the car might not even be able to separate their two heads. A person at more or less the Zapruder angle could see when she dips hers down. And the car, about a nano after, passes a bystander and then the grass off that side is clear. And that, Val, is the exact, exact, second the shot comes. But…a professional sniper cares. Right? Keep your sights trained on the hostage-taker, nail him soon as the human shield pulls free. Did Oswald care? Would you think so?
“And like I said, it’s no use unless you’re looking at this from the right place. Imagine Oswald is aware he has a confederate. He’s been told on his trip to Mexico, where the KGB met with Rosenberg, bear in mind, that a super-assassin is shadowing him. Oswald’s assignment is to liquidate the target and retreat. Escape if possible. If the enemy catches him, he gives no information, and says he acted alone. If he’s loyal…loyalty is hugely important…he will be personally commended to Khrushchev, and the KGB will spirit him away. None of that means the KGB was involved. Just that nothing would bind Oswald to obedience and silence like believing they were. He shoots once, and hits Kennedy in the neck…the bullet passes into Connally’s wrist and thigh. Oswald sights again, but the other shooter gets in first. This, the fatal shot, converges closely with Oswald’s pulling the trigger, so he sees through his scope what looks like success. He follows orders and runs. His second bullet goes through Kennedy’s shoulder…and into Connally’s chest. You can see in the Zapruder film Connally turning and speaking, just after Kennedy is shot in the neck. He looks animated, conversational. Not chit-chatty, but like he’s imparting some piece of information. Coherent, you know, alert. The head shot comes. Connally flings himself around forward…a little patch of sun shows a bullet hole, in the back of his jacket. After that he wasn’t in a position to judge the order of events, for a long time…or, in practical terms, at all. You could say his public account of things doesn’t sound exactly uncoached.”
Val had never watched the Zapruder film, and the moment seemed ripe. Since Trevor kept talking…
The horror people had felt must have been more outrage.
Upset, truly. They lived in a world back then where they could think this one thing the end of society.
But you could see it was only a passage.
Can we do anything to help, and then suddenly, no. Maybe the detached view was the actual horror. How did a guy zero in on anyone, any creature, alive?
Val hadn’t considered it. Hunting was about light years away from his own life.
What you would be, bagging your target, seeing the unsuspecting ordinary eyes, the browsing of grass or drinking of water, the little moment of affection, maybe, a mother and her baby…
Saying to yourself, ha, ha. Gotcha.
There was a road he practiced on, access for a cell tower clearing…a fence, but other bikers had knocked it flat enough you could hump over it. If you came down at 3 o’clock, the embankment was shallow, so it was no trouble to sail from this onto the road, twisting midair to catch the curve. Cars were problematic, but of problems, Val had never had this one.
Like getting hit by lightning. A car is never going to be there just at that moment, but it only takes a second or two to get control and get out of the way. The goal, of course, was to keep trying, five minutes or so up to noon, so that the leap was farther and the twist tighter.
He mused on this. He pictured it. Trevor had got to his jumping off point, one of two boring directions his talk would always take. “In Totem, you see this, how once the character wants to manipulate people, steer them towards certain choices…or even with the totems themselves, that have exploitable properties… But no one other than the Totem-Maker can interpret whatever magic the totem confers on the person given it…”
So I get to noon, and by then I know what I’m doing, and I have about a six-foot drop, and there’s a slant, so I shouldn’t blow a tire, long as I nail the landing…
You could always tell yourself that would be the exact time the car would come. But it wasn’t, this game, about taking risks. It was about making risk dovetail with process, until basically there was no risk—
Dad and Dawn would never get that. But, and the question right now…
You get it perfect, score a ten. And still, that elation has nothing to do with hurting anyone.
Val decided it was a mind he could not enter into, the one that killed.
“Listen, before you go, tell me something about Giarma.”
“She won’t figure it out.”
He saw he was too obtuse for Trevor. He was ticked, in the squirmy way of knowing he’d been tagged justly. He might as well get up and go. “Lemme see. Movies. I think it’s gotta be the Oscar bait kind of thing.” He did the announcer voice. “An epic romance spanning three continents in the midst of war…”
“Shut up, Val. I wanna know if you think she’d be mad if I offered her a job.”
“You don’t make that kind of money, you could hire people.” It was a question. A shame to find this out, after he’d made Trevor mad at him.
“I hire people when I have a job I need done. But don’t tell her I’m paying anything. Find out if she wants to learn how to manage a website. I thought she did. Dawn kind of said so.”
Sometimes he wanted to ask Dawn an incorrect question. She would never mind, he knew it. But Giarma would say, “Val!”
He’d got his first break from school sneaking onto a plane. Joanne driving the shuttle then, he and his mother with an arrangement that worked okay… Val walked eight blocks from his school (not so bad), caught an airport bus downtown, hung around the public seating, supposed to be doing homework, until her shift ended.
He never did homework.
He could see right away possibilities in having his own bus pass.
The principle’s secretary, who knew Val’s family situation and commented on it, told him he could be expelled for stealing or fighting…not for leaving campus in the middle of the school day.
It struck Val they were putting nothing on the table. His own time was being wasted. “Well, I don’t wanna get beat up, and I don’t need other people’s stuff.”
He cut short of adding, “What else you got?”
She looked at him, then without guile took it the wrong way. “That’s a start. You’re not too young to think about consequences.”
The bus station people were warned.
But at 4:30 pm, having waited out the day, even sat an hour scribbling in a notebook (for the sake of the airport guards, who also in theory had been warned), he’d followed some family’s kids onto the plane—
Then stupidly cried when he found himself in Milwaukee, with no money. People were nice. The airline comped his return flight; the newspapers made a cute little story out of it…
His mother had hissed at him, lifted her hand but didn’t land it: “You’re gonna get me fired!”
He had thought his parents were together. Dad just away, on his jobs. But his father had the accident, and they brought him back.
Trevor’s cul-de-sac was called Tampico Way. The stub, or rectal portion, if you had it in you to chuckle at Mat Busby’s humor, was crossed by Reagan Place. The shuttle streets, Atlantis, Challenger, etc., also an Apollo and an Armstrong, and another cul-de-sac called Old Glory Way, told something of the developer’s vision.
Since he’d only walked to Trevor’s, going home and heading off on his bike again seemed to Val unfeasible.
If he went home, he’d run into Dawn.
When he ran into Dawn, he had to ask her… Not, “Do you figure you’re a good mom because you never had kids?” But: “What can I help you with?” This he asked her daily because she looked so pleased, and never took him up on it.
“Oh, now, I’m fine,” she would say. “How’s Trevor?”
Or, “How was your trip?” Her idea of what he was doing on the trails. Taking little jaunts.
And if Giarma was at home (she’d be, what did Giarma do except shop and noodle on her computer?), he’d have to pass on Trevor’s job offer. He wants to take you out, but he thinks you think you’re too good for him, so he wants to sit beside you and work on a little project…
No, let the kids have fun, Val told himself. He allowed he was jealous.
You could go for it, after all, if you’d been dumped anyway—the act of desperation. The idea sat waiting, wholly crafted, for him to put it in words, only wanting…
A sign. Not this one: Enterprise Avenue.
Conspire Right had a slogan, under whatever you called it, the header. Not something he would memorize, but gistwise…
If a thing can be done, and if it can be done in secrecy, and if anyone can profit from doing it, do you feel confident ethical considerations alone will prevent it being done?
If not, congratulations, you believe in conspiracies.
I never walked around this neighborhood and took a look at things, Val thought. I could play Hibbler. He grinned at this addendum…in public, talking to nobody…and wished Hibbler could see and get nervous about it.
Per Roberta, they complained in this subdiv about values going down, new people changing the tone. The tone was politics, of course, demographics.
The desperate act…
The rest of it was not that bad, and Val wasn’t ashamed of it.
You should be a friend, you should keep in touch. He didn’t think his mother or his father actually had friends, so if he was stupid at it for lack of home examples, whose fault was that? But losing, being humiliated, maybe before the eyes of a happier rival…being hurt in a way that would last, struck him likeliest.
He could surprise Sasha at home. Supposing he lived where he had. There would be a housemate or there wouldn’t.
And what do you get out of that…only a chance to bawl, “You don’t really care about me, do you?”
But because he was tempted, and because the answer was given—no, Sasha didn’t care, or he’d have said “Why not move in with me?” fucking already—Val couldn’t stop the daydream of it, the making of little pictures behind spoken thoughts.
Sasha was shy, like Trevor with Giarma, and just didn’t know…
And if he knew…
But he wasn’t shy. He was a dog, he liked getting around, and he didn’t want a boyfriend.
Val put his hands in his pockets and hit an ambling stride. He had not before right-angled onto Enterprise, and the street looked empty ahead, the properties not much individualized. It was a deluxe section…or a moonshot of a section, might be the developer’s lingo. The houses were big, and the yards were big, and the bookend styling meant two big yards segued together, a little riding mower paradise.
“Hey, get yours while I’m at it!” (You could well imagine, from the neighbor who’d mounted up first.)
Beatty appeared, from under someone’s weeping shrub, paws scattering little chunks of dirt. He played a reasonably acted ruse of surprise—to discover a friend, here of all places. He lowered his head, wagged a frenetic tail.
The middle of the street was his choice for hurling himself on his back.
“Come on, get up, what’s wrong with you?”
“Beatty’s a Hibbler. There’s something wrong with all of us. Didn’t you figure?”
Val rose from a squat, from patting the dog’s belly in the middle of the street, regardless.
“No, you seem cool.”
She’d given an opening hard to resist, as far as her dad…but people who scorned their families didn’t always allow others to.
“Thanks.” Savannah’s face had a wet-eyed, quivering-lipped aspect. Her hair was matte and fried, too many ideas tried with too many drugstore products. Parts of it were blue, like his own. This was comedy, the two of them standing here, confounding each other.
“What’s up? Things rough for you?”
“Listen.” She was urgent suddenly. “You dropped out of school. That’s what they say.”
“Who the hell?”
“Oh…my mother.” The tears spilled a little.
“Well, I did. But I had to get a GED. The system’ll get you in the end.”
“But I mean…did you just not go one day? Did you get in trouble?”
notes for TWA 800
The beam weapon designed to disable enemy satellites was first in the news in 1989. [Tested at SW facility]. Also Russians launching nuclear powered satellites w/i this timeframe, fear these could be forerunners of nuclear space weapons. Crash witness accounts describe object as point of light rising from sea, or seen emerge from behind roofs of beach houses. Laser either illuminates or ignites, passing within milliseconds (in real terms, far smaller time increment), producing localized combustions, dust and/or water vapors carried on currents in that particular layer of troposphere or stratosphere. To witnesses it appears directional, because the visual effect lingers, while the beam itself has long since passed. One witness who described the light as wobbling, might have seen currents of air behaving normally, but uncharacteristically made visible. The witnesses know of no explanation other than a projectile, so they develop this as memory, that they’d seen a missile, supporting partial truth/partial untruth in government representations during later hearings, that memory is an unreliable source. The dismissive attitude was calculated to make them dig in, so the missile narrative would be strengthened and adhered to, while being also refutable. The principle of animation, that two separate images seen very close together look to the brain like the movement of a single object, can account for the perception that the “missile” moved around the plane. In fact the beam could refract unexpectedly from the surface of the satellite, and struck Flight 800’s left wing. The wing sheathing was penetrated but the fuel, while released into the air, did not immediately combust. The pilots, suddenly having lost control of the plane, with the trouble affecting the left wing and its engine, sent a command to alter power to the engine, or to adjust some other mechanical part of the wing, which electrical pulse surging along to an exposed wire, created the spark of combustion. All this was a matter of seconds.
Witnesses saw the vapor plume and what appeared an explosion beside the plane, rather than one striking the fuselage. The heat and shock of the explosion triggered a second explosion in the center fuel tank, which detached the front portion of the plane. Later recovered wreckage therefore had both breaches from outside object entering plane’s body (left wing), and evidence of center tank exploding outward. As shown on radar tracking, the rear did not climb but the entire plane, though broken, plummeted. It is possible the test was done a second time before those manning the equipment became aware of flight 800, thus accounting for witnesses who saw another “object” seeming to rise from sea. It is probable someone of high authority, in the military or the CIA, was present (literally or remotely) monitoring the test, and at once called in FBI to contain the scene. The concern would have been that some piece of evidence unforeseeable but telling existed in the wreckage, while they would also have felt unconvinced that the crash was not coincidental. For military purposes, it would have been necessary to allow those partaking in the test to believe they had not caused the accident. The CIA-produced video assured watchers “there was no missile”. This is a kind of True Lies speech commonplace among intelligence officers (presumably to keep options open and allow deniability).
Why, then, Swissair 111? Because government authorities had come nearer convincing themselves the laser beam could not affect commercial air traffic, and they wished, two years later, to repeat the experiment/test. This was on a defunct American satellite. The satellite was in the same place. They had probably done additional testing in a safe environment and made adjustments, among which was the accounting for the beam’s visibility to witnesses as it interacted with the atmosphere. The reporting of the Swissair crash had a different, muted tone. The effects of the beam on the plane (possibly the creation of or influence upon a magnetic field, that fatally disable the plane’s electronics) had a distinct mystery, a period of radio silence that the pilots, when contacted by the tower again, seemed unaware had taken place. Could their communications for a time have been mimicked, in order to clear radio signals from the area?
So that was Trevor Royce’s thing…other thing. Aloud, Savannah said, “The world is crazy and evil.”
Her invited guest was eating a mini-bundt cake, of her own making. He’d slid his phone across, mouth full, hand gesturing check it out, and she’d started scrolling.
Not into Kennedy conspiracies. Not into any of that junk, of course, but stalling on this. Stuff about airplanes. Was it better, if you were thinking of getting free, to face the worst or hide it from yourself? What if you did become an iconic dead person, shouting from the other side, Solve My Mystery?
Make me count, people. I lived. I was somebody.
“Is it good?” she asked.
Val looked at her puzzled. “No, I agree. Crazy and evil. What else?”
“The cake. You’re not dying from eating it.”
“Homemade. Not from a mix.”
“And these violets.” He snagged one from her plate.
“They’re from out of the yard. But I rinsed them and everything.”
“Really, it’s great. I don’t think I need seconds, though, you don’t mind. I’m not a big sugar person.”
“Beatty! Stupid!” She elbowed the dog, having now to lift her plate overhead, letting him dance after her into the kitchen. The coffeemaker had beeped a second ago.
“So you don’t want sugar!” she yelled. “Cream?”
She heard him laugh and say, whatever. Savannah had never been on a date, that was the weirdness of her life. She didn’t think she was either ugly or terrible, but somehow, in school, she’d got to be, “Ew, her.” If this was what happened when your name came up, you were never leaving Loser Lane. It was material to her interests, and because right now she hated her father forever, to find out from Val Yoharie how he’d done it, drop out of school.
But the boldness was from the utter creepiness of Todwillow.
“What’s he doing? He’s pointing something at us!”
Val had turned to look over his shoulder. The car was down the street, at the curb.
“You wanna come to my house? There’s nobody there.”
So, spontaneous like that, under duress, it had been easy. To connect, at any rate. There was no future in this relationship.
What It Takes to Fly
“Cause logically, you’re on your own anyway. Literally, you could turn eighteen while you’re up in the air. Yeah, that’s funny…”
Rae paused over this. Her sister liked the legal angles. She was going to be an entertainment lawyer—
She was, of course, probably the youngest ever. Because the ones who are born with that thing, tracking on the goal like a missile, get what they want. Savannah had no predictions for what she’d find available to want, stepping off a plane in California, dead poor.
But California seemed right…it was farthest away.
“Really, I think you’d be an adult, and no one could make you do anything anymore. You might get publicity.”
“Only. You’re not trying his thing. You’d get busted, girl.”
They both had their phones, checking prices on this and that.
“How much extra you think?”
“Make sense, Hanbo.”
“I mean, besides four hundred for the ticket…you think tipping? Fee if you ask for a Coke?
“After you land, tipping. Probably you want a taxi. You need a hotel you can stay a couple of nights…cheap, not creepy. Make sure you carry your own bag.”
“They don’t make you give ID if you’re paying cash, or anything…”
“Call the cops! No, seriously, they couldn’t have the right. What for? But why isn’t your driver’s license good?”
Savannah shrugged. “I just feel like I’m gonna be harassed.”
Rae’s plan for her…confiding meant takeover…was to check the UCLA area for student housing. Look for some girls who want a roommate, safe enough. “You remember that book at Grandma’s where the girl is…I don’t know. Her husband’s in college and she gets permission to audit classes…?”
“So I could audit classes? That’s a thing still?”
“Maybe not. You have to find out what you can do. But all the while, picture the clock ticking. Don’t get sightseeing.”
“I’m just gonna see if I can get in at a McDonald’s or anything.”
“Seriously, you can pull this off. Here, check it.”
Rae had found already a facebook of roommates wanted.
“Westwood! I have to find out what Westwood is.”
“Super mega expensive. Yeah, your taxi rides are gonna get nasty…you need to settle. On the plane you can be doing your work.”
“Oh, I don’t think… Not cross country, Bo!”
“Bus, to get around. Not taxi.”
“Not until you know just exactly where you’re going.”
“Oh, thanks, Kate.”
After school, they walked the dog, and staged scenarios. Hairspray. It’s supposed to be as good as pepper spray…
Look, Rae said, sticking her phone under Savannah’s nose. You’re allowed to take hairspray on the plane. Armed and dangerous.
“We shouldn’t joke. You make me nervous.” A minute later, she said: “That’s Mom’s car.”
“Oh, she’s visiting Mat. The little lovebirds.”
This delivered flat and cold. Savannah got a picture of her sister in court…not that Rae would ever prosecute felons…
“Are you gonna be my free lawyer one day?”
“No. I’ll take a percent.”
“So…I’m looking for a job, and I’ve got, how much money left? How long?”
“Well, we haven’t got you funded yet. I need to talk to Grandma.”
“You’re good, kidster, but I don’t see getting a thousand dollars out of her.”
“Don’t be dumb. You have it already. You just take out what belongs to you. And not anyplace close to all of it…”
“But I can’t. Only Mom and Dad.”
Beatty whined, lagged on his leash, other dogs’ presumed reportage a baffling miracle to him, one needing many second looks and a degree of marveling. Talking, they ignored him, stopped when he stalled hard, started when the scope of the work ahead recalled itself to his mind, and he surrendered one light pole for the next.
“I’m going over to Oakbrook. I think the call needs to come from the office. She’ll figure it out, soon as she knows you’re gone. But truly, the money is yours. You’re not a ward of the state. Technicalities, we can overcome.”
“Hanbo. You need to be there…keep the door shut.” Rae gave her an elbow. “But we’ll take Mom out for lunch or something. We’ll ask her about the divorce point blank.”
“We’re not…rifling her drawers…”
“No, no. That would be stealing. We’re extracting assets that rightfully belong to you.”
“You just get the feeling, I mean, like it’s written in the stars or something. Like you think about Three Mile Island and you think, it’s gonna go again.”
His name was Makim; he was Rae’s friend from Law Club, and passenger with her in the back seat, Savannah chauffeur. Makim because someone had to drive the car back from the airport. Her sister wasn’t legal without a licensed driver…and the friend, who was far from twenty-one, was the driver she’d come up with. The two kids, in the spirit though, had put on dress clothes, like a prom couple. Except Rae wore a Jackie suit, wine-boucle Chanel (not actual), Makim necktie and leather jacket. They both wore glasses.
Savannah, dressed for anxious travel, was in sweatpants and a baggy black tee. She had a carryon knapsack, that Rae had lectured her: “Keep that under your arm.”
This was interesting. “Do you really get feelings? Have you ever had a psychic…I don’t know…moment, thing?”
“Hey,” Rae said. “Is that what you meant?”
“Oh…like magic? Mysticism? No, but, yeah…I kind of get a strong visual. Um, my Dad. One time I came home from school, and I knew he wasn’t there. I knew…I could really, seriously, see it happening, my parents scrabbling around the apartment, packing my Dad’s stuff, taking pictures off the wall, my Dad patting the dog’s head, walking out with a bag under each arm and his equipment, his video stuff, slung around in back, and stopping…looking at my Mom standing in the door…”
“And he was really gone?”
“I could never explain it. Cause, you know, they tried hard to be normal, so me and my brother wouldn’t guess what was going on.”
“Oh, that’s wild,” Rae said. “What else? Did you ever know someone was about to die?”
He gave an embarrassed teenager’s giggle. “You even know who Joe Cocker is?”
“Well, because. Didn’t they have something about John Belushi on Saturday Night Live?”
“Yeah, think. Mine only almost half counts. I was at the pharmacy and I heard that song from the movie on the overhead, love lifts us up or whatever…and I thought, Joe Cocker has just died. That’s why they’re playing it. But I swear, there was no clue or anything, it was like any other song. They’d just played Bangles or something… You know how on the yodio it’s always eighties shit…”
“Yodio. You don’t mean muzak?”
Savannah said, “And you didn’t get a feeling. And then you did.”
“So, for me it’s weird. It’s like a weird category. Not psychic like something’s gonna happen, but like it has, only I don’t know it yet.”
“But Three Mile Island.”
“That’s just like, magnetism. You feel like…” He leaned to wave a hand between the two front seats. “The place is sitting in a vortex of mental depression.”
This was strong to Savannah. She would almost, if she wrote poems, steal the phrase. She’d been invibing (a jargon-term of a boy she knew who did) the tragic beauty of the approach to Harrisburg International. Her house was equidistant, at least by map legend, from this airport and the one in Baltimore.
When she’d asked Rae, “What do you think the traffic is like?”, Rae, of course, had said to her phone: “Traffic in Baltimore.”
She repeated what they’d both heard. “Says light.”
“Well, yeah. So the robot-lady says.”
Harrisburg had always been Tristanne’s choice.
Seeing the river course alongside, the hills (and cooling towers), the clinging fog, Savannah had got a visual of her own. You had a fair chance of ditching safely here, in the brown waters.
If you were the hero of an accident…
And she thought of her father, of a Jeremiah Hibbler, able…or fated, to rise to some occasion…
One defining. Was that the word? A fat man with rusty-brown hair, wearing a teeshirt with a flag. Telling the reporter, in an ordinary accent.
“We’re not parking?”
Rae’s question…she could sound very Kate at times…was inflected on park. They’d agreed there was no time, the car had to be got back. Savannah would have to sit alone until they called her flight.
She was glad. It was what she wanted. Adventuresome brats with bright futures snarkily ranking on the concourse shops, on poor, slobby passengers, was a little hurtful for company. It made her feel envious, sad, an underappreciated Light-Brigader charging off to die. But, daydreaming, she hadn’t noticed being shunted onto an exit.
“Sorry. Now what? Guys, watch.”
Eleven days. Eleven days and you’re dead. Her rotten little sister had texted her this. True, she had one thousand dollars on a debit card, untouched. Tomorrow it would be. She’d got early cash for turning eighteen…from Mom and Dad, two hundred. Rae had given her fifty, saying along with the gesture, “And shut up about it.”
She’d had a paltry twenty of her own. From Grandma Hibbler, welcome to the adult world, the other debit card, the five hundred one, gone for airfare. Quite a bit of her walking cash had gone to the cab.
Then this room, if she wanted to keep it. Savannah sat on the made bed of an eighty-five-dollar-a-night motel in Harbor City. A Starbucks was close, a Carl’s Jr. Two gas stations. Banks, lots of banks. They were not going to hire her as a teller. (Did people in L.A. just drive around needing ATMs all the time?)
She’d just got off a long phone conversation with Rae, the promised one: “I’m here. I got a place….yeah, a motel. A lot, that’s how much, but I don’t think it gets any cheaper…” She had marching orders. Everything she could see or find on the map, reachable on foot…
And that of course was a question…ditches, fences…
In theory on foot…
She was to list. Well, it doesn’t matter, Rae said, they’ll call you on your phone. Look up an apartment building and say you live there. Only be real, don’t get fancy. But I mean, right? They’ll just file it. When they want someone for part-time, they’ll dig it out. If you get work, make yourself indispensable.”
“What Grandma would say. But…”
Something went mutedly thunk, and after a minute Rae came back. “Dad’s home. I feel like maybe he doesn’t work at the buggy place anymore. He hasn’t said.”
Savannah was in a limbo of trouble; she’d gained three hours to her first day, felt nothing like jet lag…knew the axe was poised. At home Dad in his bedroom armchair watching Food channel barbecue shows, his blue TV. Lights off. Mom, through one dinner, could be bluffed. Rae carry a plate upstairs and pretend she was sick or snitty. Savannah felt generous about this. Sure, let Mom judge.
“Oh, she’s not coming down? What’s up this time?”
“But, you can have a job and be homeless. You can’t get a place to live without a job. Right now, while things are open. And find out if you’re applying online and all. Maybe you have to make an account… I bet the software doesn’t care what you put in for an address. Savannah, you don’t need me anymore?”
She let Rae go.
Rae texted the kicker.
Savannah decided to reconnoiter as far as the Arco, spotted when the driver’d turned from Harbor to Sepulveda. Leaving off freeways and boulevards as though she already knew the city. If she could cross the street okay…
She might or might not ask the cashier about a job. It was possible to picture it all working out, some real-life fantasy like in a movie…
Like, someone in the movies would have just fired his assistant. He’d see this girl on the street…
“Anybody could do a better job than you! I’ll prove it.” Tosses phone aside. “Hey, kid! You need work?”
So, if you got rejected, and the next place too: “No, sorry.”
And the place after that.
The eleven days would start to weigh. Savannah didn’t want to feel afraid. She was not opposed to talking to everyday people. Why would a Savannah Hibbler be a snob? She had only worked once, sweeping hair for her mother…a time they’d been frustrated with each other on every topic, Kate coming home mad she was even there.
“You’re sixteen. You can get a summer job.” And then, “No, forget it.” But, a smile. “Honey, I don’t trust you.”
And what that meant, though humor had saved the day, was if Savannah hated grunt work, she could check out the mall offerings. She would be dressed, alert, her sole reference within waving distance. Mom was probably a genius in her way.
The cab driver had said, “You wanna give me your number?”
The first thing unavoidable she’d said to him, being: “Is there a kind of cheap motel that if you’re eighteen, they don’t…like…get stinky about it?”
And so he’d taken care of her, talking all the way through the traffic jams about neighborhoods she didn’t want to go, what lines, “if a guy says” she should walk away. And Harbor City, a nice area, lot cheaper than up around the airport, and you don’t wanna be up around the airport.
“There’s a big medical place, they hire a lot of people. You going to school?”
“No. I’m done with it.”
“Well, get yourself in with some roommates. L.A.’s not too bad, you just gotta get that refugee mindset, right? Don’t expect too much.”
The advice might be perfect. It was comforting, but not the magic sort of thing you wished for. Some motherly figure who ran a boardinghouse…what, from her reading, had put the word in her head, she didn’t know. But a kind of everybody-jumble-in Victorian mansion full of quirky but kindhearted…
Misfits. Don’t expect too much, she told herself. You really are in la-la land. She felt bad for having said, “Oh. I haven’t bought a phone yet.”
God, she’d prayed until he let her out in front of the check-in hut, don’t let Rae call.
So, of all possible things for a birthday treat, big greasy grilled burgers, raspberry coffees topped with mounds of whipped cream, she craved gas station food. Not per se…a grocery fine, and if she found one sooner, she’d grab her list. Danish, the kind sold in packets by themselves, probably because—analyzing danish for the first time—the plastic sealed in all that transfatty softness. And Doritos. And bubble gum to get rid of the Doritos taste. And then, a two-liter Dr. Pepper. And then, ramen…maybe. She thought in the coffee maker she could do ramen.
She closed the door, clutching at the keycard, shouldering her knapsack. She felt homeless the minute she left the parking lot, reached a little stump of sidewalk, a busy, busy street. Wide, and no center island. Someone else walking, a woman in a billed hat with Lakers on it, peering up into her face and trucking on.
“Thanks, I don’t need help,” Savannah said, inside.
She hoped they didn’t bust you for loitering right off, because this was a minor crisis. How many places she’d gone in her life, cruising in a daydream in the back of Mom and Dad’s car…
Alrighty, how do you tell where you are, so you can find your way again?
Do I even know what room? Did I pay enough attention?
She wanted to call Rae, as though talking to her sister would make her look normal. As though Rae’s gift, of being born fearless and wily as fuck, would solve this problem too. Down at the end of sight, at a corner near an overpass, sat what looked to Savannah like her goal. Some fencing visible, sidewalk going the full distance uncertain. Could you even cross diagonal, four directions of endless traffic edging and revving? Could you starve to death in L.A. without a car?
So…hi! So, I’m still talking to Sam? Great. Oh, no problem. What do I need to give you besides the account number? Should I write a little note and have her bring it? Who’s this now? Kevin…Kev! So, my daughter’s looking at colleges. No, seriously, Savannah. (Laughter.) We have liftoff. (More laughter.) Right. A debit card. Absolutely no refills. Yeah, and Kev, listen—
I really don’t have to come down there myself, do I? I mean, if you could fax me something? Maybe… Oh, great! No…heck, never. So, Savannah will pick up the card…I’ll sign her a note, just in case…”
And cheery goodbyes.
“Now scramble! I’ll pick up if they call back for some reason.”
Rae gave her two signs, the first a backhanded wave, the second explicit. Savannah jogged off, walked a little, jogged more, the motions of an idiot conspirator, unworthy of her sister’s tacticianing, making for their mother’s bank.
“Oh. My. God. We did it!” She’d hissed this out, shutting Kate’s office door, looking every way about her. “Rae! You sound so much like Mom!”
Rae rolled her eyes. “So while you were gone, I called Grandma. Basically, I have her statement that the money is to ‘get started’. Quote. I said, you mean for college…even if one of us decides we’re not going?”
“One of us? Use my name if you want.”
Lawyerly negative indication. “We’re establishing a principle. And she said, no, it’s just there for each of you. Quote. She had those CDs, remember, when they matured she opened our accounts… So!” Brisk, summing up. “That’s our position if we need to mount a defense. Mom always says college money, but Grandma never made it that specific. I’ve got her on record.”
“And so why…”
Here was a black shirt, henley, an L. L. Bean, men’s large. Waffle-weave, 100% cotton. It was raggy, worn, one cuff departing its sleeve both ends, fraying up and ripping down. Paint, where the owner must have sat in it, a grey wash at the back hem…
There was nothing about this shirt Savannah didn’t like, including the bigness.
“Why they donate shit?”
“Why, if I’m supposed to throw it in the bin, couldn’t I take it?”
Her workmate shrugged.
She had put aside a pair of jeans, in case it turned out not wrong, Jeff when asked not minding. Cottons recyclable, synthetics for the landfill. Jeans and denims in a bin of their own, torn not making them unsaleable. Stinky and stained, no zipper…the workers were to judge. Hers, low-waisted, no tags, probably men’s, had a brown stain down one leg. Well, rusty. Of bodily fluids, more like blood than the insupportable. Lots of holes, so hard to say bullet. And whether that was cool…new thought…
But to Savannah it seemed, a little.
Both finds ASAP to the laundromat, sure, but…they were junk.
They were trash. Stuffed, maybe post-crime, the jeans…in a dropbox. “Good question.”
“What’d I say?”
She sat back on her heels, struck by it. Because if the worst shreddy things were viable, but on the other hand, you wouldn’t pay for them…but on the third, you might…maybe a quarter…
On her first morning recon she’d passed Clothes! Clothes! Clothes! Vintage! Kids! Formal! Athletic!
Two front window-plates, and these words, on plasticky banners. Tired of walking, dry-throated, she settled her weight on both feet…eye caught by a banner ripping itself from its moorings. A human shape in dim light. This she saw load a rag from a tin can, rub white stuff all over the window, blanking its presence back out. Then, lingering like the Cheshire cat’s smile, having left a corner untouched, the hand popped in a cardboard sign, hot pink, to fill it.
Black letters: HIRING APPLY WITHIN.
Well, why not, if fate beckoned?
And somehow she wasn’t first in line. Jeff, offering a hand, had patted her arm instead, drawn her into his office, walked out again…speaking, so she had to tail him…before she could eyeball his desk for a last name. Rick-Rack Rags was musty, cigarettey; smell salient among its features…
And close-packed, loaded, a foot or two of space between each of those rickety racks.
His phone played Spandau Ballet, and he talked to someone who’d gotten a text from him. “You got my text? Yer, and Pab, do you know where to find him?”
Well, he goes to the Zion Baptist. That’s the only place you’d track him down…
“I hardly need more than a couple people.”
He spoke to her, she thought, inviting her to chime in. “Was it Savannah?”
Saying uh-huh, loud for Pab…or someone looking for Pab…she tugged the sleeve of a pilled sweatshirt, colored…watermelon?
Yer, indeed. The breast zone showed itself appliqued with a pink and green slice, satin, glued-on plastic seeds.
“Hoo!” Jeff craned his neck.
“Well, I don’t like it.” She shrugged, a bad idea in a job interview.
The catch, though he’d set her to work that afternoon, was 160 hours. She was short-term. They were all short-term, herself, Tavo, and Sana. Sana’s four-year-old.
“Don’t let her work.” Jeff said this once or twice a day, weaving to his office. Otherwise he left them to fend.
Short-term meant they were also learners. Their hours were short. Savannah was getting $8.50 instead of minimum wage. A beggar in this scenario, she couldn’t complain, but her workmates took matters cynically. (Especially Sana, let go and rehired.) The first day, dying for a Dr. Pepper, but afraid to ask favors, she’d spent four hours pulling everything with a yellow dot on the tag, throwing the hanger in one appliance box, the garment in another. The next day they all did this, including (in mimicry, and too undersized to reach the racks) the child, until the box was heaped to the ceiling, a volcano vomiting weird, ugly clothes all over the floor.
“That’s no good. You need another box,” Jeff said, stopping by. “Tavo, go see in the back lot.”
After three days they were given the weekend off, and paper checks.
Sixteen hours, a certain amount of withholding. But earnings enough to drive home to Savannah her miscalculations…
The motel she’d given thought to; not, with any sense, basic food. Her length of stay as factored she would not be able to afford. And only on bathroom breaks could she wedge in a quick (and futile) call, “You advertised for a roommate?” The hours would end, probably before the coming week…they were all such busy workers. Rick-Rack had another location in Wilmington, still in business. The whole job was to clear out this inventory, get rid of most of it.
She set her alarm for 7:00 am Saturday, the banks soon to open, her plan to cash the check and buy groceries…
Down, Monday, to the nubs, of things-you-can-get-with-loose-change, she gave her story to Sana and Tavo. “I mean, you can’t cash a check if you don’t have an account? And they won’t let you have an account unless you have a permanent address? What are you supposed to do? I’m so starving!”
“You go to one of the places,” Sana told her, maybe with an eye roll. “You never had a check?”
Well, not exactly. Grandma wrote them. Kate deposited them in her wallet and pulled out cash for her daughters.
Tavo said, “Put your head out the door and look over that way.”
She put her head out the door, and looked across the shopping center. “Tavo!”
He came up behind. “ZipCash. Yellow sign? You got it.”
“Oh. But…” But, bad news, weren’t they, check-cashing stores? “Don’t they have fees?”
“Won’t be much of nothing.”
“Better get going,” Sana said.
“What about Jeff?”
“Yeah, don’t let him see you. They close at four, what can you do…? But he won’t fire you. We’re almost done.”
The yellow dots signaled expiration, the item too long unsold. Today they were digging through the storeroom—fresh stuff popping from the woodwork—for cottons and denims, Jeff with more cardboard boxes increasing chaos and fire hazard.
“So it used to be we’d get estate…some old lady would die, her grandkids’d want the house just cleaned out. And they had the dinner-dances and the supper clubs, Brown Derby, that kind of thing, all these ladies who were in bookkeeping or reading scripts for the censors, assistant producer’s wife, whatever like that, and they had the great 40s, 50s suits, swingy dresses, little pairs of shoes… I mean little tiny sizes…they were all five feet tall. Have em with balled-up newspaper in the toes, lined up in a row. And fur stoles. And the really avant-garde costume jewelry. I had wardrobe stylists slip me fifty to hold the collectibles aside… All that generation died about ten years ago.”
“And…no more swag?”
Savannah thought, wanting him gone so she could jam the shirt and jeans into her knapsack, that he seemed talking to her particularly.
“No. The internet, that’s the whole trouble.”
She had tried oblique. Probably to no purpose. What was not to get about this puzzle? Game it out…employment, good of which depends on reputation…
And reputation, if you plan to live, depends on employment. She’d get something from Jeff, referential, she assumed.
“You talk too much,” he’d told her, being there…in the way among the racks he could, when she thought he’d gone into his office.
Another time: “You sure you’re legal?”
Ms. Hibbler needs to concentrate more, and I suspect her of being untruthful.
Reputation, employment, home. Except the exact opposite. “Where do you live, Sana?”
Sana rocked onto her heels. “Hawthorne. That doesn’t mean anything to you, does it? Okay, so it’s kind of far away, but it isn’t really. You’re starting to get L.A., right?”
She was bossy, a little. She taught, or had taught, students a few years younger. Than herself, older than Savannah. She wasn’t this semester; she was finishing her dissertation. Sana would be a doctor of cultural studies.
And she was pleased to take these odd jobs. “Experience. You can’t be enclavey. You have to know what experience is for everyone. I want Fair to be the new female butterfly, when she’s grown. Do you know what I mean? We’ve been chrysalized by our meekness. We’re trapped. You’re better off.”
She seemed to mean at eighteen, as opposed to twenty-five or six, that aging cohort…
“My parents have gone back to Lahore, so you see for my mother it’s a sort of regression.”
In the 70s Sana’s grandfather had immigrated, to work at Livermore, she said. As a technician, not the big money. Probably there was no big money, but who knew, patents maybe. Shrug. Anyway, no one could retire up there.
None of this made sense to Savannah, but came with such presumption it would, such self-assurance…
You had to decide in a conversation if you cared; if not, you sat and nodded. If Sana cared…thought, began to, of Savannah as a friend who could matter…
Sana and her brother both lived at home. They both had custody of a child, both were planning divorce.
“And that’s where I am, anyway, because it’s not going to make sense until I’m done with school and have a job. Then I’ll get a house. If I get a house, and I’m paying, I’m not gonna have his ass hanging around. Right now, I don’t care…long as he takes the kidster out of my hair sometimes.”
Their grandfather cared, or they owed him so much, and he seemed so hopeful…that was, his habit was to talk to Sana and her brother like future things were decided. He understood this transitional time could have its rules, and the rules could be forgotten, separations made reunions, when the better times came. He didn’t understand this, really…
Sana cocked her head. “He’ll never admit it. He’ll just go on talking like that. And neither of us has the guts, because we love him. But, you know, I think my brother’s doing it, getting back with her. I mean, isn’t it, when people are the rottenest for each other…and one of them is the Archbitch of the World, by the by…they’re the ones who tell you, oh, hey, we’re working it out! They’re throwing a party to celebrate, and you have to buy something, like you care… Imagine if you said, shit no, be real…I’ll bet you a hundred bucks instead of spending it on you. Because next they’re splitting up again, right?”
Nice. Of course she didn’t know adult couples. Not to count the Busbys…
Oh, Christ! Savannah thought…Tristanne, don’t ever! Stay safe in Grand Rapids.
Where do you live…do you have a garage? I could just sleep on a cot. I could put my stuff under, out of everyone’s way, I’d get my own meals, all I need is access to a bathroom…I’ll pay…
I’ll pay what I can. The conversation invited, she now knew Sana’s life, and it was impossible. The house was overcrowded with dependents. Grandfather would hope aloud for a future without the charity case, squatting. Maybe in California it was illegal to even camp in a yard… Otherwise wouldn’t everyone rent a tent?
She didn’t feel too proud to beg. She felt…weak, in this matter of lips wanting to form dismayed curls, politeness too self-conscious, forcing excuses. They felt sorry for her.
They wanted her to seriously not put them on the spot.
Jeff told her in plain terms. “You’re gonna have a hard time, too bad. I mean, when I was a kid, you could kind of make a start. Sleep on beaches. And I got a loan. If you can rent an office, you got a place to live.”
Tavo bumped her elbow and grinned. “Good advice.”
“Oh, no one’s loaning me money.”
“His father, he means.”
“Yeah, my parents…”
She stopped, on sounding this plaintive note, that sent Sana off to scoop up Fair. Jeff was in his office. Tavo said, “You wanna know where I live?”
It wasn’t true that you couldn’t walk anyplace in L.A. Tavo led her behind the strip of stores, through the parking lot. They’d just had their next to last day of employment.
“What will you do? Do you have another job?”
“No, I don’t live that way.”
A fence divided this lot from one below, another fence penning storage sheds, screwed with warning signs. Tavo scaled this…and so Savannah toed her way up. At the awkward getting over, he reached for her waist and steadied her down.
A three-foot slope and shallow ditch. “I get money…I work every few months. I can do okay for a while, I’m not in a hurry.”
“Then what else? Are you an artist?”
Artist, actor…why would every Angeleno be? But he seemed cool with this, her allowing he might.
“I’m building a house. Nobody knows it.”
They slinkied on the sides of their feet down a steeper hill. They walked under a highway overpass, farther into a miniature wilderness, fences going off and up at pointless angles.
A concrete culvert. A stand of skinny trees with Jurassic-looking leaves.
Tavo parted the trunks, and Savannah saw a car. A dead car, wrecked here. Chained to the underside was a dog. Idiot as Beatty, small and slick-haired, it bounced, spread its front legs, rump in the air, and growled, bounced again.
“Do you like having him on the chain? Does he have to stay all day like that?”
“Oh, he’s my best friend.” Tavo nudged a foot to show water and kibble bowls, which weren’t…one was a styrofoam cooler top, one a hubcap. “I chain him cause I don’t want him missing.”
He unlocked a metal box on the backseat, showed her water bottles and snacks. Kibble. The dog jumped in the front. Tavo leaned and gave him a hug. “Yeah, my buddy. Meet Savannah. Say hi.”
Savannah leaned. “Hi, sweetie.”
“Get in if you want. We could sit together and talk.”
“No, I’ll get in.” He slid under the steering wheel, taking the dog on his lap. “See, you have the door that way.”
She sat in the driver’s seat. “Tavo, I have no place to live.”
He put his arm around her shoulders. “You stay here.”
She squirmed a little; her knapsack on her own lap…phone inside.
“No. You’re my little sister. I’d look after you. But you don’t have to.”
“Um. I have a place to stay tonight.”
The house he was building was on a burned-out foundation, the rubble cleared away. No one had sold the property. He and people he knew walked berms, dug in dumpsters for boards and nails, wiring, PVC pipe.
Some materials the gang might find in a way of finding. They’d dug up flowers and planted them along the front walk. Sanded graffiti off the wall. A block wall at the back was good, maybe the best thing about this lot, even if it belonged to the other house. The yard dirt was poor, gritty, smashed bottles, drywall chunked up in it. But with a rake you could start fixing that, too.
“You just go out, like, shopping for the thing you have in mind. You’d be surprised.”
They had a first floor. Roof tarps. Enough boards to finish the porch stairs. Were trying to get paint.
She gathered you could steal some…because things were carelessly looked after, because no owner could be identified. This was not in the category of shoplifting. While, caring for the dog, for a child, dressing for a paying job…
“But someone will run you off.”
“So we start over. Wherever we find, what I’m saying. We got time. It’s stupid the way it is, cause you can do things. You want to, you get something out of it. I mean, he could tear everything down, but it’ll be a good little house. He could rent it to us, you know?”
She had sat fighting tears, chewing with a vengeance one chip at a time from the bag Tavo said was for her. Oh, how good if this were true, that a stranger so easily could love her as a little sister…
A thing she’d never been. Maybe love was not the word.
But the temptation to join this colony felt like an ache. She would rake that yard herself…she would shop for that rake…almost, it would be fun.
“Tavo, I need to go.” She scrambled free of the wheel, and he seemed willing, being at home, to let her make her way to hers. The too-expensive motel. “I love you.”
“I love you.”
She was getting crisis reports. Rae at the helm, doing her best. Mom, Rae said, had tallied up the odometer. Surprising she hadn’t dusted for prints.
“Raelyn, where is Savannah?
“I don’t know.”
“But Mom, if she was someplace in trouble, it would matter to me just as much as you, helping her out. If I knew, why would I keep it a secret?”
“So you’re going to stand there and tell me to my face you don’t know?”
“If I knew, you would know.”
“What about Dad?”
“Oh, Dad is freaking weird. He went off driving with Todwillow…retracing the path. Or recreating the crime. Whatever.”
“Oh, yuck. But Rae, don’t lie to Mom. I don’t want you in lockdown, cause I need you.”
“Hanbo, heed the testimony. I did not lie. Do I know where you are? Do you know where you are?”
A Harbor City parking lot. Not the day to take a big, sighing breath. Oiliness in the immediate air; something uncertain, but like the barbeque grill when Dad opened the valve, coming from the highway. No, where am I?
Savannah saw a film reel out in imagination…you would keep asking people this. Get a thousand answers, edit the most fitting into a stream of consciousness, the age and sex of the speaker changing, the background changing.
Fast, flitting cuts. Tones like pipes clashing, transitioning…
Would UCLA admit her on the strength of it? You’d meet everyone you needed to meet, if you could just get in…
Her sister hadn’t thought of the bank’s friendly email confirmation. Rae had been dunking Oreos in the inglenook, happened to hear Kate mutter…
“Debit card, now what the hell?”
Dad just got out of Todwillow’s car. Because he had, Rae through the window crazily searching for a reason to have called this out.
“Oh, goddamn Todwillow… Jer is home? Why…”
For the needed few seconds, Kate had left her phone on the counter.
“Really,” Rae said, reporting this, “they need to end it.”
No, don’t, Savannah said…now, inside. Don’t divorce. Even Rae couldn’t be so cool…she wasn’t on top of everything.
What, what, what to do? How could Tavo be so lucky he had found a free little home… Free both ways, because under the highway nobody would fuck with you either…
At least. She supposed harassment for nothing was still the way of the world…and there were harassers and harassers, too. And then…
What if you were a sort of she-toad, a creature so ugly and insignificant no predatory eye would ever light on you? The only thing that mattered to Savannah was the work. The work existed in imagination, but why wouldn’t it be so much easier getting started, building cred, if you could be a useful object, just that…run errands, be counted on…
But otherwise be nothing. A toad in a hidey-hole who came and went, was not pretty to anyone, was allowed to be just a Mind, unfettered…could enjoy the whole of personal sovereignty…
The phone buzzed. Savannah, not to trouble Jeff, had been keeping it on vibrate. Their sister emergency code still worked. It buzzed; it stopped. She counted one-mississippi, two-mississippi… It buzzed again, stopped. Savannah counted beats and rang back.
“Too hot to handle, girl.”
“She’s confiscating my phone. I told her I left it at school. It’ll have to be like, oh, lookee there…I guess it was in my bag the whole time. You get me. I’m under house arrest, and she’s driving tomorrow. So that’s it. Get your plea ready.”
“You forget something? You need in?”
Going back as she’d come, Savannah had to pass Rick-Rack Rags. Jeff had emerged in some deliberate, sneaky way. She believed it. No noise, no puff of air. When had he done it, though…how much was he spying on her?
“No. I’m just off to check out. Bye.”
“Doesn’t sound good.” He was affable; he fell in at her side.
“It’s fine.” She gave him an extra-large shrug.
“So, you mean you’re gonna fly back home?”
“I don’t think so, yet.” Oh, get the hell off.
He didn’t. “You got money to eat?”
“Why don’t you come along with me and I’ll get you a burger?”
He made a sweep of the hand, which meant turn around and walk back to his car. She couldn’t get any read on Jeff. He was both nice and suspect. Pressure, this collapse of the plan, this burning out of all resources…
Some terror of what Kate would say…while she knew her mother didn’t hate her…
But terror, yes, a dismal, gut-churning fear…
Made Savannah ask herself, slumping into Jeff’s passenger seat, did it matter? Women got themselves into these things. You could have a bad boyfriend. It could be art. Maybe Jeff was even…not bad.
A simple, rite-based, an utterly credulous piety…
So, when you felt in the wrong, no dark night of the soul, no ethical struggle.
“Struggle doesn’t seem quite right. A more engaged version of a quandary…?”
“Please. But,” Giarma added, “you want a job, let’s say. You need it, you don’t really want it. But the interview, the thought of having to justify your existence. Like…what can you bring to the company? What are your strengths? Okay, if I get crappy treatment, if I see anyone getting crappy treatment, I’m calling it. That’s what I got these days. Don’t hire me.”
“The interview is making you twitch. You put a coin in the shrine-box, whatever they had for the goddess of the crossroads…”
“Oh, it’s pronounced Asia?”
“The fanbase has decided it is.”
“So then you’ve done the thing, you skip off without a worry. It makes you think, why did Saint Augustine, or whoever, screw up paganism with all this, am I doing the right thing for the right reason, Christian theology? Or, I guess…”
She blushed, which he wouldn’t have noticed…but also she’d busied herself with her copy of The Totem-Maker, in that way that projects embarrassment.
“Giarma, I’m not some kind of freaking evangelist.”
It was embarrassing to realize this…that she’d been asking herself what kind of name is Royce, is it Irish? Could it be Jewish?
“That’s a thought-piece, you know. Why don’t you do it for Seeds?”
“Thought-piece! You talk like you cultos actually have the answers. I don’t mean actually.”
“Come on, you think I care? You apologize for stuff like I’d get mad at you. I’m not doing something I don’t see, am I?”
She picked up wrappers from lunch, jumped the straw in her Diet Coke, proving there was only ice left, and walked to his kitchen. Heavy self-consciousness descended; feet in concrete blocks of quandary, she moved at a calculated pace, scanning for other items—a coffee mug, gum-foil around a chewed wad…anything in the category of “could use tidying”.
Relationships were awful. Now that she sometimes lived with Trevor, and the two of them must be going…to a place…
You’re fine. Rude, too short…? Then to busy herself, again, just for thinking room. Did it look to poor Trev like she was ticked, madly, that imaginary faults filled her bitchy head?
Nothing recyclable. Fast food every day. Why don’t I cook? Dawn cooks. Teach me to make your macaroni and cheese. Those egg salad bacon sandwiches…
Home food…maybe a hair better on sodium. Her father came to mind. He never did without Giarma’s feeling…not panic. The anxiety that would start one.
“Go live your life, sweetheart,” was what he said, every time. She left him on his porch, every time.
His numbers, cholesterol, blood sugar, were bad. Dawn took stabs at leafy greens. A dollop of fat-free ranch?
“No. I get so many meals for the rest of my life. So do you, Babe.”
A little bicker before they’d settled. Dad had a point…greens had calories too. If you chewed your dutiful chards and arugulas, you were crossing off, say, cheese and crackers…
Mind on diet, she was bent searching Trevor’s cabinets. She heard him shuffle up behind. Could they do a couples’ initiative together, learn cooking, exercise?
“Do you want to take a hike?”
“Um. I think you mean seriously…” He sounded wary.
“We haven’t done things like that. We’re always reading and working.”
“Sure.” He drew his phone from a cargo pocket. “I’m looking up state parks.”
The book was not a bad protective weapon. Totem had come at the end of the Vietnam era, its first reputation antiwar parable, fantasy mere construct…vehicle to message. A major newspaper’s guest-critic was given it to review. He was a West German writer, his novels pseudo-fantastic in their own right, dense apologies for Nazism. Totem, in the public mind, had lodged, built inside this house of melos, of high and low mimetic, and the D & D nerds, the gamers risen in the eighties and nineties, never had felt the love for it. It wasn’t Eurocentric. The magic might not even be real.
You could get a coffee—even full lunch—by yourself, crack Totem…the title off-putting to conversation anyway, implying a journey into mystic religion…
Which it kind of was. But if someone asked—
“Oh, it’s about a quest to discover the nature of good, what degree of responsibility we have as individuals to actively determine this for ourselves, whether the universal power, if it exists, requires this of each of us…”
The fanatics were fanatical, but the cultos also segregated themselves, into mere Worlders, and Neverers, subsets be damned. Giarma thought of cultivating a Neverer mien…pitying and austere. If necessary, a disparaging remark, about movies.
She was at the Oakbrook mall, the single customer of Bernadette’s. Behind the glass case Bernadette culled crimped-paper holders, empty éclair oblongs, doughnut rounds; fixing cards under trays: Half-Price! BOGO!
The same thing. Bernadette, which one do they go for? Giarma didn’t ask, and Bernadette worked her shop’s late afternoon disappointed, philosophical, five-staged to acceptance (of bankruptcy?), with eyes lowered. Giarma had already paid; she could get up and leave, being done…
She went to the counter. Thinking, they’re whole-wheat crullers, she asked for three.
“Would you take four? There’d be only one left.”
“Six, you mean? Or…not BOGO?”
“Sorry. But just have the fourth, I’m not charging for it.”
“Oh, and could I have a coffee to go?”
With coffee and food, exiting Bernadette’s within sight of the owner, Giarma had to stride with faux-purpose along the faux-street, until the faux-gaslamp signaled a corner to be turned. A niche garden, deserted…fountain noisy, dotting drops on every bench…
The crullers could go in the tote. The coffee needed drinking—but caffeine was life, no bother to have a little more. Why did malls have to make you sad? And obligated, and awkward, with the too-nice and the too-rude alike.
She was phone shopping while she store shopped. But, because you did these days, not to cheat and brag on social. You needed to know if the thing was the thing: a black sweater, fine, but the grail of black sweaters… A bargain, okay, but the crux of bargains, the purchase self-absolving.
Always, you’d needed to, always the closet full of mistakes.
Trawling with her mother at twelve or so, in love with shopping, but wasting Renata’s time, she had got her first adult sense of it.
“You won’t like that. Where would you wear it? Besides, baby, I don’t think it’s your size.”
It was a size two sequined bolero. Really not hers, and it had been a woman’s jacket, not a kid’s. The mirror showed Giarma lumpy, arms too full in the tight little sleeves. The mirror showed a girl from her school, smirking in the racks. Smirking with a vengeance when she knew Giarma could see her do it.
Which was deliverance. She could be ridiculed at the Hell Place—the school cafeteria—as much for having tried it on as for wearing it, and escape at least the misery of no escape. Dad sent crazy amounts of money when he’d been paid a bonus. Her mother put most of it away and let her have fifty. That year she’d bought a sweatshirt and a pair of corduroy overalls. The outfit was in a Christmas picture; she ought to let Trevor see it.
“So it’s best we don’t have children. I carry the corduroy overall gene.”
Oops. That was to bring the subject up.
She ate a cruller.
The shopping was work, worth putting the mind to. Her own genius blog, her YouTube channel… What these would be when they existed.
This was research.
She didn’t love the hundred tasks of internet ubiquity, but an entrepreneur should face reality. Eyeballs are needed. The Proposal being like, ladies, show me what outfits make you feel strong. What’s your best self-confident look for the job interview, the first date? Her own stuff, her ensembles, her discoveries. Price points, seasons…to be menued by… Modeling maybe. Or ask Dawn and other perfectly fine-looking women… Cathlyn, Roberta. Basic women, not self-interred, effaced with the artificial face. Fashion taken out of the arena of drag, of making personas spackled together from “being female” signifiers, or whatever femininity was…
Hair that can’t be mussed, nails that force mechanical incompetence, shoes that queer the gait, tight-cutting waistbands that remind you all day you’re fat.
Pinchy hook and eye closures. Had a man ever had to endure one?
Across from Oakbrook was the Walmart she ought to check…she was a little tired. But stood, slotting bags onto her left arm. How PC was a good question… An old business class exercise, who is the customer? Don’t shut out the people you can sell to in favor of ones you can’t…
And what was she selling?
In the driver’s seat, she decided home, Dad’s house. Trevor was okay, they had plans, he didn’t have to see her today. A little nap. Saturday’s hike would be the start of a new discipline. She would carry Dad a plate of crullers and a cup of cocoa. Even sit and share, and try so hard not to turn business and relationships over in her mind while he talked about his Downies, the cardinal he’d named Martha. She had a white patch. That was how he could tell. This time answer…
“That’s so great!”
Phony. Say, “I hope…”
We will all get our shit straight. When she lay stretched on her duvet, she allowed marriage. She allowed Hibblers and the gossip about them, Busbys… Mat was stalking her, half-hearted. Half-hearted about everything in life, but he’d find another woman to marry him, you could never doubt it. She and Trevor should not, no way, never get married; there was no reason these days. Reasonable people, who weren’t reproducing, and didn’t care about classing assets, didn’t.
The idea of saying, “I have to stay with my husband. We’ve been married for nine years”… It was so ball-and-chainish. The legal tie has to equate to, not love, but the sanctified mouthing of the word; you need the right to sue for money…
But if you love someone, are you that nervous? Wouldn’t you say, you don’t owe me anything, you don’t have to pledge me anything? I’m here because I choose to be.
Well, self-sacrifice. A man who loves fantasy ought to be high on quests.
Society hadn’t yet crafted the new rules. Or cancel yet. Society follows culture, and the culture stagnates. A woman can ask a man for a date, or a man she dates for his hand…
Push on, stalwart feminist…
But, Giarma thought, your place has not really changed.
Keep me company…Corey…Adam…so I can see a movie I want to, and not feel weird. Or try a new restaurant, and not have to sit putting on airs…
You see, I’m a food blogger. I’m sampling.
I’m busy with my work, important me, texting colleagues, feeling out prospects, outlining my next project…or…
I’m an original, a devil-may-care…
A Mame, sort of…it was all she could think of. A brassy broad in a big hat, caroling to waiters (gravelly voice): Bring me your best champagne!
My good man, no doubt.
But he would think, yeah, she’s hot for me. She’s ready.
While you would think, let’s be friends for a little, and find out if we like each other.
Things had worked, magically worked, in the right direction with Trev. Their book club, Roberta’s joining to moderate the talk, until Giarma and he had talk.
They were good, but soon to go askew…
She hadn’t fully appreciated the equation’s him. How Corey, proposing to her in Sharpie on a birthday balloon, must…maybe in the sixth month or so…have started gearing his mind to it.
Here’s a woman. I’m dating her. We’ve been together a while. Maybe I should, she’s okay…
And every time he picked her up, he’d tell himself, she expects me to ask. If I don’t this time, she’ll get wanting to break it off…
(She had answered him, “Oh…”
He had answered her: “Yeah.”)
Corey had seemed to choose, or view, all things exhibits for his offended taste to riff off…
And that had been his conversation.
But entertain that this wrong-shaped box Relationship got jammed into, malformed character, turned people with interests into poseurs and sheep. Entertain that her poor ex had become this censorious jerk because she’d grown him that way, because female reticence had kept her opinions unaired. Better to have been combative, tell him outright to can it. There might have been another Corey-Girl deep inside.
It was rough on everyone, being not a finished adult in the world’s eyes, unpaired.
Tina was in the house.
She had had surgery and it couldn’t be helped. Dawn had the sectionals squared to make a living room bed, and Tina gatekept, plumped by the front door, needy. It wasn’t kindhearted not to say it: “Can I get you anything before I go?”
So, to walk past her with a backpack and two totes was to invite…
The word was conversation, and it left Giarma guilty. “Did Dawn tell you I’m going hiking with Trev?”
“Hiking! Oh, well. I used to like going to the picnic house at the lake. Don’t get ticks.”
“The picnic house at the lake.” She repeated the only opener; wondered at once if “Thanks, I’ll be careful” wouldn’t have qualified for an escape phrase.
“Well, it was a reservoir, but it was private…it was Mike in the club. I got to go for being his wife, but I didn’t fish. And I didn’t play tennis or golf. I brought my magazines… Shermager.”
Giarma perched on an ottoman, bags between her knees. “Mike Shermager?” Maybe she hadn’t actually heard this.
“No-o.” Tina drew the word. “Mike was my husband. Same last name as me.”
Her second husband. At least, Dawn had no country club about her…the name, then, not Orse…was it possible she had never picked up on Tina’s last name?
“It’s what they called the reservoir, after the congressman.”
“You enjoy yourself, kiddo.”
Giarma sprang. This sitting to talk had somehow upset the playbook. Tina, always calling out at passersby, interrupting meals with remarks, wasn’t really talking…
Giarma thanked her, shouldered and tucked her burdens…had to lay them down outside the door to work the lock, haw-hawing nerdishly…
She found, making up the street, that she felt worse.
Tina with her husbands, her father—one could assume—shutting her trap all her life. Men ignoring her chatter, asking her things, not staying to listen.
But herself, and even Dawn.
And why this dreary insight palling her fun with Trevor…?
Corey and Tina communicating as their world, having carved its slot for them, allowed…begrudged…saying nothing anyone cared to hear…
Everyone, delusional and alone as that.
Well, wrest it back. Take the one big chance, and if he can’t understand, if he can’t get over it…so what? So what, relationships aren’t progress. Every new person is where he is. You’ll settle or you won’t, Giarma.
“Goddamn, no!” she said, a little under breath, as though by coincidence Mat might overhear. She hadn’t thought of passing his house carrying things.
“Nice when you don’t have to punch the clock.”
He rummaged the tote he’d taken, which was Cathlyn’s, logoed NCBHS over a tree half-leaved…behavioral affliction in allegory. Cathlyn had packed them her spotting scope and tripod, her guidebooks; and, in her completist way, A Cumberland Valley Calendar, some woman’s living-off-the-land memoir.
“So what’s the plan?”
“Just walking in the woods.”
“With Royce, you mean. Wedding bells?”
The end of the cul-de-sac wasn’t far to walk. Too far, though, to let preparing-to-knock body language imply not-quite-hearing-the-question. Giarma thought, people who marry are good at dating…that is, they’ve mastered it, they want no more than this chance, this transaction. You make your personal life your career; you earn your Normal Status badge by having a spouse. And if you could buy that at the store, you wouldn’t bother.
The mystery of Tristanne’s being so nice, and yet…
The gossipy post-mortem, what’d she see in him, explained. Because marriage was a move. Once played, move again.
“It takes ages to get to know someone,” she told Mat.
No one was parked, and where to park wasn’t quite…but, pulling in they saw concrete bumpers grassed over and a little worse for collision. A humpy hill blocked sight of any vista, bathroom stalls feet away from the car weltered ripely…
“I’ve got to pick up some of this trash.” Giarma grabbed a cat food bag from Trevor’s recycling. “What’s the name of the trail?”
“Alison Brown Milpas Wildflower Walk.”
“Just a walk…”
“One point two miles.” He bent for a plastic bottle. “We’ll get better at hiking. Might as well start with something unpopular.”
She felt clairvoyant. “Cathlyn will know. Who Alison was, I mean.”
“Spiritual friends.” Trevor matched her smirk. Sharing a joke on a person you truly liked was an intimate thing. They broke, Giarma leaning in her door and Trevor the hatch, deciding together only now that they would go ahead and bring the food.
In her pack she had phone, wallet, tissues, socks…in case stickery brush made sockless tennies problematic…pop tarts and a can of Diet Coke, just for extra, sunglasses and a ball-cap, gum and Tylenol. The wildflower book should come along. Maybe bars were thin here…maybe they weren’t. Cathlyn had something against ID websites: “They never load with all the ads. And you don’t want photos, you want illustrations.”
A book was fittable…the first aid…binoculars round the neck…
Trevor stood pack half-slung, rubbing on sunscreen. He picked up the cooler. “So let’s see what they got.”
The path was of a sand-duney, dusty texture. The view unfolded to reveal a creek, shallow, cutting a field shaped like the leftover corner of a pie crust, truncated (about 1.2 miles ahead) by a road and bridge, and a farmstand, selling nothing…a cornfield backdropping. These things to the left, some thin-trunked trees skirting the path to the right.
Another sign: U6 Wetland Laboratory
“No picnic table, you think?”
“Maybe we’ll walk up to that bridge and see if it’s okay to get down under.”
They walked for a minute. They exchanged a sigh, shifting their loads, that seemed a tacit agreement—they’d got it wrong, this following of advice. They ought to have chanced not bringing every last thing…
“All right…stop me if you spot a wildflower…I wanted to tell you about my Mom. I guess, about Dad. I had an older brother…well, me and Val. He died in a car wreck. Sixteen. I never met anyone from that family…I think he would have been about seven when Dad and Mom got married. They were for five years, so I was four when they split. And if you knew them both, you’d ask yourself, how was it possible? I don’t mean the divorce. My mother’s family are not academic…Grandpa and Grandma ran a video store back in the day. Middle class, but you know, working class middle class. Not—it matters—first generation. Tejanos are old-timers…I mean, assimilated isn’t the question. They are Texas, basically… Oh, that’s butterfly weed.”
“Stump you next time. Texas…”
“Without getting into the culture. What makes my Mom mad is being treated like a minority hire. So, she met him at one of these places with a Tex-Mex band, which is different from just a roadhouse. He was in the oilfields, you know that…um… Long story short, her politics told her don’t snub this guy. Dad thought pretty much the same thing, from his side. Grad student, last name Alverez. Don’t rule people out, he likes to say. So it was weirdly having to be married before they could give themselves permission to not like each other. Anyway, it didn’t last. I’m going to put my pack down and have a drink of water.”
“You don’t appreciate the sun this time of year. Til you get halfway through a bog and an empty field.”
She heard in this quip something flat. They stood and sucked at their bottles.
“What’s this little blue?” He pointed to the trail margin, a cluster of pale flowers edging the foot of a lockbox…just there and unexplained, the box, made of brown-painted wood, padlocked.
“What if I did something evil, and picked one and pressed it in the book for later?”
“Best not. You wanted to tell me about your mother.”
Why, he meant. What are you really saying?
“Trevor, I think people should not get married.” She found her hands doing Power Point gestures. “I can’t fix this until I hear how it comes out, so hang in. What it is, is… I don’t want you thinking you need to propose to me, because… And us getting… I use the word weird a lot, don’t I?”
“Weird with each other.”
“I think we love each other? We’ve got that far. But, I mean, we can live together and not mess it up. We can have fun like we’re having today.”
Trying to joke, when he was the only one good at it. For this he took pity on her.
“Listen, I love you, but you’re kind of a miracle to me, so all the time there’re these ten thousand ways I could mess this up. I don’t care about being married married. Like, I would not take it as some hold I had over you.”
The remark sat, for a minute, by itself. Because “good”, or “absolutely”, or “of course not”, were wrong answers.
She said: “I feel like I just proposed…something. Congratulations, me.”
They stopped while a white bird big as a turkey landed, its flight a thing they’d missed. The mix of brushy stuff was camouflaging water, the wetlands angle suddenly making sense.
“It’s an egret,” Trevor said.
“Oh. So, not rare?”
“I guess for wetlands, no. I see egrets in Florida.”
They took pictures. “Why,” she asked, “do you see egrets in Florida?”
“That’s right.” Said in a face-palming way. “You told me about your mother. I should tell you about mine. We could drive down, have a road trip. That wouldn’t be the worst part.”
“I like driving. At least, I like bad food and souvenir stores. You mother lives where?”
“Sort of Crawfordville. Which is kind of near the Apalachicola forest. It’s a mobile home, and Grandma lives there too.”
“Near the Everglades?”
“No. Ages from the Everglades. And when we visit we don’t really want to go anyplace. Mom and Grandma and anything except, what you said, eating and shopping…at the malls you can get to in an hour…are like one of those deadly convergences.”
“Is it nice in the winter? Around Christmas?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a Christmas person.”
“I mean for things to do.”
“Actually, just where Mom lives, they’ve got a couple of those truly insane light guys. Inflatable shit on the front lawn…”
“My Dad has an uncle someplace in Florida.” She interrupted. But, what if…? What if…? Was it too much for Dad, if they drove the van?
“So, are you serious? Do Christmas this year?”
Jesus, a road trip. She couldn’t picture a map, but Texas seemed ages away too. But—
Dad, and Grandpa and Grandma. And Trevor’s grandma, and…Uncle Nick, was it? All the people who were going to die. Giarma Yoharie does a good deed.
Fate laughs. “Anyway, we have six months to think about it.”
“Come on, lunch.”
When they’d patted and repacked and scanned the dirt around their feet, they lifted heads to see a car on the bridge. Their steps faltered, but Trevor first, then Giarma in accord, made the duck-and-stride motion of one who decides to keep walking. In her mind—no clue what was in his—someone fishing, or taking pictures of egrets himself, would be a damper…untenable…
They meant only going down by the water to have their little picnic. But maybe it was against some law. You couldn’t talk when someone was standing above you, hearing. Even to eat might feel unsociable…
(“Hey, you, up there! Chicken leg? Potato chip?”)
“Kind of looks like the park ends at this road,” Trevor said.
“Well…call it exercise. That was the whole point. We’ll turn around.”
The man gave a toot-toot on his horn. He wore a sort of grin under his sunglasses.
And as they reached the galvanized back of a sign, that must on its face tout Alison’s flowers, the car began to glide, meeting them in its fashion, blocking the exit from the path. The move held threat, with no reason it should. A Todwillow thing. Todwillow, not believably there, but there, leaned, and his passenger window glided also. He kept the motor on, the steering wheel gripped with his left hand.
“Remote kind of place. Not much traffic.”
“I guess,” Giarma said.
He looked, with a leer, at Trevor. “So listen. Since I’ve got you here, you know what’s going on in the neighborhood?”
“You’re not a good friend of the Hibblers.”
“I’m not any kind of friend of the Hibblers.”
Todwillow was silent, so Trevor said, “What’s wrong with the Hibblers?”
“You’re not friends, okay. You don’t even talk to them?”
“I don’t know… I saw Jer going after Val. I think we said a couple things back and forth that day.”
Todwillow looked at Giarma. His twin mirrors did. “What’s wrong,” she said, “with the Hibblers?”
“Is your brother still living at home?”
“Where do people live, if they don’t live at home?”
She knew the point was weak…while, the day she moved in fulltime with Trevor, she would of course be at home.
“I still see him go out of your garage on his bike.”
“So, okay, Mr. Todwillow,” Trevor said. “Is there a thing you want to know? We can help you with?”
“I’m making conversation. Since we happen to have run into each other. Your brother keeps your Dad company.”
“I usually see your Dad by himself. On that porch.”
She elbowed Trevor, shifting at her side, wanting to get more combative with Todwillow than seemed wise. Her mind, in the background, was finding this being stuck, having to answer questions Todwillow had no authority to ask, curious…educational…
Easier for him to play this trick than it ought to be. To be polite…no, normal, burden of proof, hers…meant carrying on the conversation. He wasn’t going to say why, other than bigotry, he was proxy-harassing Val. She couldn’t let herself get mad, feared Trevor’s getting mad, because Todwillow could decide anger confirmed something. He could sit there with that something tucked away in disguise, leave them after she’d yelled at him, “We’re all fine! Val is fine, I’m fine, Dad is fine! What’s your problem, you freakshow?”, and tell himself he’d won this round. Giarma Yoharie had all but confessed.
“I hope the Hibblers get over it, whatever. We were just going back.” She turned, caught Trevor’s pack-strap and tugged.
She was bursting with post-analysis commentary, but without daring to look, knew Todwillow tracked them. A solo hiker appeared at the trailhead. The three converged in the anxious silence of sharing space with strangers.
“Nice day,” the hiker said.
“Is that car still there? Up at the bridge…can you see from here?”
The stranger craned his neck. “I got a phone. Is there someone I should call?”
“No. Nothing’s wrong. Is he there?”
“I don’t see anyone.”
Insanely bright, she told him, “Oh, fine! Thanks!”
“Maybe…” Trevor said this, after not involving himself…flinching a little if anything… “It’s safe to talk now? I think you scared that guy.”
“Alison’s reputation could use some intrigue. He’ll go post about it, and drum up traffic.”
They had put up the hatch, and sat eating in the back of Trevor’s car, a problem-solver that felt smart and cozy when rain started pattering the sunroof.
“So we’re pretty much guaranteed to find the best picnic spot around the next bend.”
“Sure. Trev, who is Todwillow?”
“Local asshole, pretends to be some kind of cop.”
“Why is he seeing Dad on the back porch?”
Sensible. “But, did you get the impression he wasn’t… Actually there. I’m sorry. I feel accused, and I don’t know why…or I do…but I don’t…”
Her father said: “I see Hibbler now and then. He likes helping me with the gadgets.”
“You all set with everything?” Trevor asked. “While we’re here.”
Emphatic nod. “One time he wanted to show me how to print off my phone. Which, by the way, I can’t do. Don’t want to.”
“And Todwillow, never?”
“Now, I can picture Todwillow… Honest, sweetheart, I don’t remember I ever talked to him.”
They heard the garage door go up. Val trailed Dawn; together, with buckets of chicken and paper bags, they climbed the porch steps.
Fried chicken, exactly lunch.
“Oh, great! You guys! I think there’s plenty…” Saying other things, Dawn hustled past, hallooed to her mother, switching on lights above the kitchen island. The rain was steady now. Camaraderie, being a family…being boring people watching CNN on Dad’s TV, packing arteries with carryout cholesterol…
Even Val, today’s mood non-gloomy. Giarma left the men, and tried Dawn. “What’s wrong with the Hibblers?”
“Something about their kids, I think. How many do they have?”
“No idea. Who said?”
“Wow, I’m thinking… Roberta? I don’t really see the Witticombes that often. Or, no…” Dawn made a face. “No, it was Mat. Some stupid thing about Val dating their daughter.”
Val, if he had a choice of superpower, would be chameleonic, shimmer away, undifferentiated from the background. Not invisible, there, happy to chat, if asked, but unlabelable. Bearing any of potential characteristics, or all of them.
He hated needing to be political.
Or more, he hated the being something at all, that people cared so much having a category for you. When they could just speak to you.
At ten, he had stolen his mother’s stuff, or better to say, rehomed the gift ordered one Christmas from an infomercial (using Mom’s card, admittedly)…
Cissie was a friendly lady. Kind, he could believe it.
Kind, warm, hands-on-shoulders, cheek-pressing-cheeks, sing-speaking to Amella, to Tammy, Jacqee, Linda, swirling air circles with her brushes. The ad ran between 5:30 and 6:00, before local news. Val had seen it every day, for an outsized period of time, as memory informed…maybe for only a week or two…
Cissie an actress he had never heard of, while the host said, “We’ve seen Cissie in so many things!” The host talked over footage of Cissie, in fur, leaving a limo. Cissie accepting an award, a chunk of plexi with gold-foil lettering. Cissie’s own voice next, a tad munchkin in tenor, but intimate, purring: I’m so proud of all my ladies! I’ve designed my special Holiday Delicious Kit just for you!
Footage of Cissie in the lab, glam in coat and goggles. Footage of Cissie leaning to a round mirror, puckering lips, testing her own blush.
Music for an entrance, and the host: “Come on, girl!”
He flung his arms. Three spotlights swirled, searching for Cissie, then beamed on her, running down an aisle between rows of seats, full audience. Ready to hug, tossing hair and smiles…touching hands, whooping.
(Not running, really, stump-prancing on tiptoes, feet in stiletto platforms, leopard…)
“What is that?” his mother had asked, getting in their apartment under cover of the high volume he played Cissie at.
“Just something they show.”
“Well, shut it off!”
He had shut away the impulse to ask for shoes like Cissie’s. But some wish to feel he was under her wing convinced him the kit could be Mom’s, that year.
The adult view, twelve on…
His Mom was an ordinary person, seeing things she couldn’t handle. She had hated the makeup, not to crush his feelings, but…guessing, sensing, somehow, that her son wanted it for himself.
“I actually…” He told Giarma this. “Shoplifted a pair of shoes. A little like hers. Leopard, most important. Stack heel, no platform.”
“Did you keep them?”
“I never get rid of a pair of shoes.” Some boast in this. “Except broken ones.”
“Yeah, I know. Your closet’s a ten on the Imelda scale. Are we ready?”
They were in her bathroom, side by side on a foot-of-the-bed ottoman. Val’s heart was changed, an epiphany—one of Cissie’s words. He had been sure for a while he might die, that feeling this bad about life you could chuck it, fly yourself into the purple cloud, drop in front of a bus. He could picture Sasha seeing the news…scratching his head. Is that really Val? What was his problem?
The question begged answering. I ought to stalk him a little, after all, if that’s the way it is. I can’t lose. Do you love me? Well, no. But do you…Sasha, do you think…if someone was like you, he could love…? Then, can you tell me why?
So I’d know what my problem is.
He had woken, starting a pimple, and told himself, you need to exfoliate. He had looked in the mirror at black-rimmed, smeary eyes, and told himself, you clown. But then the epiph. I make my face up like an act of defiance. Like I still see it as a girl thing and not a human thing. Like I have to show the world I don’t care…
What they think? No. I do care, and I want them all sorry.
And have they been sorry?
That day, he’d walked down to Trevor’s, to read Totem and study his sister.
“No…you know? Maybe we’re onto something here.”
He hung on her words. The talk was brows. Val had tinted his hair for a long time, unhappy cursed with dishwater blond. He had roots and didn’t hate them, was two-minded about cutting off all the black, or leaving a ragged fringe of it…
Three-minded. Or shaving his head…didn’t people do that for penance?
Giarma, chestnut-haired, lucky, had born definition.
“I always left mine completely alone. They’re a little shaggy, but that’s the thing…it occurs to me there’s a correlation between bitchiness and fussing with eyebrows. The worst women I’ve known were hyperpluckers and drawers-on… I think I just subconsciously wanted to keep it real. You know?” she said again. “Not be like that.”
“But…” He played a brush near his own, seeable, but not…masterful. “Are pencils, kind of, goopy?”
“Waxy. I’m pretty sure it would not be the look you want. But you could try a little powder. Powder,” she told him, “is all I use. Loose for the face, really sheer…not even color. You get translucent. And then no lids, just liner, but shadow, no pencils. So, yes, we always apply with a brush. You and I need to shop. Do you want to now?”
Those, Val thought, were possibly the nicest words you could hear from another person. “No. Let’s hit a store.”
“I’ve kind of adopted this place.”
And, she said, if Val was in the mood to just look here and there, they might shop on for a couple of things. “Sometimes, I get a bad feeling about Dad. Like if he had a crisis, and then in the hospital he never woke up. And we hadn’t got to say another word to him. Morbid…you think? But just Father’s Day, anyhow, whether he wants a gift or not, because it gives us a reason to sit and talk. Remember how much he loved that foot massager?”
They stood peering through the glass outside a Brookstone, at Oakbrook.
That gadget, maybe the only real hit, an offering Val and Giarma had bought together…
Picked out together.
At another Brookstone, another mall. He had dropped out of school that year, and solved the problem of his mother by going to live with his sister. Christmas, and they were meeting Dawn for the first time.
“And, wow, if we can do anything for her… She’s so nice on the phone! But she’s always there, so we can’t ask. We don’t know what size she wears. I almost think we ought to pay her something.”
Giarma’s conscience. What was she going to pay Dawn, twenty dollars? She’d put Dad’s machine, for turning tapes into DVDs, on her credit card. That was one generous gift, alleged from both. “Oh! Maybe…”
A round table, draped in a red cloth and tinsel garlands. “Since she’s a caretaker, Val. Giver.”
“You’re supposed to say caregiver, I think.”
“Oh, fuck that.”
Yes, they had never topped the pleasure their father got from Dawn’s being looked after, thought of… Would it make Sasha laugh, this Christmas story of everyone afraid everyone else was mad at them?
He hadn’t wanted to go. “You kids have the chance to do something with your lives. You grab hold of that…don’t be like me.” And if Dad’s telephone talk could sound mind-melded out of daytime TV, he might also want Val’s principal to cancel the deal.
Joanne, the custodial parent, without fuss had signed him out. “Sure, who cares? Keep with your sister. Learn from your mistakes. But your old room is not your flophouse, just know that.”
But, all that niceness. He had felt leery of Dawn…her stacks of celebrity struggle books on the coffee table… He was sure there was a lot of pep talk in her.
She said only, “Val…”, inviting. His cringe looked heartfelt, no doubt. Dawn turned back to plating her M&M cookies. “You’re okay here.”
She said this a few minutes after, and it was too much. He grabbed two cookies, going, despite raccoon eyes, half-shaved head, and a neighborhood he didn’t know, outside for a walk.
Speaking of neighborhoods. Sasha was in a new job, early shift clerking at a Hampton Inn. Val, first and naturally, had inquired at Plenty House, Donk telling him, “No, your boyfriend’s gone. Cut out, no forwarding address. Ha, ha.”
Or not ha ha…in real terms, just an insert here of his air-sucking laugh. Val took a moment to compose a cold retort, and Donk caught him on a change of tack. “I don’t like you coming in here like that…”
Well, it won’t happen again.
Enjoy your shit life, and your shit job, and all the free shit food…and…
“But I can’t discriminate.” A lot of singsong coloring discriminate. “Keep the face paint neat and wear a hairnet. I got parttime, weekends…that means Friday and Monday too, if I need to call you…”
“Show up, you little fucker.”
He was sitting in his car, waiting for a sight of Sasha. Rehired somehow. Back at the old hog trough…if he showed up. His intelligence had come from Batista, who rang up tickets at the front desk, and sold scones.
It seemed not wholly probable Sasha would leave by the guest entrance, but the odds made a puzzle…there must be a back door, side doors…Sasha might even own a car now. The hotel seemed not to have employee parking. Maybe the shopping center across the highway…
Anxiety for his friend at this. Lights, yes, but sprinting four lanes twice a day? Sprinting, though. That couldn’t be pictured. Sauntering. Sasha was doomed. And the feeling was giddy, not sad. Exhilaration at their laughing together over this.
Val checked his face in the rearview mirror. He accidentally touched the horn. He threw a skittish eye around the parking lot. He thought…an irrelevant thought…that Donk said boyfriend but he didn’t believe it. If he believed it, he’d have recoiled in horror. Who knew what he believed?
The sun at Val’s left shaded over. The shade moved side to side, and someone knuckled the window. Val pushed the button the wrong way. The right way, and nothing happened. The right way harder, and Sasha opened the door on his own initiative.
“Val! You got my message.”
“Message? No. But…what?”
“I’m kidding. I’ll get in. If you’re gonna drive me home.”
“Could we sit and talk?”
“So…” Sasha settled, punched the radio button. “What are you listening to? Did your sister fix that?”
Sasha talked over this mumble. “You nuts? Golden Earring, Twilight Zone. Listen!”
Val poised himself and heeded the guitar solo.
“So, I get ten bucks an hour. Actually, a little less. I can ask about getting you in…”
Val talked over Sasha. “I’m hooked up with Donk, don’t worry.”
“Stand it if you can. Hey, you’re different.” At this, Sasha caught him by the chin, and surveyed the clean, pretty face that, like the heroine in a rom-com, Val had uncovered under his sister’s tutelage. For a moment they might have kissed, but didn’t. Sasha flipped fingers through the locks of hair behind an ear.
“Shea butter and honey.”
“Didn’t you say something?”
Sasha was doing things, and it was difficult to answer questions. “Kate Hibbler’s salon at Oakbrook. You don’t know these people.”
This was a question, and Sasha said, “Huh? Who?”
“Maybe…no. I don’t think. Did I ever say anything about my dad’s neighbors?”
“Why? They freaks? Start the car.”
“Where are we going?”
“You decide. Might as well get something to eat.”
The Sole Unit had some slick tights, and runners’ contempt for Val’s biking questions. The shoes were all wrong. But having time for a look round, he’d found a snug hoodie in black, worth the price. Giarma tapped a toe and let the manager/clerk tap out queries.
“Oh, you’re buying something? Sure.” She was peeved. But out of earshot, she told Val, with a which-I-knew flatness, “They don’t have what I’m looking for. He said try D-6.”
They stopped at the mall directory.
D-6, not a square on the map, but a name, an on-trend menswear store, did. A zip jacket, French terry, mock-hoodie, detachable sleeves; crucially, at the elbows. “Because we don’t want a vest thing. It has to be warm, for the air conditioning. Well, you know, he doesn’t move a lot, and his body temp goes down… But not with cuffs flapping around that’ll knock his meds bottles off the table.”
He tried this…kind of gay, kind of not the way he was with his sister…but Val wanted to be happy like the people on TV. Maybe it was just that, plastering on the smile, striking the pose, the secret—like ages ago he’d been told in Cub Scouts.
More or less.
“Butterfly clips!” Giarma said. She heaved a sigh. “I think we have to. Shop a little at Kachet. They do have great product, but like, thirty-five dollars for a bottle of shampoo! Treat yourself, I guess. We need to get that skank out.”
And she, like all bets were off, ruffled his rat’s nest hair, an affectionate touch. They were a brother and sister who didn’t…hug, touch, joke around, go places together. He had lived with her, and she’d been a harried grad student with a fulltime job; soon to be a dropout.
“I made you drop out.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Oh, Val.” She added, at an unfortunate moment when they were passing Kate Hibbler through the swinging door, “My job then was an absolute shit pile.”
“Giarma! Do I have that right? Giarma Yoharie.”
Kate, taking some of that relish he knew his sister hated, in the alliterative vowels of her name. “Now…” Kate edged behind the counter, hipping off the assistant at the computer. “Are you a walk-in? We don’t take walk-ins, but…”
“My brother is growing out his color.”
“O-oh.” Out again at a bustle, not passing Giarma without an assessing glance. “You do want your ends trimmed. Ask Ari.”
Ari, the assistant, waved. Kate, getting away with a certain bossy charm, fingered Val’s ends next. “Dylan!”
“Not today.” Dylan came slinging a shoulder bag, from a corner alcove. “Not today.” Repeated with a mock jump back and head tilt, aimed, Val thought, mostly at Kate. “But, yeah, we’ll get that. We’ll get that.” He patted Val’s arm. “You don’t want those home-brews! I’m leaving, Kate. You know why.” He gave her a big camera smile.
“Kills her she can’t get a piece of it.”
Kate, all this camaraderie a play of its kind, performed for people who were not friends, but skillfully coopted customers, turned to shoo Dylan. Her own smile dropped.
“Jer! Oh, Jesus fuck, what’s wrong with him? Dyl…!” She cut off, went outdoors herself.
Hibbler, in sunglasses and cap, could be identified by silhouette; the silhouette seemed taking itself off among the metered parking, shortcutting between a downspout and a shrub. It occurred to Val this had been in the background for a while, that the prospect of Hibbler dogging them from store to store was too in the realm of idiocy…
Or he might have noticed himself noticing.
“Twist and bump.”
Val clipped three into the crown of his hair, and had Sasha, so instructed, do the ones in back. Everyone needs loft. This is how you get the bangs to stand away from your forehead, so they look good, instead of…
Too long, too straight, too…too. There was a certain soft-boy look, a floppy, popstar, man-gamin optic. Which, Val agreed, was a little hateful. Let your hair dry, she said, with the clips in, finger comb it to a piecey crest.
“But, Giarma, what does she do?”
“Nothing. She kind of knows how everything is supposed to be done, but…right now…she just hangs out with Trevor.”
They were getting ready to drive to Trevor’s. Then, Everest at the IMAX, an hour away; place to eat, TBD. Val’s chipping in a couple hundred towards household expenses was welcome enough, despite (or leaving aside) the little problem…
Val’s inviting relatives—
(And what, of things Giarma knew how to do, might she introduce to disturb Arkady’s peace…?)
“You wanna start giving me rides?” had been the opener, the question that made Sasha not just someone (cute) in the kitchen at Plenty House, but a passer of the first test. Val had never heard anyone put a label on Sasha—but Sasha didn’t read gay, while Val aggressively read fluid.
Company literature spoke of Christian values. Plenty House, though, was publicity shy, picketer-averse. Val expected Donk to fire him on his own error, at the usual dual climax of fed-up. He easily got there, surrounded by people who made sure you saw them recoil, a handful of curious Tinas, and the one or two who saw themselves heroically correct.
Sasha, spitting his chickens, hadn’t turned around. “You have a car, so you and me can work something out. I oughta stop mooching off my Dad…he’s gonna get himself in trouble.”
This was funny to Sasha; he laughed at private knowledge. “Twenty-one?”
In the 90s, the mismatched couple that were Sasha’s parents had emigrated from Moscow to the west coast, to Portland, Oregon, a nation away from where Sasha’s mother found work. As director of a medical lab in Hagerstown, Maryland. Sasha’s father was a licensed cabbie. He at length had declared personal bankruptcy and become an Uber driver. Irina Matalova left her husband when Sasha was nine years old, and there had been no thought of him leaving school, made to live in a country foreign to him.
“She’s in Moscow?”
“It seems sad.”
“Shut up. Your parents are split.”
“But we’re Yoharies. Yeah, I don’t know…” He answered Sasha’s doubting eye. “I lived my whole life kind of thinking there wasn’t any such thing in my family…moms and dads, all at once. But I root for other people.”
“No such thing for a Matalov either. Give up.”
It wasn’t much, soul’s-journey-wise, to conclude you didn’t know people. You invented thoughts to fill other people’s heads. Where it mattered most, where you wanted the knowing to be love, you could still decide you were being communicated with, when you weren’t.
Chronologically, Val had first been fired. He had picked up Sasha for a couple of months, their conversation easy. Sasha’s playlists were all guitar solos, and like a boyfriend, he’d said after a while, “You should come up to my room. I can play something for you.” He joked, “All I need is a song and a band, I got the break down cold.”
“Friend,” he’d said to the leather recliner, his father watching soccer. Arkady glanced up at Val’s goth face, nodded. They got on the bed right away, but also Val had lent an ear, and his admiration. Sasha’s instrument was a keyboard—on it he played electric and acoustic…guitar, strings, percussion, anything.
“You do live, though? Clubs?” Val was diffident; he was almost a virgin to nightlife, and didn’t expect to hide it.
“I record stuff and sell it. Seriously. People make music on their phones…they buy the backbeat, they buy the solo.”
Sasha, who shrugged at much, had shrugged at Val’s news. “Well, Dad’ll take me. I should tell you…”
The funny story, if it was a funny story. That Arkady told his rides: “I’m dropping my son at his job. You don’t mind.”
Most didn’t…or agreed not to.
“I get you in plenty time, never last minute. Not ready, that is you. I have been here fifteen minutes ahead.”
“Because he doesn’t care about stars. He measures by whether someone’ll rat him out. He could get five stars, but he doesn’t rate the customer unless they’re with him, right? And not with the company.”
“Just as a general principle?”
The next item on the timetable, then, was Val, in his room, telling himself Sasha would call. Sasha would not call. They were friends, they were more than friends… They were less than friends. They could never be more than friends…ex-friends…because Val had allowed the No Rules rule. No commitment, nothing owed. Nothing by rights to be expected.
It was a good laugh, a mild laugh (one he wasn’t ready to confess to Sasha), so many rehearsals in his head of hunting Sasha down. His wailing over whys and hows. Valentine Yoharie, Nightmare Bitch. But history is recorded in things done. He hadn’t done it.
Final item, realization. Whatever flow was going, Sasha went with it. He had a lanky build, a sauntering walk, unassumed charm…the charm of liking without caring. Sasha liked all the world. And could take all the world or leave it.
Faithlessness might be in the cards, serious cheating…
Probably no. And that truth, if Val loved Sasha, was the good and bad of it. He might have cured his angst-fit anytime he’d had the courage to make a ripple.
“Cathlyn is taking Elberin, so he’ll be in a house, with a cat person.”
“Good news.” Speaking to a headrest made the difference. When you had to pretend what Trevor would do with his pet while they were in Florida, weighed with you at all…
“So you wouldn’t take your cat on a road trip? Maybe he likes it.”
“Maybe not. And my mom wouldn’t. Giarma’s against what I did going up to St. John.” Trevor, driving, shot a glance at the back seat. Sasha, having this conversation, gave a friendly grin.
“I put out food and water and an extra box. A day on the road both ways, a day at the Gathering.”
“No shit, I have to read this book. I’d go to that, definitely. Buy a sword.”
“Yeah… Kind of down the last couple of years. I went to the ’13 one, dropped out after…even me.”
“Man, you gotta kick it up.”
“How old is Elberin?” Val said. If they stayed a couple it would always be this way, Sasha grooving in on any topic, himself deadening the mood.
“Eight?” Trevor asked Giarma.
“You said the vet thought he was two.”
“When he used to sneak in my garage and spray everything. I had him chipped and snipped.”
“Eight.” Sasha passed this word to Val.
“They wouldn’t give you two weeks?”
“I’d have to quit. You’d have to quit. Then we both get other jobs.”
“No, guys,” Giarma said. “But a plane ticket? Could you get enough time off to fly down the last weekend and ride back up?”
Trevor said: “Pool it.”
“Then I’m gonna owe too many people.”
“No.” Sasha tapped his forehead to convey this. “I mean like owe.”
“That’s okay. Be a stranger,” Giarma said.
“I kinda picture my dad wanting to drive us down in, like, one night.”
“Because of money?” Giarma, in a space where Sasha, if he had more to say, hadn’t thought of how to say it, was silent herself. But she was problem-solving. “Harrisburg to Tallahassee, connecting. Two seventy-eight. Easily, we’d cover it if everyone chips in fifty.”
“Two tickets,” Trevor said.
“But…you, me, the guys, Dawn, Dad… Okay. Trevor is right if Trevor has to be right, I wasn’t thinking. But what, seventy, eighty…” She backhanded her partner on the arm, and Val echoed the gesture with Sasha, having a different meaning.
Private, even from his own love. Don’t kill it, stay happy.
Couples you saw, brittle, done with each other, at the Jesus fuck, what’s wrong with him stage like the Hibblers, must have started with their teasing. Their differences, still amiable, over what counted for effort, and what fell short. More than for himself, he wanted Giarma to have this, a settled old age in coupledom. Like the Witticombes…
While the Witticombes were not old old…
“Not money. He just does stuff like that.”
“You should go home for a while.”
“Like…an hour? A week?”
“Until I call you. I need to talk to him about you moving in. Can’t just.”
“No…I never said I…”
Sasha did nothing romantic here, no stopping of a pout with a kiss.
Val sighed. Sasha picked up his phone to scroll messages: “My dad was never like, how come you don’t have a girlfriend? I don’t think he cares…I could be gone every weekend, he wouldn’t ask. But one time I figured I should have the talk. And I just said it…I don’t hate girls, but I mostly like boys. And since he didn’t answer, I said, you wanna throw me out? He said don’t be stupid. I thought, well, okay…I didn’t think Dad could be cool with it, but…brave new world, right?”
They’d met for pizza, Val with a duffel, expecting Sasha, who’d told him on the phone, “Bring your stuff”, to say in person, sorry…
Or not show up.
He showed up. And spotting Val, bent over with laughter. Flung onto the opposite chair, laughing still. Only a spoon was handy, and Val peered for a hanging booger…
Or whatever was wrong.
“Are you mental?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m funny.”
“Oh, give up. But I have to tell you. Dad thinks you’re a girl.” Sasha held up a hand, stifling more giggles. “So I came in, I saw you from the door, I was checking you out…” Theatrical shrug. “Dunno. Could be. Your voice, though…and I mean, does he remember he met you already?”
“He thought I was a girl the whole time?”
“Nah. But this is Arkady, right? So maybe it’s wise guy stuff. Like my father is so happy I have a girlfriend I’ll get ashamed of myself and go out and find a real girl. Dad, I broke up with Val. Meet Mary Ann.”
Now Val got the giggles, and a server came to stand laughing with them, until they’d sobered up enough to order.
A blocked lane forced the line of cars they were stuck in to slow, slow, then stop. The cause ahead, not able to be seen from where hope lived, of signaling and getting left. Everyone was signaling now; one or two creeping the berm. Through the windshield and rear glass of the truck behind, they saw a sedan letting space grow, inviting horns leaned on and getting them, the driver craning for a Good Samaritan. The driver had the chin and shoulders of a fat man, sunglasses, and a Ravens hat pulled low.
Nothing about him would have made them think there was anything…about him. Jeremiah Hibbler’s form was far from uncommon. But the driver batted at, his lips moving in corrections, frustrated, of a maniacally bouncing Australian Shepherd.
Give and Take
Earliest on a Harbor City morning, L.A. large could be heard on the move. Smelled on the move…Savannah’s same daily observations, that the environs were trafficky, that car exhaust, multiplied, was stinky. That excitement, chance, sat around someone else’s corner, not hers.
But she was negotiating.
“I’m handing you over to Mom. Are you ready?” The way Rae had sprung it on her, a few days ago. A day before that, she’d said, “Okay, I’m manning the breach. Is that an expression?”
“I wouldn’t know. What’s it mean?”
“It means, Mom knows where you are, but she’s holding off. She’s holding off because I said I’d break it to you, and get you started.”
“Break what, for Christ’s sake? Rae, I’ve got a couple minutes.”
“Creepo Todwillow found out for Dad you were in those people’s house. And Mom told Dad he’d better fucking let her handle it. Serious!”
“I know. Sometimes she talks to him that way.”
“Well, forget it. I said to Mom, why wouldn’t she ditch the phone? Buy another one. Cut us all off…I mean, she has a job, Hanbo’s set up. She’s an adult, you can’t do anything.”
“And Mom said, Lil Rae, I completely rely on you.” Singsong. “Why gracious, young’un, what would I ever do…”
Rae said, “Shit, you giving me attitude? I am your lifeline here.”
She had told Rae about the job. But her lawyer advised she disclose no weakness prior to settled terms.
Jeff, pulling into his drive, had introduced her to Sheena. His wife.
“Oh, that’s a pretty name.” Savannah reached to pat the little dog.
“No,” Sheena said.
Oh well… For curiosity, because it struck her really an unwieldy name, a weird one for a mother to give her daughter, she had tried the elicitation. Sheena’s haircut was short, her color looked mocha and monochrome…as Dylan would say, she could do with a rinse and highlights. She had a somewhat pocky face under tan makeup. Fake lashes and thick black liner.
Not that she wasn’t nice. Enough. Her thank you for the compliment had a rise and fall to it, hard to interpret, and came after her explanation that Savannah was not to teach the dog bad habits.
The bad habit was friendliness to strangers.
Jeff, saying, “Okay, Sheen, I’m in my workroom”, had left them alone together.
“The deal is,” Sheena said, “I can use help in the house, so I’ll let you have a room. I don’t have to charge you rent, you can take that for wages. You’ll get plenty free time to go out and do your thing. Meals on the house, long as you cook.” A laugh.
“Come on, I’ll show you the kennel.”
For a second, Savannah had thought the kennel was where Sheena meant her to live.
Her days, as Sheena’s house help, were long. All the things she’d been not supposed to be bothered with, had grown over two weeks into duties. Savannah wasn’t cooking for herself, she was cooking for everyone…guests, too. The circle walked in, casual; sometimes Jeff barbecued, sometimes his brostie, called Meck, brought huge steaks, would hold them up grinning, one in each hand. She laughed for him because it was her he teased, but Meck had shown himself handsy in a lot of ways. She had to serve at Jeff and Sheena’s get-togethers, fry the Tater Tots and toss the salad (it had started with Sheena’s saying, “Savannah, bring ice”, and escalated to, “Ask the girl, that’s what she’s here for”). Meck would catch her wrist and hold her while he finished talking or eating, an arm sliding around her waist.
Jeff and Sheena’s owning ways were worrisome, though worst so far for time-encroachment. Savannah couldn’t think of looking for a job…she couldn’t think of anything, since Sheena worked from home and few minutes passed without her needing Savannah.
She put it that way.
I need you to drive so I can handle Coqui. To the groomer’s, the vet’s.
I need you to check if that load is done and get it in the dryer. Coqs like her blanket when it’s fresh warm.
I need you to call these people and find out what the hell. A tax underpayment overdue. Sheena had written on the check, I am never voting for anyone in city government again.
I need you to walk this down to the box.
The friends all got stoned at a certain point of the evening, and Savannah could slip into her room and wedge the door. At this rate she was averaging about six hours of sleep.
And when she walked Coqui, the pregnant Papillon, a breed on the verge, in Sheena’s estimation, of a huge comeback, she had to stay on the phone the whole time. If she had errands, she had to drop the dog at a neighbor’s, a Mrs. Mees, whose breeding project was angora guinea pigs, whose kitchen was full of cages, and who would like to pay Savannah “a little money” to come by for an hour and clean them.
She had to film herself stopping at Starbuck’s for coffees and rolls, mailing that check, or Sheena’s Puppy Prospectuses, picking up Jeff’s Nyquil. It was hard to say if this paranoia was justified—when pups “good to type” could go, Sheena said, for a couple thousand per…
But walking by herself at sunrise was the only hope Savannah had for a private talk with Rae and Mom. It made her think about a girl, unknown but out there, who had no family at all.
Savannah said, “This job.”
“Tell me again about the arrangement. What I want to know,” Kate said, “is where you see yourself, in, say, six months.”
No place…was the candidate’s answer. They had talked twice; so far Mom had been good. Do you need anything? Do you feel safe? Tell me about Los Angeles.
“Oh, I don’t think I’m exactly in L.A. I haven’t figured it out, like, you know how back home we’re like Greater Washington, and everything’s really just a little town in some other state, and then here it’s more like…I don’t know…”
“Pop quiz fail,” she heard Rae say in the background.
Savannah thought (although by hearsay; she had seen little of Los Angeles) that there was segregation, neighborhoods that stood off angry, and there was a sense you were nobody if you weren’t downtown, and there was a sort of ugliness…ugly busyness? …buzzing on the fringes. But then a kind of excitement, like the pull of some crass godhead, if you…anyone…liked…
She could think. She couldn’t express to her mother who she was, how she thought.
That call had needed to end. The next had been: What about coming home? What about a fresh start?
“Getting a job and a place to live… Those are practical goals, that have a way you go about them. Let’s not make things worse than they have to be. You haven’t lost much ground so far…you’ll get your diploma. You can apply to some schools…”
Savannah heard Rae signaling. And in a tolerant way, jealous-making, she heard her mother say: “Now what?”
“Ixnay. Hanbo’s not good in a student setting. She needs creative space.”
Oh, shut the fuck up, Rae, she had wanted to say. But it was a fair assessment.
“This job, I mean,” Savannah said now. “Mom, I’d be happy if I came home tomorrow.”
“But you don’t need me to get you out this minute.”
A certain Mom-heroism in the sturdy flatness of these words made Savannah choke up. And swallow. “No. But remember I don’t have any money.”
“Well, I’ll probably send a cab to take you to the airport. Tell me the address again.”
In a pocket bounced Sheena’s burner phone. Savannah felt suddenly fearful—not of anything Sheena would do, which seemed irrational; not exactly for the late-arriving memory of someone…Dad!…saying any phone is a microphone, people don’t realize it…
Just with all the spying…
She felt hyper-conscious passing information, and felt also that Sheena would resent it—“the girl” giving out her name and address.
238th, Rae prompted. Savannah, turning so her hip faced traffic, gave the house number.
“Now tell the truth. Can I talk to this woman myself? If she’s not a wack-job it’ll be best for her to know what the plan is.”
“So, I’m asking, if she misses the flight for some reason, whether you can just charge what you need…I don’t care what fees, I don’t care if the price changes. I want my daughter to not get confused or be scared, right? She’s by herself.”
“What if you loaded a debit card for her?”
“At the airport? For her to pick up? Can that be done?”
Kate discussed with the travel-site rep other things he was just spitballing, being too helpful in unhelpful ways. The whole problem was likeliest not to exist. But, traffic.
Sheena Nelson had been pretty offended. “Why wouldn’t she leave? What do you want, twenty bucks, or something?”
Twenty bucks. Keep your money. But Kate, not knowing if Savannah was hearing this, or had (as she would) slunk off, leveled her voice, let only patience be its tone, and thanked Sheena. “Thank your husband, too.”
On a notepad, because she was recording these talks and didn’t need notes of them, Kate jotted deli stuff, half n half, dog treats, brownie mix…
She shrugged, and put down cheerios, toilet paper, bananas, rigatoni, sauce.
“Makim’s here. We’re on a project.”
Listen to it, Kate told herself. “Okay, teenager. I want you to run to the store. Come get your list.”
Alone, she grabbed a coffee, a Werther’s rather than a cookie, and went to the room Jer should not bother her in, stopping home…furtive and making excuses. Her office. Jer was the one she needed to think about.
Long and hard about.
She thought about the silly nickname only Rae could use. Savannah-Hannah, a little kid’s rhyming. Hanbo.
Her growing pains daughter. Jer, with a girlfriend, she’d said it to Mat…
No, if a woman wanted him, let him cheat. That wasn’t the point. This partnership, this labor-sharing, the whole thing that made it possible to have kids. She wouldn’t have done it, still in her twenties, except…
He was so damn serviceable. She had kind of known after their first date that Jeremiah Hibbler would do two or three tasks for her, and suddenly, starting her business, she had gained a fortune in time—able to say screw it to so many nuisances.
“Jer, can you call the insurance people for me? I’ll write down what I want.”
“Jer, there’s a piece of siding off the house.”
“Jer, the yard’s getting shaggy. By the way, we’re low on grape juice, the little cans. Don’t buy a bottle.”
When the girls had needed their special stuff found, homework half-shoved under the sofa (for pounding their toes watching TV on their stomachs), else they’d miss the bus and need driven…
But Jer could do that too. He had more leeway to turn up late. He didn’t unlock the door to Sears in the mornings, didn’t need, for a customer’s sake, to open half-an-hour early so she could get a blowout before her flight.
Divorce…which was the issue…
Kate’s first thought was of Mat, the house. The living room gym stripped…no yard sale so neighbors could get a shot at the equipment. The garage semi-gutted. Semi-restored, maybe, to intended use, missing the sectional and flokati, still with the cabinets and track lighting; still a lot of Mahal left altogether…the skylight with auto-retracting cover, the underlying all-weather carpet. The theater sat intact, and staying, the covetable twin armoires (desk and storage) in Tristanne’s office, waiting auction.
“Do you talk to Mat? Let him know Kate says five hundred. And for your ears only, I’ll go to eight.” She had tipped this to Kelly Stomitz; Kelly, allowing Kate the pretext of house-hunting, was showing her the changes. The Busbys’ restless marriage had assembled a crazy boondoggle, too rich for the street.
And cash-strapped Mat would have to keep his price relevant. “He wants to advertise in DC for renters. Long commute.”
“Are you asking if the Yoharies would hate that?” She aimed her nod across the street. “Why wouldn’t they?”
He shrugged. “It’s something, rent money. This should be a four bedroom, and they knocked out a wall, so even if you turned the offices back, you don’t get the living space a family expects in eighteen-hundred-plus feet. Mat can’t be a chooser, though.”
Kate considered her own life plan…and that she’d never doubted the normalcy of having one. Of how, doing research, she had portfolioled everything, sectioned into the briefcase she carried to beauty school along with her toolkit. At no point had she not thought about clients, how to line up a stable of them; this before financing, before legalities, before location, before vendors and contracts. (But folders, of a growing database, for each.)
Five-dollar hair if you bring me someone. Samples—everyone wants free product—only if you bring me someone.
“Jeez, you’re focused! I don’t even have a clue. Will you hire me?” another student had asked, and she’d said: “If you bring me people.”
You could do anything, even what you loved, as long as you knew how you’d make money at it. A certain daughter, also, could be taught these things, and Kate stopped herself to rehearse another pep talk with Savannah.
She made a note: Columbus. Grandma pick up Rae? She shook her head. “No, you can’t drive Grandma’s car. She is not a bad driver, she’s cautious.”
From this, with her chip-off-the-block daughter, Kate returned to the first imagined conversation: “You can make films if you want. Just remember no one else wants you to.”
Hearts and minds, kiddo. Start planning. As to livings, it seemed odd to her…in just this area, just this map of knitted fingers that was their housing development, Tampico Way thrusting east, Old Glory Way west, she could name three people who had fake careers…
Mat and his Ponzi scheme. Todwillow, his…
His domestic terrorism, come on! Why, of course he would sell you motion sensors, fit you up with cameras, have you pay him by the month for protection. Her husband, meandering the neighborhood, ‘educating’ himself on websites…his time-killing yaks with his succubus…
Too much anger here. Kate took herself productively to Dr. Petersen, real in practice, fake in billing. Trevor Royce? Giarma Yoharie. Content creators, what a gig!
Five or six people, then, worse. Something going wrong with the whole country.
You could always lose with a start-up, but you had a pathway to legitimacy…you didn’t need to live on maxed credit and bullshit.
Maybe Mat had seen Tristanne’s affair with Bill as the straw. Tristanne reported him making bald excuses to call her, actual you’ll-be-sorry carryings on when she changed her email and phone. What kind of mind…?
View Mat as always fake, that made sense…fake to the bone. Fake in self-image, fake to the point he couldn’t bear…couldn’t, more literally, fit…being the loser into…
Analytical phrases came to mind, unsatisfactory and dry, like “constructed persona”, “arrested adolescence”. The only reason to think of Mat, who might be dangerous, was to think how little wounded love mattered in a breakup. She would never have divorced Jeremiah; without compunction she had never loved him. Kate saw nothing that struck her plausible, nothing lustful or giddy, that you could feel about a life partner. Just moments of pride, moments when he was the best person you knew to talk to.
The rest was a wealth of shared stuff. She thought of who, in anyone’s life, would be that much a friend. That was marriage…and of affection, she’d had a lot for Old Jer. She had expected to travel with him, do cruises. Rae’s leaving home to free them up. Even Savannah, having to sit down and listen now, make that portfolio of her own, shut up with her young person’s angst—
It was unforgiveable, what he’d done.
Her daughter miles and hours away from home…
The thought of Savannah brought Kate to it. Deep breathing would not dispel this. The other one, full of lies and not unobvious, had caved—a few days’ close and closing observation pressure enough.
“Why is all this a secret, Raelyn? Savannah knows she can talk to me.”
She said it, and Rae shrugged and countered: “What’s your offer?”
“Time off for good behavior, and I mean you. Can you call your sister right now?”
And Jer had nearly bumbled these cautious approaches. He agreed with her, they had no reason to involve the police; Todwillow had connections and he would find out…
“Do not even.”
“No! He’s already…”
“Already? Don’t tell me Todwillow has… No, tell me what.”
Todwillow had gone to the high school to ask the kids in Savannah’s class if she’d talked about dropping out, running away—if they knew anything.
“My God. You moron.”
Though Kate was the one not speaking to Jer. She hadn’t, or very little, for days. Yet this she regretted, and would take back. When they were driving to Columbus, only the two of them, having their talk.
Once, small Rae had spouted “dumbhead”, and Kate had told the girls: “Nobody’s dumb. That’s not a fair thing to say. And we don’t say things that are unfair.” She had a bachelor’s and Jer had a twelfth-grade diploma; early in their marriage she’d sworn it, never compare.
He was a moron. He believed Todwillow, taking his shit to schoolgirls. Jer could…try to make himself believe it. He could bypass his wife, seek advice, take advice—from that neighborhood sleaze, whose motives should be neon-bright to anyone.
For Savannah, her precious kid, she was frightened, and for the first time. The California adventure was a thing that had to be. Young adults flew or fell on their faces. But Todwillow…
That he might regard Jer as having the right to give permission.
Some crony or acquaintance of Todwillow’s going near Savannah, traumatizing her…
Be fair. A car in the driveway. Rae’s voice, and Makim’s. Kate sighed, but still she jotted it on her agenda.
See a lawyer.
Better to concentrate on the small things. Some item on the list you hadn’t checked off. Just get that. When the proofs were out of your control; when you had no approach to the ones who could tell the truth, who…
Who, if confronted with the right question, would have to tell the truth. Hibbler didn’t fault Yoharie, or Miss Orse. Nice people, just—his Mom might have said—lackadaisical. For a forty-six-year-old born in 1970, the formal address, the “Miss”, didn’t quite sit, but she deserved the reminder. He was getting more conviction about lone-wolfing it these days, when everyone else thought values were a joke.
“Last laugh’s gonna be yours,” Todwillow told him.
Rae’s side-smile, and: “Dad, don’t turn into a weirdo,” didn’t faze Hibbler. Kate had a lot to do with how his daughters would not respect him.
Todwillow said also that if Yoharie had ever been different, he’d have married Dawn. “What I mean is, you don’t believe in a sacred thing and then just decide one day, nah. Who cares? Or, at least…”
This happened in their talks, these pauses. Hibbler filled in: “He’s not a father who really…sets an example.”
“Figure it out.”
The question of who Valentine Yoharie’s friend was, was just a thread. A full-scale investigation got, had to, complicated. What they knew about Savannah, since Kate knew and was holding back, would take process, tracking down clues, plugging stuff in, asking the next question.
Hibbler had consulted the Yoharies’ trash. Only they had that camera doorbell…it couldn’t be coincidence his walks past their house were fruitless anymore. Mat, who wasn’t at home, had trash. What was that supposed to mean? But Hibbler consoled himself that kids Val’s age wouldn’t be note-writers, so a discarded paper was a longshot.
He had followed Val to the friend’s house. He was not a hundred percent on whether Val lived there, or still at home. This mattered—finding Savannah might mean accessing both places. Yoharie would let him in, and the tricky part was only what pretext he’d use to get past chatting on the porch, get inside…search the bedrooms upstairs, but most important, the basement. When he made his rounds at night, he saw a light on…the light had first come on about a week after his daughter’s disappearance.
Rae gave different stories (while his wife said: “Fuck’s sake, Jer, don’t bother Rae!); he couldn’t get it in his notes the exact day Savannah had gone. Then again, it had taken more than one pass by the Yoharies’ to recognize the light as a thing. When he went out at three am, a time you expected only security lights, Hibbler intended to jot down any others he saw burning in the neighborhood.
But process. First to know who the friend was, then look him up. Get Todwillow to use his database, if it came to it. One job at a time…
Hibbler’s mind went places; it was hard to stop.
“Savannah is safe. She’s okay. Rae knows where she is. You don’t have to do anything.” Kate had pinched his sleeve, not letting him leave the room. “I’d tell you if I could trust you. Come on, please, Jer!”
“No. You go ahead. Do whatever you want. It’s fine, Kate.”
He had walked out on her, then, with his dignity. Todwillow told him Savannah was in California, near L.A. Working for a man named Jeffrey Nelson. “He checks out. But you don’t need a record to be a perve.”
Armed so, Hibbler could question Kate, and Rae, and know if they lied. He wasn’t satisfied. His timeline had it…and this information was supplied by, witnessed by, Todwillow…May 13, 2016, Savannah Hibbler talking to Valentine Yoharie on the street, Enterprise, the next one over. Val seen walking with her, to the Hibbler residence on Tampico (Hibbler’s case notes were recorded with professional detachment); Val had left and returned to his own house on foot, at 4:24 pm, after a visit of forty-two minutes. Hibbler had himself seen his daughter for the last time between that day and the day she’d disappeared.
All his memory-jogging walk-throughs, his reviews of emails and news headlines, hadn’t fixed the final sight, or the final words any more firmly. So of course, she could have been in further touch with Val; she could have made phone plans with him, been inside the Yoharie house.
“Kid’s gay,” Todwillow had prompted…
But after all. First there was the friend. An old, numbered street close to downtown, specifically, 160 27th. And anyone else who might traffic around in that house, that neighborhood. On the true crime channel, Hibbler had seen…he thought…how gays could be, like, procurers… It was distasteful to him. He didn’t seek documentation, make any lengthy study of it…while Todwillow said, tapping temple: “Open eyes, Jer. You gotta know what these people do, if you’re gonna stop them.”
The tail he’d put on Val and the friend, Giarma and Trevor Royce, (himself) had led to an IMAX theater outside Hagerstown. But—new idea—a theater had to be rife with deals going down. All in the dark, and all that excitement on the screen… The meeting could have been arranged. Jeffrey Nelson sitting right there, handing over cash. Because of Beatty, Hibbler couldn’t stay. And even for letting ten minutes go by, for wasting money on a ticket, just so he could be sure they were really sitting there, one of those Cathlyn types was in the parking lot baby-talking Beatty through the window-crack.
“Oh! Look at you, Puppy Love, you’re so thirsty!”
She was pouring water out of a bottle, into Beatty’s mouth. Mostly onto the floor of Hibbler’s car.
So, the IMAX jaunt…in a world of scant rewards, Hibbler could pat himself on the back for having figured it…had let him refine the list. He cased from his car, got hot, walked Beatty to a tree island and let him shit, saw (opportunely, when he was just in his seat again, unscrewing the cap on a Pepsi) his suspects leave the theater, drive around the shopping center. He followed. They parked for a while outside an Applebees, left, got on the highway, slowed for an Outback Steakhouse…
Got blared at, sped on, made the light. Hibbler didn’t.
His read on the gestures between front seat and back, was that Giarma Yoharie was nixing every choice. Back on their tail, he watched her shrug strongly; finally the car pulled up to a restaurant looking like a chain, not quite fast food. Repurposed, but familiar…
A Red Lobster.
It called itself now, scripted-something, on top of block-lettered BISTECCA. Italian. Smelled like the char of steak. Man! But he was stuck with this surveillance. He saw the landscaping was shabby, and only a few cars were in the lot.
And this was what suited Giarma. Hibbler didn’t laugh as much as he wanted to, her bossing it over Trevor. He was nagged. It came to him…he had told himself Red Lobster without remembering, not at first.
On the drive home Hibbler thought, why wouldn’t I knock at the door?
Father of two, missing since Thursday…
Two semis crowded his lane. In a rough tandem, they gunned for an exit, forcing him to the shoulder. His mind left places where his body might be found, the underpasses and dumpsters his saturated imagination had flashed, red-hued, dit-ditted along the bottom of the screen with statistical info in typewriter font…
And filled with a blankness, panic shooting down his arms. Hibbler felt it snatch him in the gut, a problem lately. Panic attacks.
But…they were a kind of disability?
Pros and cons came to him, of having something you could say you had, so people (Kate) would stop harassing you over getting a job. He made himself concentrate. Go to 160, knock. Armed. Let whoever answers see. Say, like a pro: I’m trying to establish the whereabouts of a Valentine Yoharie…
Thin build, probably under 5’7”, blond hair. Eyes…
Failure, here. Hibbler thought of Val and wasn’t sure. Anyway, he could learn what kind of house it was—whether the door would be answered at all, whether by some twitchy type with bloodshot eyes, who’d put his face out, and keep the interior hidden…
Hibbler parked in a garage, a documenting of his movements. But forget Todwillow; he could see good in proof as well as bad, a ticket to verifty your whereabouts. He scanned the neighborhood from a bus shelter. He had bought a coffee and three Egg McMuffins. He ate and sipped, savoring, not making mental notes.
A bus arrived, and Hibbler thought, why not? Get around town a little, get an idea what kind of people are walking distance from this crack house. He liked saying it, though the friend’s house was neat-kept, had porch geraniums, and the one at the corner had a brick patio with tables, a half-circle wrought iron fence, a woman in a tie-on smock nursing a cigarette butt…
Not a café, though…a something or other…
Zodiaque, it said. What could that mean?
He turned his head while the bus glided by. He lost his equilibrium a little, and made eye contact with a woman behind him.
“What’s that place, you know? I thought the sign said Zodiac?” He found he was embarrassed to pronounce any French spin on this.
“Saj parlor,” she said, or seemed to.
Hibbler fell broodingly back in his seat. They couldn’t have a place like that right downtown. There was a church, had been, sitting cattycorner to it. When the bus stopped, and the woman rose, saying to him, “Take care”, he flushed—convinced she believed he’d been looking for a massage parlor.
“Where you riding to?” the bus driver asked.
Hibbler heard; he left the question in the background, while asking himself a similar one. Buses…he didn’t ride them. There was not a lot to these downtown streets; you got off, crossed at the light, waited for one going back where you came…
The fare was almost nothing, but Hibbler didn’t carry that kind of small cash.
“Hmm, hmm,” the driver said. “You know you got your phone, you can buy a pass anytime. Right there in your seat.”
“Wait…” Hibbler didn’t, but nearly did, say, “Are you talking to me?”
It was a comedian thing, from the talk shows, a bit they did…he thought a movie quote. He could picture the manner and accent so strongly, he feared he could not say the words straight.
“I forget,” the driver smiled, pulling to a stop. “I’m supposed to give that little spiel about the app.”
Bothered, Hibbler left his seat, moved forward.
The driver said, “No, sir. Exit at the rear.”
Why? No one was getting on. Angry, bothered further, in a way slowly gelling, Hibbler mastered an impulse to refuse, turned in silence, and via the rear door, did a clumsy jog onto the walk. Someone laughed.
His mind shot the image of Val Yoharie’s friend. What street was this again, intersected by 27th? It was Giles Ave. Now he was walking. He had only been on the bus for ten minutes.
He arrived at Zodiaque.
Yes! We take walk-ins! one of its signs read.
UV Regenerative Toning. Vesuvian Clay Exfoliating Rub.
He was tempted to think a New Agey day spa, not…what the woman had implied. He felt conspired against, for that, and that Kate had put “day spa” into his vocabulary.
Ahead on the porch of 160 was a man, gripping scissors. He frowned over the geraniums, and as Hibbler drew near, bent to snip one leaf. Confronted with a human presence, Hibbler felt unresolved on the move…
He was wearing an uncomfortably hot jacket to make this possible: the slipping of a hand into a pants pocket, allowing the sidepiece under his arm to show. The man peered at him, with the pursed lips of emergent speech.
“Excuse me,” Hibbler said. “Is this…?”
Yet is this 160 seemed inane, the number before his eyes tacked to the porch-post.
“Something to do with the motel? Is that where you come from? Sasha is not at his job?” The man cast a distant look, as though this mystery bore a weight-of-the-world portent.
He had an accent, and Hibbler was prepared to guess it Russian.
“Be clear,” the man added. “Sasha’s father has no money to pay Sasha’s debts.”
“Actually… Maybe I’m wrong. Have you ever heard the name Yoharie?”
At this Sasha’s father, if he was, gave a visible start. Silence followed, while his eyes resolved into a squint and his chin lifted. “No.”
“I have reason to believe…”
The householder vanished, or turned and wrestled a sticking latch, then receded indoors, leaving Hibbler mounting the steps, feeling inside his jacket for his phone. But his quarry popped (back into view) and flashed; and Hibbler stood blinking away a patch of red.
“Now you may identify yourself, and we’ll see.”
“No, I’m a neighbor…”
Here, he fell stymied, too precipitate launching a lie. “Some of Val’s friends…” The phrase suggested itself piecemeal, and Hibbler spoke in a labored cadence. “Were concerned about him.”
“Why? Why? Him? Who is Val? Not someone I know.” The man stepped from sight; behind the screen, the front door closed.
Unable to digest at this pace, Hibbler lingered and looked at the welcome mat, the geraniums, the strange deep burgundy the boards under his feet were painted. He heard a metallic ank, ank…that most irritating of noises, the creasing of aluminum blind slats.
A face was in the window, glowering.
Hibbler stepped to the siderail and feigned a study. He collected his dignity, descended to the walk…telling himself to sort it, get this data into the record.
Russians. How many oddities might that alone explain?
Well, obviously, it was no coincidence they were positioning themselves near Washington. And if they were making use of this neighborhood…on the bus line, carrying to the train station…
It seemed to Hibbler, as he walked to the garage, that his feeling of being watched, of every person who’d spoken to him speaking a coded message, also could be no coincidence.
They wanted him gone; they wanted to discourage him in his mission. He questioned again, as often, what sort of name was Yoharie? The sound of it (by design) could belong to almost any nationality. What did Yoharie do all day but sit in his house? Maybe sat there with a zoom lens. One of Todwillow’s microphones, recording everyone’s conversations.
If I knew how big this was, I wouldn’t have let him suspect me off the bat. So remarking to himself, Hibbler could see that Sasha’s father had waited for him and had arranged for Hibbler to encounter only his confederates.
That Yoharie had warned his fellow operative…
Part of Hibbler’s mind began to trial anagrams and rough homophones for “Sasha’s father”; part of his mind quibbled on the logistical problem of Yoharie knowing his plans, which he had not discussed, or typed into anything—
If he were being followed, though, it made sense.
But the meaning would be in Russian.
He climbed the garage stairs, touched the cold handrail and felt his fingers damp. Could you poison someone that way? It was too late to find a bathroom and wash, since instinctively he had wiped his hand on his shirt. But, if they were going to lengths to monitor and curtail his activities, so whatever they gained from kidnapping people’s daughters…
Went on, undiscovered…then why take the risk of killing how-would-they-know-how-many, right here, a couple of streets from their base of operations? Besides, he could have taken the elevator.
In his car, Hibbler reviewed the magnitude of the Yoharie plot. He found himself reluctant to pass the booth and pay. The garage guy was one of the Russians…he was planted, he would say something meant to elicit a response, and by that the Russians would fine-tune gauging their victim.
They would set him up to be killed. He would knock at Yoharie’s door, like he’d been doing, like before the plot had unwound itself, he would have thought Yoharie, left by his family alone all day, kind of looked forward to…their little chats…
Beatty. Outfit Beatty’s collar with a camera. Yoharie pulls a gun, wants to claim he was startled, thought Hibbler was a burglar…
That this scenario was in the cards, seemed almost too apparent.
But Beatty would take swinging shots of walls and carpeting, his own drool. Hibbler would have to get inside the house without Yoharie’s knowledge.
Back when he had done the stuff, Yoharie had suffered a little (keeping it to himself), from an attitude problem. As to suffering, the physical therapy was pretty harsh. But they said if he didn’t stick with doctor’s orders…the insurance people said…they couldn’t just pay on, for the pain meds. He had to be trying to make progress.
He’d had a year left on his own, the latest of cheap policies signed on for whenever he got a job. Then he had Dawn’s—speaking of progress. Hers was willing to count him a significant other, and cover one or two bills of a non-pre nature. But he was a drag on his best friend, he was getting her in trouble. Yoharie found it hard, understanding these things, but when Dawn got to drawing on her retirement, it was like income… Apparently. He might be dead, and her still paying his bills.
Anyway, she was too smart to marry him.
He had got off, done Medicaid, which he could, not owning anything.
“I got blown up in oh-six,” he liked to say.
His lawyer, in 2014, had said: “Take it, it’s a good settlement. They won’t go to trial, what I told you from the start. I don’t call it a bad lesson, or a bad effort… If you were a hot chick, maybe they’d star you in a movie. But nobody gets justice. They don’t want a verdict, Big Frack. Precedent. They’ve done to a lot of guys what they did to you.”
To Dawn, the lawyer hadn’t made a friend of himself.
“He’s an honest guy,” Yoharie said.
“Well, yeah. He makes jokes about taking your money. How a tort lawyer’s got a great gig, didn’t he say?”
“So…? I don’t need hearing all the terminology.”
She had given Yoharie that face, that said, you’re right. Not. Dawn never argued.
“But if I was Nuengen, or their CEO, or whatever, and I said, oh, too bad, we almost killed you, ha ha. I mean…I’m not good at jokes. But bald-faced and honest aren’t just exactly the same.”
The whole system failed on justice; the present life didn’t compensate…and the guy getting blown up this month got nothing from Yoharie’s settlement out-of-court two years ago. No legs was a bitch, skin grafts were a bitch, unexplained shit malfunctioning on the inside was a bitch.
Blown-up Yoharie was still a better man than he had been. Leave 2006 out of the equation, and he couldn’t have met Dawn, he couldn’t have had his two kids under his roof. The accident would be another guy’s… Fate saying, “Here’s your deal. You’re not going to appreciate the irony until it’s too late.”
And if he asked Trevor, “There’s some kind of thing about what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…”, Trevor would know who said it. Trevor was another new good friend.
The change in Giarma most of all. That he had a daughter who didn’t like him hadn’t seemed to Yoharie worth crying over. She probably still didn’t, a hundred percent. But she did.
Which was ironic enough.
“Think about whether you could. Tina…” Giarma had lowered her voice. “Doesn’t… I don’t see why, as long as we can say we’ve made arrangements…”
“Doesn’t have to come with us?”
She ducked her head and laughed. Her father laughed.
“No. I mean, Cathlyn and Roberta, they could either come or…Cathlyn especially…can tell us who to hire.”
“No, sweetheart. I don’t need home care. I’m going to Florida.”
He was going to Florida, a long van ride, so he needed to not be a pain in the ass, or worse, fall into some crisis.
The attitude problem had been the guy. He was young, kind of reddish-haired, with a voice that was a little…smooth. He watched Yoharie do the exercises. At some point, he would say: “You’re cheating.”
Dry, deadpan. That little smile.
This regular encounter had grown into a phobia. Maybe. It didn’t completely make sense…that was, Yoharie knew he cheated. He never exercised at home. He never pushed himself to endure just a few seconds more, another few reps. If it hadn’t been for the eagle eye, he would have half-assed the whole session.
That was true.
But, in some way meaning to do good, and doing good, intersected. He cheated but he wasn’t a cheater. A future time had always seemed possible, when the settlement came, when every put-off thing would get done. The settlement, (while Dawn could see it, and tried her best to educate him), had got to be the pot o’ gold. It sat on a horizon, almost visible…an easier, happier day.
No lawyers, no insurance people, no have-to-be-someplace, have-to-hire-a-van-can’t-afford-one, have-to-get-Dawn-back-on-her-feet, back-on-the-phone…
No more going to bed worried, waking still Blown-up Yoharie, and depressed.
But the pot o’ gold wasn’t the settlement. It was his treasured, commonsense partner. Dawn knew how they needed to spend the money, what they needed to save, and Dawn had made a nest for the kids to fly back to.
So it was that Yoharie’s doctor, asked to recommend a physical therapist who could get Yoharie in shape for travel, even roust him into those prosthetic legs, had said:
“Ah. Well, did you know my wife is a physical therapist?”
“So, your foot is a complicated appendage. Each toe, even your pinky toe, is sending signals, by its own neural pathway, to the brain. And your brain uses all that information to orient itself in space. It doesn’t like what it has to learn when the nerves that should be gathering intelligence aren’t supplying it, while, if you get me, the brain is basically doing its same job. Like if you put on mittens, or boxing gloves, and tried to type on a keyboard. Now, Mr. Yoharie. We talked about your Christmas trip. We need to talk more.”
They were in her office; she had toured him through the equipment he might be working on. Yoharie hoped for Dawn, her grocery errand run, back to handle the stuff about insurance. She would think to ask, where he would not.
He was on the edge of giving up, his spine hostile already to the whole proposal. “Well, shoot. I mean, shoot me a thing you gotta know.”
“It’s the end of June…so you’re basically giving yourself five months. Five months seems like a long time, but we only meet twice a week.” She leaned, gentled her voice. “Two limbs. One workable knee. Well! Tell me something about the last time you tried this.”
“I never tried it. I got fitted. Not to buy an actual pair of legs, just to learn me what the nuts and bolts were.”
“So, you’ve been a wheelchair user since the time of the accident.”
“Only…” Yoharie found himself redfaced, like the confession was dirty. “I watch on YouTube. To find out what people do, how they get themselves going.”
“A double amputee can walk. Yes, certainly. A young patient, or an athletic patient…”
“But a fat old fart patient?”
“I don’t think it’s the nuts and bolts we’ll concern ourselves with. You told me you want to see your uncle… It’s a family trip, a way to have a quality experience with your son and daughter.”
“And their boyfriends. My son is gay.” He was saying this for the first time.
“Well. I think we should do the work. But within the timeframe, you will still be using a chair.”
Dawn got there, and with a professional’s opinion seconding hers, broached his rotten diet. Yoharie’s first session, to test the limits of strength and pain, loomed now on the schedule. His pain to determine whether his therapist talked to her husband about medication.
On the ride home Yoharie brooded. Inflicting himself gaga on his kids… And who knew the answer? Maybe the heavy shit stopped you telling that about yourself.
He elbowed Dawn. “I’m off the hook, you heard her. You’re out of luck, babe. With the lettuce.”
“I heard her say Dr. Allen could schedule you with a nutritionist, but it could wait until after the holidays. You know what? When you have to use those handhold thingies to hoist your own weight…”
“I got no problem with it. I do that every day.”
“Oh, please, it’s not the same. Rolling out of bed is what you do.”
He admitted to himself that all this good in his life was making him melancholy. Yoharie adjusted his bed to a firmer sit, looked at some goldfinches… They were picking at pink flowers, waiting in pots for Sasha and Val to come plant them. Giarma in aid of a wildflower group, telling her dad she felt obligated—
“Not that many things for fifty dollars! But poor Alison, only a handful of people at her sale, too…”
Had bought these. The pink, and some yellow ones, strong. Others, clayey little scraps, in butter tubs. He didn’t get it. Alison was someone dead, that was all he’d gleaned. But his daughter could feel she had let down a dead person.
He was at fault. It was hard to love his birds today. He had hand weights, and his shoulders creaked, opposing them. He wanted some cheesy garlic bread, didn’t want to cajole Dawn into stopping for it, or coming home sooner than she might want. Even this thought rebuked. The number of times he had phoned her when she was out, like errands were the only reason, and maybe she wouldn’t need a few hours alone.
“Doggo, I’m a selfish son of a bitch.”
Beatty, nosing the door, stretched grinning jaws, and eyed aside, as he did when his master was closing.
Soon to wrangle at the collar, saying, “Go home! Go sit! Sit! All right, jeez, just don’t be in the way!”
Yoharie touched the button, on the remote that made the door shudder, clack, and swing.
“Get in here and don’t say a word,” he told the dog.
For a peaceful fifteen or twenty minutes, he rubbed Beatty’s ears, and his own caught no stirring of Hibbler. Giarma, at least, would be on her Dad’s page with this stunt, or trick, or what-have-you, life liked to play. You set out to do a positive thing, planning in your head how it would go. You found out it couldn’t happen that way.
But you were stuck obligated, and had to see it through. A couple of his marriages…
“If I do good in Florida, Beatty, maybe they’ll let me have a dog.”
The dog jumped to his feet, with a nervy whine.
Yoharie put out a hand for the remote, and zapped the TV screen. Now he had a black mirror. He watched Hibbler, wasp-eyed in sunglasses, tug at a yellow shrub swallowing the garage corner. This tugging, Yoharie surmised, was disapproval. Hibbler interrogated the shrub, and it sat silent, flabby and ferny, grown too large for its spot.
Maybe the boys could give it a trim.
Hibbler came to the steps.
“How’s life, Jeremiah?” Yoharie called out.
Hibbler entered the porch, approached the bed. He was like a process server, trying to get close and make eye-contract; while the glasses stayed on, reflecting Yoharie’s eyes back to him.
“Good,” Hibbler said.
He took Beatty by the collar and hauled him outside, quiet at it. Mean.
“You don’t have to treat him like that. I like Beatty. I’ll sit with Beatty some time you’re making a trip.”
“Some time I’m making a trip.” Hibbler stood, legs apart. His hands were hooked in his belt. His repetition had been slow, insinuating. “Like to California?”
“Fuck knows. Wherever. Why you bugging me, man?”
“You feeling okay?”
Dawn, come back. Boys, get here. He could suddenly remember he had to call Giarma. She and Trevor were just down the street. But the question was only insulting. Yoharie allowed he’d been insulting first.
“I’m fine. I got company on the way.”
“Oh. Who is that?” Hibbler extracted his phone from a breast pocket. He woke it, typed in his password, backed a step and lifted his head, like he was going to enter whatever name Yoharie gave.
“Neither of them is here, in the house.”
“On my lonesome.”
“What’s going on in your basement?”
Before these words, Hibbler had given a dart, a sideways motion reined in, towards the sliding door that opened onto the kitchen. The door was always pushed well back.
“I got no problems, Jer,” Yoharie said at last. “I don’t need your help.”
“Mrs. Kennedy’s been having some. Problems. With a gang.”
Hibbler seemed to have thought of this improbable last, that second.
“How’s she know that?”
“Gang of dropouts,” Hibbler said. “They don’t live here. They stole… A basketball that belonged to her son.”
“That sounds like you couldn’t do anything about it. How much is a basketball worth?”
“Did you know there was a light on down there?”
Hibbler indicated again the inside of Yoharie’s house, another jerk of the head.
“Well, man, you better go look at my basement.”
Yoharie sighed back into his pillows.
The glasses, Hibbler had bought from a police supply website.
“Why, Jer?” In her way of not talking to him anymore, Kate had let this stew for five minutes. Then she was back at her office door. “A hundred-fifty dollars. Plus you had your stupid thing FedExed.”
This, too, grim and dry.
In the past he could have bought himself something; now, because he didn’t have a job, he was on probation, like twenty years of doing his part didn’t entitle him to his wife’s respect.
He heard her say, “Fucking pervert gear.”
It was bothersome the camera showed, right between the eyes, but most people didn’t know you could get these. Yoharie wouldn’t.
Yoharie, of course, had heard from the Russians, so he knew his time was up. Hostile from the get-go.
Before, he would’ve just said hi. He was trying to get Beatty over on his side. He knew Beatty was Savannah’s dog…was it because…?
The thought of his daughter sold into captivity made Hibbler halt the investigation here, at the basement stairs, want not to bother going down, but spin back and throttle the truth out of Yoharie.
They had said, though, on one of the shows, that a criminal always leaves evidence at the scene. It was a chain-of-custody thing. Or not quite. Disturbance was the word. Yoharie would get off, claiming Hibbler had planted…
He wondered why he hadn’t thought of planting anything.
The act would be righteous, not crooked. These people were kidnappers and white-slavers. Plant a shoe from Savannah’s room and call the police, let them find it. Damn.
The basement had a lino floor, louvered doors sectioning off the washer and dryer, a table with shopping that needed putting away, shelves where all the Costco paper towels and shit needed to go.
There was furniture, a dinette table and chairs, a headboard and footboard, bedrails, some plastic lawn stuff; this, and the shipping boxes that surrounded it, were grouped by a lettered sign lying on one purple plastic tub: Val’s.
A futon, pulled out for use, its ticking mattress, bright throw pillows velvet and satin, a chest of drawers painted turquoise and silvered, craftily, a standing wardrobe with an Ikea vibe, a woven rug in an Indian pattern…
These were organized as: Giarma’s.
Some pang clutched Hibbler’s heart. The thought that Savannah would love Giarma Yoharie’s taste.
Secret rooms, stay focused. Yoharie’s up there calling for help. Basements don’t have back doors. If they corner you, it’s over.
Hibbler drew his gun. You could slide furniture to hide a hatch… There could be a chamber under the floor. Could there? He remembered the work done on the house before Yoharie moved in. Todwillow just standing there, joking.
Todwillow might be in with the Russians, maybe in with the whole scheme. He was an unhelpful asshole. Hibbler crouched, used his phone for a flashlight. On the flooring were skid marks—black stutters of rubber, fine scratches—everywhere. He studied these and saw no roadmap. What else?
He laid both gun and phone on the futon; on hands and knees knocked, crawling a semicircle. He saw, in the triangle of the stairs, pet things, bowls of kibble and water, a litter box. A carpet-covered climbing…playhouse? Boxes of canned food, tubs of Tidy Cat.
Oppressed by silence, by a growth inside that wanted to be frenzy, Hibbler for seconds could not process this odd surprise, the never-seen pet.
But that, he realized, was the whole clue, staring him in the face. The Yoharies had no pet. All this was just a friendly veneer. Under the stairs was exactly where you would dig out a prison cell…then cover up the entry with…
Anything. Cat junk. He crawled partway, caught a glimpse of a light overhead, banged his head misjudging, yanked off the glasses and flung them aside. Hibbler’s eyesight improved. His knee went into the water dish. But he kept his jaw tight, not losing track of the danger he placed himself in.
The light was again a clue, proof they used this understairs room enough to want the convenience of it. He felt for a switch, and the light dropped from its moorings. He kept his jaw tight. He would use his phone. Where was his phone?
How-fucking-come his phone was not in his pocket?
Breathing, he found the light, wedged down the triple-A’s, screwed it back. He pressed the dome, and that was it, the mechanism. He shifted the playhouse. There…
Absolutely, a little wooden door, painted white like the drywall. Ha!
Here, Hibbler found it necessary to tap his greatest reserves of patience. Once he had crawled out backwards, strewn the kibble, learned how painful a piece of kibble can be under a kneecap, learned the playhouse needed tilting to one side before it could be worked free of the stairs, taken a quick inventory of every hazard, for which precaution he at last gained victory over the litter box, rid of this before upending it with a foot and stepping on a clump…
And if there were clumps, there had to be a cat…
But who cared? He tried a tap at the little door.
Abashed, but feeling called by a duty, he spoke low: “Miss. It’s okay if you answer. I’m here to help. I’ll get you out.”
Because, if they’d taken another prisoner, she would be in there, panicking.
The door at the top of the stairs creaked open.
The implications of this noise, the recollection that his weapon, and both means of filming—of livestreaming this encounter—were out of reach, paralyzed Hibbler. A voice of underlying reason raised a question—
Why is the little door not locked?
Another voice, Yoharie’s, called down: “Listen, man, could you give it up? Whatever you’re doing? Stick around and eat with us if you want to…”
Because. It sets off a silent alarm. They know when she tries to escape. A motor, a loud truck, roared along the street, and Hibbler felt this would be the Russians’ van, where they kept the radar station. He yanked the little door open.
“Hey, is that the vacuum you’re getting into?”
Hibbler could not have said. He was staring at a cylinder and hoses, fat ones with ridges. A central vac system? His mind wanted to deny this…
Another ruse, the real chamber hidden by a mockup. “Miss!”
“Did you say miss? Are you on the phone?”
The phone, at that moment, began to play.
“Whyncha get that, Hibbler?”
It was impossible now to hear whether the girl was back there or not. The song stopped; it started at once.
And died, when he got to the futon. He picked up the gun. He moved to the foot of the stairs and raised the barrel.
“Hibbler.” Yoharie sat astride his motorized chair. “It’s me up here.”
“I wanna know what you people did with my daughter. I want you to tell me right now.”
Yoharie, after a long freeze, said, “Okay, look. You’ve been out of work for a while. That’s not easy, I understand. But you know, Dawn’s been talking to your wife…”
The phone, now in Hibbler’s pants pocket, spun a last-straw lyric.
Never gonna give you up, ne…
The caller was Kate. He knew, when the ringtone switched to Foreigner. “Urgent” was their code for pick up now.
Hibbler said, struggling to it, the only thing that could be. “I have to get that.”
He put the gun in its holster.
He told her where he was.
A kicking-in of the garage door motor made him start, Yoharie sigh. The wheelchair buzzed off, and Hibbler found himself in a basement, with a furnace, a washer and dryer, shelves loaded with pantry stock, furniture belonging to Yoharie’s adult kids.
His wife was speaking. Semiconscious of it, Hibbler bent to the cat house and tried to make his brain remember how he needed to restore this. A horn honked, blat blat.
“So I’m here.”
This was Kate…here with him, on the phone, and above him, on the street.
They were driving to his mother’s house. Kate had left Rae at the airport. Grandma would pick up Savannah and Rae both, Savannah was flying from LAX to Port Columbus, the girls would stay at the house for a few weeks, Savannah might stay longer. There was another sound, the bloop of a siren shutting off.
Beatty’s nose materialized in the cup of Hibbler’s hand, as he walked, diminishing…he had a sense of it…from the shelter of the arborvitae.
“Oh, God,” Kate said. “Cathlyn is looking after Beatty. I can’t deal with it.”
She pivoted, her back to him. “Cath? Jer has him, so it’s okay. We’ll run by before we go…”
“No, no.” Dawn.
Hibbler had heard Dawn talking to someone, felt now as though an aural fog were shredding off, revealing bits of the scene. An ambulance was in the drive. Who was hurt? Yoharie was there, come out the front and down the ramp. Hibbler saw Dawn wave Kate’s phone to herself, and heard her tell Cathlyn: “No hurry. Get here when you can.”
Kate said, “I’m so sorry.”
Then: “I wish you would send me the bill.”
“Nah,” Yoharie said. “You folks take care of what you need to. My mistake, hitting that button.”
The ambulance driver was sorry too. He did not make the rules. The vehicle was on the GPS, so you couldn’t say you weren’t someplace, if you were. They got these kinds of mistakes pretty often. You couldn’t do anything.
“Thanks so much! Thanks so much!” Hibbler’s wife, a hard grip on his elbow, voice bright. She hated owing people.
Dawn and Yoharie called it, while Kate backed the car out. They reached the end of the street, and she geared into park.
“We need to trade, and you drive. I have all this stuff…”
She had her phone, a notepad, another phone. She put these, and her wristlet purse, on the seat as soon as Hibbler was out of it. A cup of Starbucks steamed in the holder.
Hibbler took the wheel. “Where again?”
“Well, Columbus. Just get on the highway.”
“Um, Savannah is in Los Angeles?”
“What time is it? Probably not now.”
“You knew she was?”
Kate picked up the coffee, drank some, and said: “Just get the car on the highway.”
When they were cruising, she said, “Why were you bothering poor Mr. Yoharie?”
He couldn’t answer, because she said, “They’re keeping Beatty, for Cathlyn to come get.”
“I heard.” He especially did not want to start anything, so he softened this. “I think I heard Dawn say that.”
“They’re nice people. I’m sorry I haven’t been nicer to them. So why?”
Hibbler saw this someone—who had bothered their neighbor—small, a TV screen version, a thinner man…
His mind’s eye had no image to load, of himself, seen from the rear.
But he saw Yoharie’s astonishment clearly.
He fell on the excuse he’d used. “Mrs. Kennedy had some kids…”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Let me think about driving for a sec.”
Kate picked up her phone. Bothering her, he’d been going to say.
“Taking stuff out of her yard.”
He was not asked what they’d taken, and would have lied…a lawnmower, a bicycle…
“Jer. We need to live apart for a while.”
Before this detonation, a lecturing scrap of conscience had been telling him: Here’s what happened. Yoharie hit some emergency button, some setup for a handicapped guy that goes to the EMS. He feels sorry for you. He’s not going to call the cops on you, not even take you to small claims court…
Even this, all this, some wise guy implanted in his frontal lobe, said, could be part of the plot. You don’t really know where she’s making you go.
But he rose to the voice at hand, the one saying he had broken the contract.
“I don’t trust you. You make it impossible. No, you’re right…”
Had he spoken?
“I didn’t tell you where she was, and I would have. I didn’t want you helping. I was afraid for Savannah. Why do I have to worry her own father would send some creepo from the internet looking her up?”
“She’s okay. She’s been okay. It was a choice I made, and I would have made it with you. If I could. They grow up. They can go off and be stupid adults and we can’t stop them. But when she fucks up, I want her to be our kid and come home. I was terrified for her every minute, but I let her learn. You get it, Jer. Todwillow… Nothing to do with Todwillow, nobody Todwillow knows…”
She dragged a breath through her teeth. “Gets to touch our daughter.”