by Tim W. Boiteau
I’m standing right there in front of the gas station lighting a cigarette from a fresh pack—the first cigarette of a pack should always be smoked outside the gas station where it was bought—when the blue whale of a car squeals up and the man in heeled boots steps out, car still running, adjusts his large belt buckle, and strolls inside, perhaps thinking that I, in my black slacks and black tie, am a Witness, that God and I will watch over and protect his idling car while he steps in for a piss and a ninety nine cent cup of coffee, so I toss the butt, slide in behind the wheel, drive off, and the man bursts out of the gas station, his arms flailing, legs pumping, face contorted with rage and disbelief, greasy long hair blown back, in mad pursuit of his car speeding off without him. See all of this in the rearview mirror or think I see it or at least think I should be seeing it when no one bursts out of the gas station—who knows—it’s so hard to be lucid at moments like these, when you can feel the blood feeding into your eyes, and the way things appear is thrumming and alive, everything afterimages of reality, so that all you can do is hold on and keep going, seeing or not seeing be damned. Loosen my tie (property of the hotel), squeal around a turn after a few blocks, around another soon after, all the time breathing hard and questioning—forgetting simple facts like names and street layouts and faces—trying to wrap my sleep-deprived mind around the situation, to notice details that may be important later: what’s at the next intersection, whose houses are these, what kind of car is this. In only a couple minutes the “Welcome to Pinopolis pop. 30,410” slides past, so I slow down for the bridge, to better fit in with the lazy morning traffic of inconspicuous drivers heading off to known places along the worn pavement, wondering who among the drivers are continuing on from the night before and who are fresh from sleep. Can’t know for sure if a man is rested or on his third day straight this time of the morning, early with just a peak of sun over the edge of pine and still dewy but with a promising heat. The sun fully, blindingly out mid-bridge, you can almost forget what you’ve done, but then you hit shore, and the doubts come rolling back and the questioning again, more blinding and attention-grabbing than sun. It’s too late for doubts. Just keep on going with it through the weedy parking lot of an abandoned department store and onto a nameless road flanked by cheap fencing and dumpsters and scraggy pines and crowded with a wandering pack of dogs, a three-legged one pulling up the rear, all of them completely uninterested in this blue or brown (I can’t remember which) inedible thing making its way through. A place, in other words, safe to roll down the window and smoke. A short cut round to the back of Deidre’s place, where she’s probably readying herself for work, where I can pause for breath without getting any shit. Of course the car—the car doesn’t need to be brought up just yet. Let’s wait on that, just leave it here out back in the shade, no line of sight from here to the road.
She’s in the kitchen drinking coffee and smoking in her baggy Cure t-shirt, her long hair creeping over her face the way Asian horror movie phantasms wear it, hugging one long skinny leg against her chest, her mouth yawning a “hi.” I pull the cigarette out of her grasp and take a drag while I pour myself a cup, her arm meanwhile frozen in the air listlessly, daintily even, until the cigarette is back in place.
“Exciting morning,” I can’t help saying, to which she wrinkles her nose and grunts some barely audible response.
“Your roommate here?” I continue, somewhat cautiously.
“Gone to the beach for the weekend,” she replies, sucking her teeth and brushing her hair out of her face, one eyebrow cocked over her pale skin.
“You mind if I crash on your couch for the morning?” I say, gesturing back towards her cigarette.
Complying: “something wrong with your place?”
“That’s kind of why I’m here. I decided I’m going to move out.”
“Well, this is big news. You just decided on the spur of the moment, or have you been brooding over it for a while?”
“Spur of the moment.”
“And so you’re moving out and onto my couch.” she says in an indecipherable monotone mix of sarcasm and doubt.
“Well, just for one morning, if it’s all right,” handing back the cigarette.
“Hell, stay as long as you want. Clara won’t care. Duck . . . used to stay here for weeks on end,” she smiles crookedly, eyes darting, noting the awkward pause in her voice following the mention of Duck’s name, once a casual presence in her mind and speech and still novel as a poisonous one.
“Just this morning will be enough.”
“Are you okay?” she asks, fingering her hair behind her ear, revealing a row of six studs from helix to lobe: “your hands are shaking.”
“More caffeine and nicotine will fix that.”
“Okay. Don’t tell me.” She stretches. “I have work in an hour and need a shower first. Help yourself to whatever, and if you prefer, the bed is all yours.”
“The couch works. It’ll make me feel more like a vagrant.”
“Suit yourself. When you wake up, come see me at the diner; I’ll be bored.” She whispers the latter part into megaphoned hands.
I watch her go, then take off the hotel jacket and toss it onto the leather recliner, settle onto the couch and drink my coffee and light a fresh cigarette, listening to Dee softly hum “The Ballad of Sir Frank Crisp,” breaking out into words whenever the line “let it roll” comes, picturing her in there alone: a bar of soap in her small hand. Imagine her pale skin, the tiniest detail about her body—the nail of her little pinky finger painted like a chessboard—wondering if maybe she’s thinking about me while in there, or if her mind is emptied of everything and enjoying only the bliss of being warm and clean. Suddenly “The Ballad . . .” transforms into “And She Was” without warning or segue or any apparent reason, no real connection existing between the two songs. To me, though, there is a very meaningful relation, as the two songs, put in that order for the sole purpose of making an interesting contrast, are on the B side of a mix tape I made her a week ago, a tape she must have been listening to enough times to have the song order stuck in her head (she has fought every advancement in music playing technology since the invention of tapes, praising everything about them, to the way the sound disintegrates with repeated listens until the best songs on the tape are watery doppelgangers of the original, to the aesthetic quality of stacks of tapes). When she reaches the part of the song with the “hey heys,” she keeps repeating, all the while my mind shifting from the car to her singing to her little pinky, and outside you can hear Saturday morning sounds: lawns being mown, dogs barking, sprinklers, distant sirens, aggravating sounds that make me glad I can be lying here on this couch listening to this girl going about a simple task. I pull out of my pocket a purple lighter which says Elektronik on the side and ignites by pushing down a button as opposed to flicking the flint wheel, something of Dee’s that I had pocketed last night after she lent it to me to light a joint. She had made a big deal about it saying Elektronik on the side and not having a flint wheel and that being a sign of the progress of mankind. I’d taken it to get a reaction out of her, but she had failed to notice. Use it to relight the dwindling remains of the cigarette and leave it in my hand dangling off the side of the couch, the cigarette clenched between my lips, burning out slowly, while the morning sounds swirl together into a white noise as impenetrable as pavement, and yet even through that dense obscurity, I become dimly aware of Dee leaning over me, a long black strand of hair tickling my nose, as she continues to sing in hot minty puffs of air against my face “hey hey, hey hey, hey . . .”
I wake around two in the afternoon still wearing my tie and immediately dive over the back of the couch and check out the kitchen window to see the old car still parked out back, bluish-brown in the afternoon shade.
The house is quiet enough to hear the sawing of crickets in the yard.
After rummaging around the kitchen for a minute, I find a mug with clowns on the side faded and somewhat erased from Dee’s hand, get some water, then wash up in her bathroom, fairly messy, the way a guy’s bathroom would be messy, with long black hairs in the drain and toothpaste splattered on the mirror, but also with the comforting tones of vanilla in the air.
When I’m clean, I gather my things together and walk the mile to the diner EAT, which is on the downtown side of the lake. Dee, dressed in black, is standing behind the counter reading The Trial and rocking back and forth on her toes when I come in from the heat and take a seat on the stool opposite her. She pours some coffee and grabs me a fresh avocado and cream cheese sandwich, which she must have prepared when she saw me walking across the bridge towards the diner. You can see all around the lake from here, including the Lakeside Inn across the bridge and outside the city limits.
She says “Elektronik,” her hand outstretched, dark-rimmed eyes back to the book.
I put her lighter on the counter.
“Aha, there you are,” she beams, taking back the lighter.
The place is empty save us and the short order in back somewhere, but there’s a table in the corner with the remnants from a recent patron, apparently no concern of Dee’s.
“How much money is in the register?” I ask while eating.
She shrugs her narrow shoulders. “Several hundred, I guess.”
“How much in the back office?”
“Maybe a few thousand,” her eyebrows innocent and her smile crooked. “Is this a robbery?”
“What if it was?”
“It depends,” she says resting her chin on her fist, “on whether or not you got a gun.”
“Let’s say I have a gun then.”
“Okay. Do I know it’s you robbing the place?”
“Know it’s me? Of course you know it’s me.”
“So you just come in here with a gun and no mask on, no stocking over your head?”
“Well, yeah, I mean, no, no stocking. Maybe I want to eat a sandwich first or something.”
“Sorry. I don’t think I’d give you the money.”
“Why not? I’ve got a gun.”
“You should have just asked for it then. I’d be hurt that you had a gun pointed at me, too hurt to give you anything.”
“And what about if I had a mask on and a gun?”
“I guess I wouldn’t care. Sure.”
“Okay. How about mask, no gun?”
“Fuck you, no. There are some bad ass knives back here I could cut you with.”
“And if I had no mask and no gun—”
“I’d/you’d give it to you/me,” we say simultaneously.
“Would you turn me in later?”
“It depends on if you were mean to me. Tell me: what would you do with so little money on your person?”
“I’d just have it, I guess. Maybe I’d give you some.”
She goes back to reading. I finish up eating, smoke a few cigarettes with her, and Dee says that when her replacement comes in half an hour or so she’ll take me to my place so I can collect my stuff, a prospect I had completely forgotten about since deciding earlier today to move out.
Later, we’re riding in her old Sedan with its soft red leather a little sun cracked and flavored with a tobacco pipe smokiness (a relic from when her father owned it), a little messy like everything she’s involved in, the floor covered in papers, old coffee cups, more than a few things of indeterminate origin, the ashtray overflowing into the overfilled cup holders. Dee drives the few blocks to Warble’s house, where I have until now been renting a room, a small place within easy walking distance of the college. Warble is gone, probably down to the lake with his coke buddies. We make our way through the house to my room, which stands in stark contrast with the disorganization of the rest of the house: there’s a blanket on the floor, a pillow, a suitcase with some clothes, a few novels and notebooks stacked on the windowsill.
“Here’s my room,” I announce unnecessarily.
Dee stands there for a moment, taking it in, then walks around with the curiosity of a museum visit, sits on the blanket, knocks on the wooden floor and laughs: “No wonder you’re so uptight all the time. What are you practicing for prison or something?”
“I think it’s comfortable.”
“Yeah, you can’t really have a girl stay over though, can you?” She stretches out onto her side, pouting her lips in mock sexiness.
“No, it’s not very popular with the ladies,” I say, packing all of the loose ends into the suitcase.
“Is this why you never asked me over? I won’t say I wasn’t a little bit offended. I thought maybe you were juggling a few girls at once or that you had dead bodies in your freezer or something, but the truth is so much more pathetic, isn’t it?” She lies back, laughing. “Eh . . . I guess I could get used to it.”
“I never invited you over because Warble’s a prick. It never fails: every girl he meets he hits on, obsesses over, and then flips out when they reject him. Believe me. He’s actually much stranger than I am.”
“So where are we taking this stuff? My place?” she asks and turning over and smelling my pillow she adds: “nice and clean.”
“Just for now. Everything will be out by the time I go to work tonight.”
“Listen. I don’t mind, Clara won’t mind. If you’d be more comfortable, stay in the spare room. What did you pay here?”
“Three hundred a month.”
“You’d only have to pay about two hundred with us. Plus you’d be living with two fabulously sexy ladies. Wouldn’t that be fun wink wink?”
“I think I’m going to stay at the hotel. Rhett won’t even know I’m there.”
“You are so weird. I think I’m in love.”
“Come on. Let’s go.”
I squeeze the blanket into the suitcase, grab the pillow, and leave on the kitchen counter the keys and a short note to Warble.
During the ride back to her house she puts in a tape, a song she and Clara made some days ago, asking for my opinion, telling me I should be objective, and even though it’s impossible to be objective when she looks so good, the song is impressive, a fast shredding sound with Clara’s semi-melodic screams weaving in and out, it then breaks down, the guitars waxing ambient and moody, while Dee sings, her voice sweet and a little distant, and gradually the tempo builds back but never quite returns to the breakneck speed of the beginning, finding instead some comfortable space in between, the two girls harmonizing over dense layers of sound. Meanwhile, Dee won’t look at me, just stares ahead, perhaps criticizing, perhaps enjoying her work, hands gripping the wheel, her face a little red, mouth unable to settle on an expression.
“Relax. It’s great.”
She bites her lip but doesn’t look over at me.
“You kind of have to say that though, don’t you?”
“No, I like this. Why don’t you play me more?”
“I’ll make you a tape and you can listen without me here. I can’t stand it, sitting here listening to you listen.”
When we arrive at the house, I turn to her. “Dee, I need to show you something that might freak you out.”
“It could be serious.”
“Are you sick or something?”
“No, that’s not what I mean exactly. I think I’d better just show you and get it over with. Drive around back.”
She does so, fiddling with her bracelets, smile gone.
“Is that it?” she asks when the car has come into view. “Wow, you got yourself a Sable: classy. So, what’s going on here?”
I had considered lying to her, but the truth comes out anyway in short bursts that don’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s clear she gets it, her eyes wide staring straight ahead.
“This is pretty fucked up. Why did you bring it here?”
“I don’t know. It had been days since I slept and I wasn’t thinking; everything that happened was so automatic.”
“It’s hot in here,” she says, getting out of the car. “Have you looked at the registration? Is there any registration?”
“Well, what the fuck, man? You need to get rid of it.”
“Dump it in the lake. Go to the south side where it’s swampy. There’s a boat ramp there.”
“I was thinking of parking it at the hotel.”
“Definitely not as good as my idea. You know what, man, just do whatever with it, but I would appreciate you not leaving it parked in my yard.”
“I’ll just put my stuff in the car and get out of here.”
She starts to say something, stops.
I pack the trunk then drive to the Lakeside where I park the car out front and carry inside my suitcase and pillow. Kyra is working, and as it is only four, she assumes I need a room and obliges me before I can even make the request: I did the same for her and some friends last week.
My room is on the lakeside, a standard room with deep red stained carpet, a bulky television chained to the wall, artwork so vapid it may as well be a framed void, a well-used bed with questionably clean sheets and coin slots for vibration. I lie back and doze, only to rouse a few hours later when a streak of red sunset momentarily shines around the curtain’s edge and burns a path from the window to my eye, blinding confusion, not knowing who or where I am, close my eyes and see the dancing afterimage, feel silk on my fingers, open my eyes and see tendrils of long black hair wrapped around my hand, the sight of which causes me to draw back in surprise and then move back in as soon as I recognize Dee’s small body which shifts slightly so that her long eyelashes come to rest in the trail of sunset and become translucent there momentarily before the light dies out behind the pine-serrated horizon.
The light gone, I fall back asleep, my hand nestled deeper in her hair.
I wake again in darkness, the phone ringing.
“You’re five minutes laaate,” Kyra sings into the phone.
“Shit. I’ll be there in a second.”
“Take your time. I’ve only been here since two.”
I turn on the wall lamp and take a minute to gather my senses. Dee is gone, but her light imprint remains on the comforter, along with the vanilla scent of her hair. On the nightstand is an avocado and cream cheese sandwich wrapped in cellophane. I grab it and The Crystal World from my suitcase, stuff them into my jacket pocket, and step outside. It’s a little past eleven, the night air warm and muggy with the metallic taste of the lake, the rattling drones of insects, the occasional splashing fish. Reflected in the black water is the giant EAT sign, buzzing and hiccupping red neon.
“Took your sweet time, didn’t you?” Kyra says when I enter the lobby.
I go through the back office, clock in, and come around to the front desk before responding. “Sorry. I haven’t been sleeping well and forget to set the alarm. Did you count the drawer yet?”
“Yeah, it’s fine. You want me to wait around while you recount?”
“No, I trust you,” plopping into a chair behind the desk.
“Have an excellent night.”
Kyra gone, I sit back in silence for a few minutes and eventually count the drawer and take stock of the guests. Quiet as usual. Eventually I get down to business: light a cigarette and start reading the book.
Around midnight Rhett staggers in through the glass doors, bumps past the fox print couches, and falls against the front counter, bringing with him the reek of boozy sweat. He lights up a cigarette and attempts to look me in the eye while his swollen head bobs from side to side. “You got a room for the old boss man?”
“How about something on the poolside—no, make it the lakeside—no, poolside.”
“Lakeside is quieter,” I suggest.
“Smart man. Lakeside then. Deluxe. King bed. All that.”
“Yes sir. Room 19,” I say, handing him the key.
“Room 19. Good man. And anyone asks, you didn’t see me,” he adds with mystery, soon after ruining the effect by winking lecherously. He staggers out, key in hand, his musty odor lingering behind.
Rhett gone, I go into the kitchen, make a pot of coffee and eat the avocado and cream cheese sandwich in the dim light of reflected stainless steel. If this were a horror story, this kitchen would be the perfect setting for a murder, the dangling knives and the walk-in refrigerator with its lock on the outside begging to make a body of someone. The dining room isn’t bad either, with the shimmering blue submarine lights of the pool shining in through the fifteen foot tall windows making puppet shows on the walls, a room into which someone might expectedly stumble after being stabbed in the kitchen, tripping over chairs and tables, a film noir shadow towering ghoulishly behind him. He’d round the corner to the hallway, leaving a trail of blood on the green carpet, bloody handy prints on the tacky 70s wallpaper, looking over his shoulder occasionally to get a glimpse of the thing hunting him down—doesn’t matter what it is, maybe just a neurotic manifestation, maybe something more or less real. Finally, he drags his bloody shredded body into the lobby, a place of paranoia and insecurity with its glass walls looking out into blackness, yet momentarily it seems he is safe, for his friend Dee has arrived and she doesn’t seem worried and doesn’t notice the blood.
“Let me just come out and say what I’ve been thinking all day long: you’re a fucking idiot.”
“Thanks for the sandwich.”
“You’re just going to leave that car out front like that?” She points through the glass to the parking lot where the car, its color indeterminate, waits bathed in golden light from the street lamp.
“That’s the plan, yes.”
“Well, since this is probably going to be your last night of freedom, I thought we could drink some vodka and take a dip. Maybe take our minds off things.”
“Sure. Why don’t you come into the back office for a bit? Rhett just checked in, so we should wait a little before swimming.”
We sit around drinking and smoking for a while and eventually go out to the pool, strip down and dive in.
“I like your job so much more than mine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you do anything when I’ve been here. You do work here, don’t you? Or did you just steal that uniform from someone who does?”
“You might be onto something there,” I say. “But I will have to do the audit at some point tonight. It’ll take five or ten minutes.”
“I must say, I’m a little disappointed: you wouldn’t say a boring thing like that unless you did work here.”
“I’ve been disappointing you all day it seems.”
“Duck called today,” she adds nonchalantly, except it isn’t so nonchalant, as she can’t even look at me when she says it.
What she says leaves no room for a reply, and she realizes it. So we just wade in the blue light and wait for the wake of her comment to dissipate. A loud clink resounds from the shadows at the shallow end of the pool. We exchange glances and swim over cautiously, find Rhett there passed out in one of the lawn chairs, a cigar stub jutting of his disgusted expression, disgusted it seems even in sleep, at his foot a number of empty beer bottles—an alarming amount considering that he could have only been sitting out here for a little over an hour—one of them which had just fallen from his sleep-loosened grip, now rolling drunkenly, alternating between greedily drinking air and vomiting beer.
“Do you think he saw us?” Dee whispers.
“Definitely not. Rhett is not subtle. He would have let us know with a long string of expletives had he seen anything.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Do we go inside and leave him here or take him to his room?”
“Guessing the man wouldn’t want other staff or guests to see him out here like this.”
“Do you want to help me with him?” I say, climbing out of the pool and shaking myself dry. Dee climbs up and wrings out her hair and puts on a shirt. We each take an arm, pull him up.
“What did he want?”
“He said he misses me.”
Rhett vomits a little, so we direct his head onto the grass until the retching has stopped.
“Do you miss him?” I grunt.
“I don’t know.”
We drag Rhett down the path and at the door to room 19 we set him down so I can root through his pockets for the key. “Get your hands offa me, son‘a bitch,” he drawls.
I find it and as I put the key in the door, Dee puts her hand over mine and our faces meet lightly together. “I think Duck’s an ass,” I say.
“You’re a bit of an ass.”
The door open, I drag my boss in the rest of the way, hoist him up onto the bed, leave the key and go out, where Dee is leaning against the wall, smoking and looking at me with her big black eyes.
“You want to swim?”
She shakes her head. “He kind of killed the mood, you know?”
“Yeah, I suppose. Well we could just drink by the pool for a little bit longer.”
Lounging in the deck chairs, I tell Dee, as she rolls a joint, about the safe at the hotel, the combination being his son’s birthday backwards, how it contains among other things thirty thousand dollars. A couple of weeks ago in the middle of the night after my first pot of coffee, I went into the back office, popped it open and counted the bills, several thick stacks of fifties, wondering how long it would be before it was noticed missing, so I tried it out for a week, walking around everywhere I went with the wads of bills bulging in my pockets, talked several times to Rhett at the front desk, out by the pool, in the back office only a few feet away from the safe, but he never said anything about it and no one else noticed. At one point I stuck a wad in the middle of the check-in sheets and left it there for a day. The other desk clerk filed the sheets away without noticing anything. One day that week when I was changing shifts with Kyra and she stayed on a little longer to do the crossword with me, I erupted into laughter for no reason. Kyra hardly noticed, didn’t understand I was trying to communicate something to her. At the end of the week, I put the money back and never heard a word from anyone about it.
There had been other things before the car, before the money, smaller things at first—paper clips, pencils—things no one would notice, slowly progressing into bigger objects—staplers, calculators—and eventually things people should notice were gone—typewriters, televisions—and yet nothing leaving any impact in its absence. It disturbed me, forced me to keep going forward with the experiment—that’s what you have to do when you get a notion, a thesis, you push it to its extreme, find its limitations. At some point I would have to face repercussions. Someone would notice. A connection would be made. Things don’t vanish. They are made to disappear.
As I speak, Dee comes closer and eventually wraps herself around my legs where we can pass the joint easily between us. At one point she puts her slender hand on my knee and for a few moments I see the black and white checkerboard patterns of her nails. At the end of the night, when our skin is dry of pool water and moist with dew, I walk her to my room and put her to bed. I clean up the mess by the pool, do the audit in a few minutes, and sit around while the last pot of coffee brews in the kitchen. It is only by the gray light of dawn that I notice through the glass walls of the lobby that the car I had parked out front is gone.