He parked in the motel parking lot and wandered out to the street. It was nearly midnight and he was hungry. He didn’t like Los Angeles, really. It was a sprawling, complicated city, unlike New York, which seemed straightforward by comparison. It had been his wife’s idea to move out of the city, blaming it on his paltry salary when in fact she’d never liked the city and had wanted a house just like the one she’d grown up in, with a driveway and a garage and a front lawn and a bird feeder that attracted more squirrels than it did birds, and cheerful, suspicious neighbors. Mornings, he rode the train into Hoboken with all the other commuters. He didn’t mind it, really. He would look out the train window with interest at the row houses in East Orange, slim buildings adorned with cheesy facades or painted in hues of gelato—pistachio or peppermint stick or lemon—and he would think:
What is it like to live there?
Or the dilapidated motel in Newark where people seemed to be living, the large, movie-screen-sized windows, the pus-yellow water in the once lovely pool, someone’s skeletal dog tied to the fence. In truth, Hugh found the mystery of those rooms compelling, and he’d find himself daydreaming about the possibilities of life inside them. Eventually, the train pulled into Hoboken, a sluggish caterpillar crawling to its destination. He’d look out across the wide V of tracks and see the workers in their plaid coats at the breakfast wagon, hunched over paper cups of coffee, their cigarettes, then follow the parade of suits and overcoats down into the tubes and the subterranean journey across the river to the city, a jagged, squealing ride through flashes of darkness that always reminded him of death, after which, climbing unhurriedly out of the subway into the bright, powdered-sugar daylight that signified his arrival, he felt little relief. Somehow, in life, he felt misinterpreted. His colleagues at work, their greedy eyes in the boardroom, their handy disdain tersely dispensed like the slang of some foreign language he could not understand. Even his wife, when he’d look at her from time to time, seemed like a stranger to him and he sometimes wondered what he was doing there in that house on Rollins Avenue. Completing some ordinary and necessary task like taking out the trash, he would say to himself:
What am I doing here?
Sometimes, when he woke in their bed, he felt disoriented, the way he’d felt as a sickly child waking from a fever, the strangeness of staying home from school, his bedroom brimming with sunshine, the sense he’d had of being left out, kept apart. Separate. He felt it now, as an adult. He’d felt it all along.
He came to an all-night coffee shop and went in and sat down at one of the tables. He didn’t know what he wanted. A girl was sitting alone in an adjacent booth having a hot fudge sundae. “I’ll take one of those,” he told the waitress. “And coffee.”
“I’m making a fresh pot. It’ll be just a minute.”
The girl in the booth looked over at him. She was maybe thirteen or fourteen, he didn’t know. Hugh and Marion didn’t have children. They had tried, of course—didn’t everyone? They’d been to specialists; they’d done all the tests. Finally they’d given up. The experience had changed his wife somehow. They did not discuss it. But there it was at the dinner table. There it was in the bowl of peas, the loaf of bread, the bottle of wine, the roasted chicken. There it was on the beige carpet as they climbed the stairs night after night. And there it was in the empty room beside their own, empty like an open mouth, screaming.
The girl in the booth had a hard look. Her hair was blond, tied up in pig-tails. She had a pencil case on the table; it had a picture of a unicorn on it. There was something moving around in her pocket, a disconcerting jumble, and then he saw the flash of a thin white tail.
“You’ve got something in your pocket,” he said to her.
“What is it?”
Frowning, she put her finger over her lips as if to shush him.
His ice cream sundae came. It looked exactly like the picture on the menu. For a while he just studied it. It occurred to him that he didn’t want it now. The girl had already finished hers and was clanking the spoon against the parfait glass.
“Do you want this?” he said. “I haven’t touched it.”
“You don’t want it?”
He handed it to her. “I want you to have it.”
The girl didn’t hesitate. He watched her eat, sucking the chocolate off the spoon. The waitress brought his coffee and the check. The coffee tasted bitter. It did not taste like a fresh pot. Outside, it had begun to rain. The bell on the glass door jingled as stragglers came in to wait it out. He put his money out on the table.
The girl touched his arm. “Hey, mister? You got a car?”
The question caught him off guard. “What?”
“You’re not a pervert, are you?”
He blurted a laugh. “No, I’m not a pervert.”
“I’m staying on Argyle. It’s not far.”
They ran through the rain to the motel parking lot where he’d left his car. The girl wore only a light jacket; he thought she must be cold. In the car he noticed that her eyes were glassy and her nose was running. He turned on the heat and she put her wet hands up to the vent. Her fingernails were green with dirt. She took a white rat out of her pocket, shifting it from hand to hand like a ball of dough. “This is my friend.”
Hugh was not fond of rodents. The rat was alarmingly fat. He tried to concentrate on the road.
“He keeps me company,” the girl said.
“What’s his name?”
“Snowball. Snowy for short. He looks like a snowball, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, he does.” Hugh wondered where the girl had gotten it.
“I’m not from around here,” she said, grimly.
“Where do you live now?”
She shrugged, playing with the rat. “Nowhere special.”
Argyle Avenue wasn’t far and she pointed to a building on the corner that had a sign out front: Transients Welcome. The cement blocks of the building had been painted mint green. A single tube of florescent light hung over the door, attracting moths. A few people were hanging around out front, shielding their heads from the rain with newspapers.
“What’s it like in there?” he asked her.
“It stinks.” She sat there. She didn’t seem to want to get out.
“Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve got a room you could stay in. It has two beds.”
“You said you weren’t a pervert,” she said with a hint of provocation that seemed beyond her years.
“It’s just an extra bed,” he explained. “It’s just a better place for you to stay.”
She looked at him, sizing him up. “Okay, Mister Daddy. If you say so.”
He drove back to the parking lot of the motel and returned his car to the same space they’d left only minutes before. His stomach ached slightly; he’d been foolish not to eat. They walked over to the motel, up the stairs, down the long corridor to the room. He took out the key and opened the door. The room smelled like insecticide. The rain made a gentle sound against the window. “Help yourself.”
She went into the bathroom and put the shower on. He heard the plastic curtain sliding across the rod. He sat on the bed, waiting. She took her time. Then she came out dressed in her clothes again and got into one of the beds.
“Where did you put your little friend?” he asked.
“In my sock.” She held it up for him to see. The rat’s little pink nose was sticking out, its whiskers twitching. “Don’t worry, he won’t bother you.”
“What’s your name?”
“Like the flower.”
She turned away from him. After a moment his cell phone rang. He knew it was his wife. He let the phone ring. He looked over at the girl and saw that she had fallen asleep. For a long while he sat on the edge of his bed, watching her. She made noises in her sleep, a wheezing sound rushing up her throat. It troubled him, and he worried that she might be sick. His stomach went tight as he watched her. She shouldn’t be living like this, he thought. It was wrong. It was an awful thing to see.
He slept fitfully, and was awakened at dawn by the elephantine wail of a garbage truck. The girl was still in the bed, sleeping. She had turned on her side and was sucking her thumb. It alarmed him, seeing her like that, with her thumb in her mouth. It gave him a feeling inside. It made his eyes water.
He dressed quietly, then left the room and drove to the beach. He parked and took off his shoes and socks and walked barefoot down to the shore. The sand was damp, cool. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the ocean. As a boy, he’d gone to the Jersey shore in summertime, but this was the Pacific. There was something about this ocean. In the distance, the air looked brown, like an old-fashioned sepia print, the water copper in the sunlight. The sea was calm, the air smelled of fish. Savage birds dove and fought. He watched them for a while, then walked back up the beach to his car.
At half past eleven Hedda Chase emerged from her house in work clothes, holding a cup of coffee, her hair swept up in a white turban. Morbidly, he thought of Norma Desmond. Apparently late, Chase rushed toward her car, coffee splashing over the rim of her cup, onto her hand, the hunk of keys. Hugh emerged from the darkness of her detached garage. “Good morning, Ms. Chase,” he said.
She looked perplexed. “What?”
“I wondered if I could have a moment.”
“I’m late,” she said. “Whatever you’re selling—”
“I’m not selling anything, Ms. Chase. I just want to talk.”
“I’m Hugh Waters.”
She shook her head vacantly like someone coming up out of the water in a swimming pool. She coughed.
“You don’t remember me?”
“We weren’t,” she hesitated, squinting at him with distaste, “intimate, were we?” She looked at him. “Because if we were you were entirely forgettable.”
For a moment he couldn’t seem to speak. “I’m Hugh Waters.” His voice sounded weak.
“I wrote it.”
” she said softly. She shook her head as if the memory was giving her a headache. “You’re a writer? You’re a
writer?” Her voice nearly shouted the revelation.
“I don’t need a lot of your time,” he said. “I just thought you might be able to explain some things.”
“I don’t conduct meetings with writers in my driveway, Mr. Waters. You’ll have to make an appointment like everyone else.”
“You didn’t return any of my calls,” he said.
“Look, call my office. I’ll make sure to fit you in.”
“I read that letter you wrote. You said some horrible things about me.”
She looked confused.
“I just want to talk.”
“It’s not possible,” she said, opening the door of her car, but he grabbed her arm.
“Look, I’ve come all this way.”
She began to struggle, trying to free herself, but was quickly subdued under his grip, ascertaining, perhaps, that the knot of pressure in the small of her back was the tip of his .45. “We’ll go inside and have our meeting. And then I’ll go.” It was a lie, of course; he had no intention of going.
She nodded, her face glossy, her lips wet. It occurred to him how exhilarated he felt by the unanticipated shift in his plan. He had not imagined that he would have to touch her—not yet anyway. He had not fully anticipated what might occur between them that morning and was only beginning to realize how his fantasy of their encounter had been far more innocent than the reality of what was unfolding between them now.
Ushering her across the driveway, up the stairs to her porch, it occurred to him that she was smaller than his wife, almost frail. Her shoulders were knobby like the small stones he had fondled earlier that morning on the beach. Under his fingertips he discerned that she was shaking and he confirmed in his mind that nothing quite made an impression on a person like physical contact. He had once read an article about it, suggesting that if you wanted to leave someone with a lasting impression on a job interview you might gently touch their arm while looking at them with a sense of intensity. Your eyes should say,
I want this job,
while your gentle touch implied,
I’m your friend, you can trust me.
“Give me your keys,” he said.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “This isn’t happening.”
It’s happening all right,
It’s happening to you.
He unlocked her door and they went inside and he dropped the keys into his pocket. The house was disappointing, not what he would expect from a movie executive. The furnishings were ordinary; uninspired, as if the room were part of a hotel suite and not a person’s private home. Hedda Chase was not a housekeeper. There were heaping piles of dirty clothes, dirty plates scattered around the room, ashtrays full of cigarettes, lipstick-stained glasses with day-old booze. Stacks and stacks of screenplays. Screenplays strewn across the floor or left half-read on the coffee table like fallen birds at a skeet shoot. He pressed the gun into her back and shuffled behind her into the kitchen. “Pour us some coffee,” he said, noticing the leftover pot on the counter.
He stood behind her, like a puppeteer, and watched as she took down two cups from the shelf and set them on the counter and poured the coffee.
Outside, two men were arguing in Spanish, and shortly afterward they heard the neighbor’s car pulling down the driveway. Hedda glimpsed through the window, longingly, he thought, squinting in the bright sun. For a moment he imagined they were a couple, that he lived here with her, instead of back in Montclair with his wife. He indulged in the fantasy, briefly. Pictures and colors flared up in his head.
“Bring the coffee,” he said, motioning to the table with the pistol.
She took the two cups in her shaking hands, the coffee spilling on her fingers. Then she set them down and looked at him as if for instruction.