Authors: R. A. Nelson
the cold number
We park farther back this time.
Schuyler’s stuffing his mouth with Crackling Oat Bran from a baggie.
“Looks like you’ve come prepared for a siege,” I say.
He frowns. “This is the first time my folks have ever gone on a vacation without me.” His parents are spending the week in Destin, Florida.
“So throw a party. Blow the house up.”
“Oh yeah. But really, it feels weird.”
“Thanks for staying. I mean it. I don’t know what I’d do without—ouch!”
He frogs my arm.
“You’ve only told me that a googolplex number of times. That’s the number ten raised to the power googol, or the numeral 1 followed by 10
“I know, I know. But I do.”
“Anyhow, I owed you that.”
“Agreed.” I rub the muscle.
The day is overcast. We watch a braless sex pistol in frayed cutoffs sway to the Laundromat. A FedEx truck rumbles through. A guy with a cast on his arm gets in a Passat and speeds away. Every parking space has an oil stain the size of Nebraska. How is it possible this dreary place has become the emotional center of my universe?
“When he gets here, let’s squirt mustard all over his hood,” Schuyler says, gobbling some bran. “Country says mustard will take off the paint. We could write him a message. Something cool. A damning passage from Camus’
“That sounds about like Country’s speed. Besides, mustard only works if you leave it on for a couple of days.”
“Oh. How do you know?”
“Don’t ask. Remember, we’re not here to wreak havoc. This is an exploratory missi—”
The door to number 220 swings open.
It’s Alicia. I didn’t think anybody was home. She’s dressed in a baggy white outfit, frosty curls blown up on top and pinned at the ears. She scampers down the steps, keys twirling on a pinkie, and slides into a cream-colored Toyota. She backs out and comes our way.
We turn our heads, suddenly utterly fascinated by the Dumpsters. “What do we do?” Schuyler says.
“Follow her. Maybe she’s going to meet him.”
I wait a little while, then pull out, keeping two cars between us. Schuyler’s beating his fingers against the dash. His jittery energy is making me nervous. “Does she know Wilkie?” he says worriedly.
“Possibly. But it probably helps that you’re here.” I glance at him and sigh disgustedly. “What are you so strung out about? You’re no fun anymore.”
“Neither is cell block D.”
I shove his shoulder with my elbow. “Like you would know, Puff Dog.”
Schuyler balances his baggie in the ashtray. “Hey, I can watch HBO with the best of them.”
“Then just watch what I do and follow my lead.”
He throws a European salute, the backs of his fingers against his brow.
“Oui, mon capitaine.”
“Wouldn’t it be
“Je ne comprends pas.”
“I’m a girl.
Or have you forgotten already?”
His ears droop; he stares straight ahead. He has to be thinking about the Kiss of Death in my room. We haven’t talked about it much. Probably never will. Maybe it was so awful, he wants to forget.
We head southeast for several miles and exit the interstate. Alicia’s in no hurry.
“She’s even worse than your mom,” Schuyler says.
“She’s about to turn.”
We pass a school yard infested with fourth graders.
“They must be on a different schedule here.”
A few more miles and the neighborhoods are starting to change. Sprawling lawns, older homes. Architectural style: Re-elect Nixon. The children who climbed these trees are on low-carb diets by now.
I stay back as far as I can, but Alicia’s driving so slowly now, I can literally follow without placing my foot on the gas. She has to wonder who we are, what we’re doing.
“She must be looking for somebody,” Schuyler says.
We pass a couple of elderly power walkers and a gray-haired lady snipping yellow roses with orange scissors. What would Mr. Mann be doing here?
Alicia suddenly parks in front of a white ranch-style house that has long black streaks of roof fungus weeping down its shingles. I keep going. In the rearview mirror I see her craning her neck as she gets out of the car.
“She’s seen us,” Schuyler says.
“I know. I’ll circle.”
I round the block and park a couple of houses over behind a museum-vintage station wagon.
“Wish we had binoculars.”
Alicia has made it to the front door of the ranch house. She’s on the porch, talking with an older woman. The woman is shaped like a barrel with pipe stem legs and hair dyed a color in the same zip code as ochre. She suddenly takes Alicia by the arms and hauls her inside.
“Her mom?” Schuyler says.
“I don’t remember her from the wedding. Besides, I don’t think Copperhead would live in a place like this with a wife like that.”
I glance involuntarily at the glove box, hoping Schuyler doesn’t notice. I still haven’t told him about the pistol. “Mr. Sprunk. Alicia’s father. He reminds me of a snake.”
“An occupational hazard.”
We play the radio and wait, watching the house.
Schuyler chatters about Buffalo Bill on the History Channel. “He called his rifle Lucretia Borgia. Dude killed sixty-nine buffaloes in a single day.”
“Lucretia, indeed. The jackass.”
The Crackling Oat Bran is gone. “Viagra,” Schuyler says after a while.
“How long do we hang around waiting for the stiff?”
“Shut up. I don’t think he’s in there.”
“So what are we doing here? Stakeouts are not particularly exciting, are they, Herr Doktor?”
“Shhh. Something tells me this is important.”
“You think maybe we could stop for onion rings at the—?”
The door opens.
Alicia comes out holding something small and rectangular. A journal? Address book? She waves at the older woman and crosses the lawn, never looking in our direction. Speeds away.
“Tallyho!” Schuyler says. “That’s more like it—lay down some rubber, Seabiscuit!”
“But she’s getting away!”
I crank Wilkie’s engine and pull in front of the ranch house and get out. Schuyler scoots over and puts his head out the window.
“Oh no. Come on, Nine. You mean I have to sit here while you—?”
“Both of us. Come on.”
Ring the bell.
The house must be well insulated; there is no sense of anyone coming.
“Wait! What are we doing?”
“Like you said. Gathering information.”
“But what are we going to say? We have to get our stories straight!”
I pinch Schuyler’s arm. “Courage, Shadrach.”
The weather stripping makes a sucking sound as Barrel Woman jerks it open. She looks older than Mom, but I suspect it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. Her sun-dried face cracks into a hundred pieces of one monster smile.
“Well, hell’s bells! Must be last call for the Royal Order of the Water Buffaloes today.” Her voice is raspy, eyes dinner plate blue, nose long and red at the tip. She’s grinning delightedly as if she recognizes us. “Come on in; Ripper’s tied in the basement. Mind the ceramic log.”
We hesitate at the threshold. The blast of her personality is making my head swim. The house smells of stale cigarettes and coffee that hasn’t been advertised nationwide since 1979. Somewhere a television is squawking piteously.
“Ripper?” Schuyler says.
The woman digs him in the ribs and winks at me. “This one’s easy to tease, isn’t he? Well, don’t just stand there halfway in and halfway out.”
She grabs our wrists, instantly affectionate, and pulls us in. Her fingers are thin and cold.
“Hello, I’m—we’re, um—”
“I know, honey, you’re selling something for your school, right? Sweet God, you’re tall. Want to check me for fleas?” She offers the top of her thinning hair, explodes in coughy laughter.
“Well, yes,” I say. “I mean, no! Um, we’re selling magazines, but—”
“Just like Halloween,” the woman says. “You kids know where all the old farts live. Okay, show me what you got. I’m a soft touch, goddammit. You just might hit me up for something.”
“Really, ma’am, we’re—”
“Ma’am’s your mother. Call me Barb. You’re lucky you didn’t catch me bare assed. I was just about to jump in the shower.” She tweaks Schuyler. “I’m just messing with you, honey. Today’s not even wash day—Vince!” She tugs us along the hall and around a corner. “Look who’s come to visit.”
I don’t like this room: circa
. The furniture is covered in smoky blue fabric, sandpaper #5 abrasive. The air conditioning is set to Thule, Greenland.
Vince is sitting in a recliner with duct tape on the arms. He has Miracle Grow eyebrows and a terminal case of White Man’s Feet. He slowly looks up from the TV, antimatter to his wife’s matter.
“‘Lo,” he says, and goes back to watching Melissa Gilbert murder a chicken.
Barb picks up something from an end table. She lights a cigarette and takes a punishing drag. Her words come out in little nicotine-flavored clouds.
“Don’t mind him. Vince’s like a big old wheel. Takes a lot to get him rolling, but lord, the momentum! Back in our navy days, we’d dance our legs off. The house was always full of people. There was this big Swede from Minnesota, a CPO named Werkhoven—”
I glance at Schuyler; he’s screaming with his eyes.
“I’d throw together a pot of booze beans and dumplings— only use pintos!—with red wine. That was our first real house, Millington Naval Air Station in Memphis. Twenty minutes from where Elvis the Fat-Ass Pelvis crapped out.”
Barb’s voice is a comet orbiting our heads; it flies out to the aphelion of my consciousness. A question suddenly catches me like a piece of space stone in an interstellar vacuum.
“So?” she says.
Barb cackles, lungs full of iron filings. “Keep up, honey, or I’ll have to charge you time and a half. The magazines.”
“Oh! Well. That’s not really why we’re here.”
“We—um—we saw somebody we knew in the neighborhood and were wondering if she was a friend of yours? Alicia Sprunk.”
Barb’s face cracks again. “Alicia? Why, hell yes, she was just here! Too bad you missed her. Where’d you know her from?”
“Um—we don’t really know her all that well. We know her husband.”
I hate myself for smiling. “Yes. Ricky. Do you know him?”
“Hey, Vince!” Barb screams.
“Do we know Ricky?”
Barb sticks out her tongue in Vince’s direction. “See what I mean? Retirement is hell. It’s for the birds. My guy put in his thirty years; now he’s got the personality of a Dutch oven. Don’t do it!”
“About Ricky—have you known him long?”
“Well, I should guess so.” She takes another choking drag. When the words come out, they’re almost blue.
“He’s my son.”
Mrs. Mann lights a new cigarette from the corpse of the first. She’s between us on the couch, a photo album spread open across her papery knees. We’re looking at a naked baby lying on a fake Persian rug.
A naked baby who would one day grow up to make love to me.
“Those numb-nut navy doctors kept me flat on my back. Ricky went into fetal distress. Thought for a minute we might lose him. But I liked Millington well enough.”
“So that’s where he grew up?”
“Ricky grew up all over, sweetie. Tennessee, Texas, Virginia. A dyed-in-the-Woolite navy brat. Never kept the same friends one place to the next. Probably the reason he didn’t like school so much. Sure wasn’t lack of smarts.”
She flips the page.
“Here’s Ricky when he was six—look at the little shit! I made him that outfit from a Butterick pattern.”
I swallow the image.
Straight black hair, thumbtack eyes, white chaps, a cowboy hat strung with red rawhide. He isn’t smiling and holds his cap pistols slackly, as if bearing up under a tsunami of disappointment.
“What’s he frowning about?” Schuyler says. I’d forgotten he was here.
“How should I know? Moody little bastard—one minute high as a 707, the next dragging rock-ass bottom.” Inhale. Barb’s setting the Land Speed Record for dragging a cigarette to the filter.
“It nearly killed Vince. Ricky hated Little League ball, would just as soon piss on a car as go near it with a wrench. Spent his days holed up in his room, reading. Half the time we thought he was deaf. Can you imagine?”
Yes. I can.
I rub my arms to restore the circulation. Is that my breath I see? It’s so cold in here. More photos. Mr. Mann’s childhood is surprisingly ordinary: wooden toys, bikes with rubber tassels, crooked teeth. Pajamas too small to keep his belly button covered. A Christmas tree strung with lights like banana peppers. Six Flags Over Texas. A dented trumpet. Schuyler has lapsed into a coma. I’m riveted.
“What about high school?”
Another album. At the third picture my heart jumps. I want to break furniture, scream until my throat bleeds, chew the carpet. Mr. Mann is skinny, a mass of dark hair, striped rugby shirt. My age! Those amazing eyes, but trapped in the body of a geeked-out loner, they’re scary. He’s hanging back from the crowd, uncomfortable. Looks like someone who could burn the school down on a bad day. So he had to grow into his beautifulness, his easier soul.
“Couldn’t wait to move out,” Barb says. “Had to go to college way the hell up north. Massa-
-what? That’s what I said when he told me. Why so far? You tell me.”
I’m too polite to tell you, I think. Because he had to get away. He was embarrassed, misunderstood. But it all makes me wonder—so the Boston accent is most likely affected, a camouflage. Just what else might not be real?
“What did he study?” I say.
“What else, artsy stuff. Thought he was a goddamn poet. The battles he had with his father! Join the navy, learn a trade. I had to laugh—Peter Pumpkin Eater couldn’t even change a tire. No, he’s going to be the next P. F. Eliot, Emily Frost, hell’s bells. Where does the time go? Tell me, where?”
I hope I’m not jumping the gun, but I can’t resist. “I’ve always wondered—how did they meet? Ricky and Alicia? How long have they known each other?”
Barb ponders. “Ricky could tell you better than me. The little shit barely calls! It was last fall, when he was still teaching at Duncan Hills. I think he met her over at the college. Him and that little gal were thick as thieves.”
Vince shuffles through, heading down the hall. Metamucil must be kicking in.
“Naps,” Barb says. “He takes a lot of naps. Doesn’t sleep well at night. We tried those little Band-Aids you stick across your nose. No good. They have this spray for sleep apnea, three squirts in the back of the throat—”
“Were you at the wedding?”
Barb looks sour. “You were there? A little fruity for my taste, but whatever floats your boat. They had to throw it together pretty quick. I wanted to help, but no, His Lord and Master put the kibosh on that.”
“Ricky. Wouldn’t let me in on one little detail! Why? Tell me and we’ll both know. But you’re right, I imagine Daddy Warbucks had something to do with it. Walden Ponds, my left titty. Don’t get me wrong—Alicia’s sweet as a little bug, but the rest of that bunch can kiss old Rosy, know what I mean?”
I reach behind her, pinch Schuyler awake.
“You say the wedding was thrown together quickly?” I say. “Why?”
Barb taps an ash into her hand. “Oh, you know, it was one of those on-again, off-again deals. We thought they had split up for good in January. But I guess they were back to beating the sheets all spring.”
She laughs. A nimbus of secondhand smoke forms around her head.
I exhale slowly.
All spring. Beating the sheets.
My mind is a nuclear flash fire. I’m irradiated by an image: Mr. Mann, Alicia, limbs entwined, moving, kissing, his bed still warmly rumpled from when I just left it.
“Nine?” Schuyler touches my arm, trying to pull me together. “So Alicia was just coming by for a visit?” he says to Barb, rescuing me from my speechlessness.
“Hell, no. They don’t visit. They just show up when they need something.”
“What was it?”
Barb stands and brushes ash from her blouse. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
I stand, do my best to follow, my exploded mind trailing behind me.
How could he?
How could I have been so stupid? So wrong?
Schuyler and Barb are waiting in a back bedroom. There’s a beat thrumming in my ears; for a moment I can’t hear what she’s saying. I look around, trying to orient myself.
The room is clean. Sewing table, guest bed, exercise bicycle. But something about this place feels skewed, out of square. My legs are leaden and my head is spinning. I’m feeling sick to my stomach. What’s happening to me?
“Vince’s been meaning to convert this to an aquarium room for umpteen years,” Barb says. Her voice sounds very far away. She slides a closet open and I see magazines spilling over the shelf above the hangers. Barb steps on a footstool and fishes around in a box. My eyes have cleared, but I feel a strange terror over the way she’s standing, as if she might lose her balance and topple over.
“Here you go.”
She hands something down to me. My hands are trembling. I clutch it to keep from shaking too hard. It’s a skinny chapbook:
One Million Secret Hills.
Poems by Richard A. Mann.
“Ricky won some big award a hundred years ago back in college,” Barb says as I flip sightlessly through the pages. “Everybody gets their fifteen minutes, don’t they? Where the hell are mine?” She brays laughter. “Anyway, he got me and Vince to pay to have four hundred of these printed up. Then doodle squat. Couldn’t sell one damn copy.”
I try to read one of the poems, but the type on the pages is blurring. My heart is fluttering out of control. Mr. Mann and Alicia—I need to get away.
“Keep it,” Barb says. “We still have about three hundred and eighty-seven, if the mice and the silverfish haven’t gotten to ’em yet.”
“What does he want it for now?” Schuyler says.
“A special reading he’s giving over at the college. At UTC.”
“Alicia says he’s doing some kinda poetry show out there tomorrow night. They found out he lived in town, asked him to do it.”
I can’t think. Barb’s face is beginning to blur. What is happening? Something is horribly wrong and somehow they can’t see it.
“I’ve got to—I’ve got to go!” I say.
I can’t tell if my words are audible. Schuyler isn’t picking up the hint. Can’t he hear me?
“Why didn’t he come himself?” he says to Barb.
“Don’t ask me. I wish we could be closer, but what can you do?”
What can you do.
The air in the room is closing around me. Why is it so cold? Everything’s so cold! It’s the Big Freeze, the time when everything stops moving. Heat death of the universe. Nothing in this house is important anymore, will ever be important ever again.
I’m going to die.
“I’ve got to go!” I say. I’m sure I’m almost shouting now.
“Wait! How about some lunch?” Barb says. “I’ve got some Polish sausage casserole left over from last night. I always make too much. Won’t take two shakes to get it—”
“No, thanks, that’s okay,” Schuyler says.
I’m almost pushing him down the hall toward the front door.
Time is hardening into something fragile, brittle. We’ve poked a hole in the sun; ice is starting to gather. I can’t get outside fast enough. I feel the Snow Queen at my back. I’ll freeze to death if I stay.
At the door Barb grabs my arm and presses something in my hand, a yellow index card. “Hold on! Here you go.”
I stare, uncomprehending.
“Don’t forget the peppercorns! They make all the difference. Ask Ricky.”
A recipe for booze beans and dumplings.