2009 Short Story Contest Winner
by Perry Glasser
The day starts bad, then gets worse.
Who should be surprised?
Not yet 7:00 AM, too far from home, Geist sets his sole piece of luggage into the trunk of his red Toyota. The pink valise and a son are all that remain of his marriage to Linda. Geist travels too little to warrant buying anything new; besides, the silver duct tape holding closed the vinyl wound that an airline baggage handler “accidentally” slashed gives it a masculine look. Geist closes the motel door, and almost as an accident he glances at his front tires.
They are low.
Now what the hell is that about? They were repaired only yesterday.
Geist is one careful man. He plans. He plans a lot. Geist owns two of everything that matters. In his basement, on industrial strength metal racks well off the floor, he stocks toothpaste, tomato sauce, trash bags and a shopping cart’s worth of other nonperishables. He stores gallons of water against the day the mains go to hell. Geist pays his bills as they arrive. His dishes never soak in the sink.
Look, alone, there is no other way to live. There is no rest; you plan. You stay on top of things. You do for yourself, because if you don’t, who will?
Just look at those tires.
Yesterday after a breakfast of one scrambled egg with dill, a toasted Thomas’ English Muffin, black coffee, and his newspaper, Geist packed the pink bag. He’d planned to set out by noon, but the tires bulged like a middle-aged man’s waistline. No need to bend and measure pressure. A person could see the problem.
He’d been rolling on them for a year. Plenty of tread remained. Geist had purchased road hazard insurance and a free rotation every 5,000 miles. It’s a religion with him. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, eat fiber, rotate your tires. Cripes, his appearances at the tire shop were so regular that Hector, the manager, sometimes offers Geist a powdered donut right out of the very same bag he and the shop workmen use.
Loyalty ought to count for something, but it counts for crap. Yesterday, instead of heading south on I-95 by noon, though he needed to drive all those miles from coastal Maine to North Carolina where Dennis, his son, was making his life, Geist sat like a schmuck brooding for two hours on a shabby, green vinyl-covered chair in the tire store office. The only heat in the cinder block building was an electric space heater with cherry red coils glowing behind a clunky fan. He kept his hands in his pockets, his jacket collar up.
“Your tires are OK. We didn’t see nothing.” Hector wiped his hands on a rag.
“Nothing. We’ll grind your rims; make sure the tires fit. Maybe you parked against the curb, you know?”
Geist drove away, but his confidence had evaporated.
At one time, Geist would have planned the trip to be accomplished in one sitting, but now he must pace himself. He hates being tentative. Reflexes slowing, it is not inconceivable that his mind fails to process information fast enough. So he plans to avoid fatigue. Jesus, what would Geist be if his mind went? Oh, sure, he forgets things, but who doesn’t? Everyone over 50 has CRS—Can’t Remember Shit. So what? Still, Geist worries. If his mind goes, how would his mind know it was gone?
That’s how it is with Geist, like roads lead to more roads, thoughts lead to more thoughts. It’s the cascade effect, the doctor told him. He can choose to stop it. This is 21st century American Feelgood bullshit, but Geist knows no better alternative. He is about as much in charge as a man trapped on an elevator with a severed cable. He can stab at buttons, but the descent accelerates. Knowledge of the coming crash doesn’t mean you get off the elevator. Geist has low tires; next thing his mind plunges him into grim visions of senility, incontinence, and lonely death.
He flushed the Happy Pills years ago. Geist already takes enough medications, thank you, all preventative. His heart, brain, kidneys, stomach, and lungs are just peachy. Counting out pills is a morning ritual, like the coffee his GP urges him to give up. The small yellow diuretic has him pissing like a racehorse. The blue vasorelaxant keeps his pressure low enough that blood does not spout from his ears. The sand-colored pill pumps his liver—or is it his pancreas?—to delay his inevitable diabetes, the disease that killed his mother. The food supplements for his eyes and joints do nothing at all. The children’s aspirin thins his blood and may prevent a stroke, but the aspirin also gives him an occasional nosebleed. Forget the Church of Tire Rotation; Geist is an acolyte to the Church of Perpetual Life through Preventative Medication. At monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual intervals, he pays his tithe to druggists, an endocrinologist, a GP, an ophthalmologist, a dermatologist, a podiatrist, a dentist, a periodontist, and the odd specialist. They take his blood, cluck at the results, and tell him to change his ways. But for what? Geist sees, pees and shits, the definition of health.
By plan, he should have awaked in southern New Jersey, close to Camden, but he crouches with his silver tire gauge in hand on a dank December morning before sunup, in a mist-enshrouded motel parking lot in central Connecticut.
He confirms what his heart already knew. Unless he’s run over a tank trap, there was no reason two tires would develop leaks at the same time.
The tires are defective. End of story.
Geist spits on his fingers and wipes grit from his fingertips on the seat of his jeans. He is near Lyme, the town that gave its name to a disease spread by bloodsucking deer tics.
Geist stamps his feet, two blocks of ice in sweatsocks and running shoes. The opalescent sky drips like an infected sinus. Geist wants breakfast. Geist needs coffee. But instead of waffles or eggs or oatmeal or any traditional road food, in the morning gloom of central Connecticut, Geist will play “Find the Air Pump.”
A few hundred yards down the two lane blacktop, back beyond the interstate, on the northbound side of the highway, he finds a Mobil to his left, a Shell to his right.
The ancient Greeks believed in inescapable Fate; we, on the other hand, believe we are the sum of our choices. Different cultures, different illusions.
Geist chooses the right.
Geist often marvels at the number of television personalities and moronic books that reinforce this lie of choice. Oedipus brains a stranger on the road with a rock, solves a riddle, and winds up a king who sleeps with his mother. Dr. Phil leans forward to inquire, “So tell us, Oed, what were you thinking when you picked up that rock?” Oprah herself might interview Jocasta. What studio audience eye would be dry as the Queen of Thebes tearfully confessed that she had been a victim of a fool and brute, her husband, who should never, ever, have sent away their infant son.
Had Geist chosen to turn left, everything might have been different. A grinning Hispanic guy with a hose and nozzle in hand leans into his window. The Shell is full service, so, no, Geist cannot pump his own gas. He asks the guy if they have an air pump, and the guy nods and smiles and says, jess, jess, jess. Geist fishes out a credit card and the gas pump nozzle rattles into the Corolla’s side. Geist stands in the too warm December morning, but no air pump is in sight. Tires are stacked against the whitewashed wall of a dim garage bay.
“Where is the air pump?”
“Jess, jess, jess.” The gas station attendant gestures at the office.
The office guy is a bantam in a jumpsuit, but at least he speaks English.
“Air pump?” Geist asks.
“Your guy said you have an air pump.” The station owner shrugs. His breast pocket’s red embroidery reads Richie. “How do you fill all those tires you sell?”
“A tire machine.” Richie blows across his steaming coffee and delicately bites what might be a cheese danish. His chin is covered by whiskers like steel wool.
“Open the garage door and let me pull up to it.”
“The hose is three feet long. It would not do you any good.”
“You could change the hose, right?” Richie shrugs and turns his back. “Thanks a lot,” Geist says. “I appreciate your help.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Nice, Geist thinks. Nice. He’s been told to fuck himself before breakfast, a sentiment he has not heard since his third wife left him for a failed actor.
In the Mobil station across the street, the air compressor requires 75 cents to operate for three minutes. A yellow metal tag on the machine reads, Air free to our customers. Inquire in office. Had he turned left, he’d have a full tank, free air, and not have to deal with Nazi
bastards eating cheese danish.
But Geist chose the right.
His knees pop when Geist squats to unscrew the tire valve caps. He slides three quarters into the slot and the compressor chugs into life. Not only does the chuck fit, but the hose gauge works. He is able to inflate two crappy, defective tires in less than the rationed three minutes.
Pulling out of the Mobil station, Geist flips Richie the Nazi Bastard the bird. With luck, Richie saw him. Maybe the little prick will choke to death on his cheese danish. Maybe Geist will hit the lottery, too, but he does not count on it.
Thirty minutes later, southbound, Geist abandons any hope of finding a half decent eatery. What does he expect? A blue roadside sign that reads, Decent food. Not the usual crap. Next exit. Easy access?
So the Corolla delivers him to what is either an official Connecticut rest stop or the last stop on the railway station for the Hellbound Express. People of every age and nationality enter and exit. Babes in arms and the elderly, unsteady on canes. Boys on rattling skateboards with their hats on backwards, and men in rumpled suits. Women in muumuus and quilted jackets walk tiny dogs on a grassless strip behind a cyclone fence. Intense teenage girls text into cellphones. Geist hears what might be French. He hears what is certainly German. The tumult in God’s waiting room will be no different from the traveler’s plaza on the Connecticut Turnpike.
The Men’s Room smells of piss. He was not expecting Chanel No. 9, but couldn’t a man hope to relieve himself where no stuffed auto-flush toilet ran ceaselessly, creating a not-so-clear flowing moat between him and every urinal? Geist does not wash his hands. Be serious. There are no paper towels, and the allegedly sanitary air dryer blasts only frigid air if you are crazy enough to press your palm to the metal plate already slapped by the wet palms of 5 million disease-ridden travelers.
The food court line snakes back to the entry doors, but after two garages and the Great Air Hose Hunt, Geist is too hungry to leave. Against the lessons of his own experience, Geist orders the egg, sausage and cheese sandwich, and given the options of medium, large and extra large coffee, he chooses the large. Had no other travelers been queued up behind him, he’d have asked for a small just to see the high school kid grapple with the stupid old fart ignorant of the self-evident fact that the tiniest size was a medium.
Behind the wheel of his car, Geist unwraps his breakfast and makes a lap tray of the paper bag. When will they develop edible paper? What are they waiting for? His ration of grease, salt, swine, dehydrated egg, starch, and a goopy dome of hydrolyzed fat, a near-food called “American Cheese food product,” is totally satisfying. Scalding coffee chases the medications down his throat. Because he has no newspaper to distract him, he wonders how an arrogant, petulant, cheese danish-eating Nazi fuck asshole who owns something called a service station can tell a distressed traveler fuck yourself. On the American frontier or in the Middle Ages, times and places where justice was not determined by advocacy but by action, if Richie had run an inn and slit the throats of wayfarers, one glorious day a hero would have caught him at it, gutted the son-of-a-bitch, and while buggering his wife before his still living eyes would have fed Richie’s entrails to livestock.
Southbound again, Geist plans his choices.
Who’d need a GPS for this ride? What the Mississippi had been to timber and water, I-95 is to rubber, glass, steel, oil and concrete. Yes, a driver could choose the 3-digit bypass routes around cities, but those roads once through cornfields had become the central arteries of character-free suburbs, a pallid landscape of malls and car dealerships, the soul-sucking invented locations that bred teenage boys whose only vision of escape was to tote Dad’s armor piercing automatic weapons in a book bag, slaughter classmates, and then spatter their own deficient brains onto a pale blue cafeteria wall.
Geist cannot play the radio loud enough. The elevator is falling, and he's trapped within it.
You had Portland, Portsmouth, Boston, Providence, New Haven, New York City, New Jersey—which was not so much a place as the space between places, an entire state halved by petroleum cracking plants, a place whose residents located themselves in space and status by exit numbers. What was the collective psyche of people who knew themselves and each other only by where they left the road? Manhattan at your left, eyes tearing from toxic fumes, you might notice Newark, but you’d never notice Patterson, cradle to poets. You sidled past Philadelphia before Baltimore, the murder capitol of America. A mere 40 miles more and there was Washington DC, Mecca to America’s addled homeless. A few hours further south to Richmond, Virginia, capitol of Dixie, where the war to defend slavery was commemorated on Monument Avenue by alabaster statues of men who strove to overthrow the Federal government. Lee, Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, all on horse save the newest addition, Arthur Ashe. Geist would have paid to be present at the debate that approved the addition of a black tennis player to the pride of the Confederacy. No revision of history was too grotesque to make a world safe for children in America, the Theme Park. No smoking, no drinking, no fornication, fleshless, sinless, pure of heart, nothing in America allowed an adult to know he was an adult. Shiloh, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Spotsylvania, and center court at the US Open in Forest Hills, equivalent moments of high valor, all suitable subjects for any seventh grader’s book report.
I-95 plunged further south to Miami, but Geist’s mind follows the Corolla’s intended path off that line as if the Corolla was a radioactive isotope in search of heart blockage. He would depart arteries and veer west into lesser vessels, eventually lodging like a clot at Dennis’s home in the Piedmont, now called the Research Triangle. Piedmont, from the French for foothills, but Research Triangle sprang from the lips of necessary revisionism. Come now, who could live happily ever after where the oldest and richest names were associated with fortunes build upon slave labor and tobacco? Poison and blood built Winston, Salem, Raleigh, and Duke, all once cigarette brand names.
Geist was clueless as to what his boy did for a living; it involved the Internet and was very, very complicated.
East of New Haven, muttering more of what he should have said to the Nazi sadist prick Richie, Geist, preoccupied, misses his easiest chance to avoid the heart of darkness, New York City. Geist’s stunning ripostes designed to leave little bastard mute and humiliated, distract him from the Merritt Parkway and the easiest route across Westchester to the Tappan Zee Bridge where Geist planned to cross the Hudson far north of the Bronx.
Any man who did not pay total attention to details loses his way.
Geist considers correcting course. It is still an option. How much net time would be gained or lost returning to Milford? Geist, a native New Yorker, the genuine article, not some Johnny-come-lately transplant from the toolies of Ohio or Kansas or West Bumfuck asserting that claim after a few seasons stomping roaches in a Greenpoint walkup, has a healthy respect for New York traffic. So though he knows other, direct routes, he also knows they are likely to be difficult. He’d lived in New York City his first thirty years. Geist knows his way around.
Dr. Phil leans forward to ask, “So, Geist, when you chose not to turn around, and you then came to that total dead stop in Bridgeport, you knew all along you’d risked that path?”
Let’s be clear. Traffic does not slow. It stops. Stone fucking dead.
Years ago, Bridgeport actually declared bankruptcy and left widows and orphans gumming worthless paper. Bridges and roads crumbled. Trapped atop a highway bridge, Geist gazes at the gray ocean. Fog makes the sky and sea one.
At the last chance to escape westward across Westchester, they crawl past the problem—nothing less than two trucks and three cars piled up at the Cross County exit. The highway lanes are clear, but idiot rubberneckers look for blood. The Sawmill to the Henry Hudson and onto the GW is no longer an option. To cross the Hudson River, Geist will require not only the George Washington Bridge but the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Should a ruddy imp ever appear before you and offer riches, fame, love, a bigger dick, and perpetual youth in an extended life if you agree to spend ten thousand years in Satan’s anus or one afternoon on the Cross Bronx Expressway, take your time in the Devil’s asshole. Your suffering will be less.
Maybe if Geist had that morning turned left instead of right, he might have been alert instead of being trapped on his plummeting psychic elevator. Blame Hector for cutting the elevator cable by selling defective; blame Richie, the Nazi Bastard who ate cheese danish and conflated “service” with “persecution.”
“Stop it,” Geist says aloud to no one, stabbing at elevator buttons. Just stop it.
Where the road forks right from the Bruckner to the Cross Bronx and then the George Washington Bridge, a route on which traffic moves at glacial speeds, at the last second, Geist impulsively pulls the Toyota to the left. The Throgs Neck Bridge beckons to him. It went nowhere he needs to go, but at least he would move.
Geist evolves some vague plan to slice across Queens on the Van Wyck, circle Brooklyn on the Belt, and then slide under and up a ramp onto the Verrazano, the bridge known to locals as “The Guinea Plank.” After that, he’d dart across Staten Island to the swamps of New Jersey on the other side of the Outerbridge Crossing. The route is not impossible; looking at a map, a stranger might thing Geist clever.
That would be a stranger.
Idling in a queue of cars, Geist burns gasoline awaiting his turn to put a mere five dollars into the hands of a toll collector. His “Thanks” is unanswered. The toll collector’s hand is in a surgical glove. Rectal exams and money—all the same to her.
But as the Corolla descends onto the Cross Island and then the Grand Central Parkways, Geist no longer can kid himself. The Corolla is taking him to Susan’s old neighborhood.
She might still be there. It’s not impossible. Decades might pass, but Susan and her husband and her two kids were as constant as WINS, the all-news, all-the-time radio station now recapping the same stories for the fourth time.
A Puerto Rican guy saw the fire that almost killed the old lady. She’s nice, jew know. No trouble. This may be news; an old lady in New York City is not Ma Barker. Then there is the fourteen-year-old stabbed to death in Astoria, like any fourteen-year-old stabbed to death in Astoria out for a stroll at four in the morning had been destined to cure cancer and start an orphanage for blind children, had he only lived after gathering tuition for medical school by selling crack cocaine.
The traffic report that informs Geist there is no road in a twenty-five-mile radius of Manhattan not more clogged than his arteries. Geist’s index finger stabs the radio mute. He sings aloud:
There's a hold-up in the Bronx
Brooklyn's broken out in fights
There's a traffic jam in Harlem
That's backed up to Jackson Heights
There's a scout troop short a child
Krushchev's due at Idlewild…
"Car 54, where are you?"
Arguably the stupidest TV show ever. Arguably the worst theme song to the stupidest TV show ever. “Gilligan’s Island” is Puccini by fucking comparison. Geist sings the ditty three times. He bounces on his seat with enthusiasm, yodeling on Idelwild. Does anyone younger than forty know who Krushchev was? Is there another stanza? Is anyone in America, this great nation of 300 million souls, singing the same tune as he? Cluttered with whatever has been discarded, useless, and embarrassing, Geist’s mind is the cluttered attic of American culture. Geist, the poster-boy for CRS, is cursed to remember only the useless and inane.
Irene undeniably knew about Susan. He practically told her all about it. Martin could not have been two, and Dennis was to be born to a wife in the future. Lifetimes pass, but as soon as Geist gets a whiff of New York City air, the DNA of his body revitalizes with the intense memories of those six months with Susan. His cells remember. Her name was a word he might utter on his deathbed, like “Rosebud,” an opaque mystery laden with meaning.
So screw the Van Wyck and the Belt. The Toyota navigates the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, ripping past East River crossings fast as flip cards. The Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge, the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge. Geist could do this drive with his eyes closed, though the lanes seem more narrow than they did in his day. Where once he wove through traffic like Mario Andretti closing on the finish line at the Indie 500, Geist now drives like a frightened old lady who lost her spectacles.
At the Prospect Expressway, as if his car was a lost mutt returning home to sigh and die after twenty years, he finds the street. He finds the block. This is Park Slope.
Brooklyn—life is on the street. If there were a Spenser Gifts, someone would steal the lava lamp. Not an escalator or fountain in sight, just black-specked New York snow, and not much of it, either.
Look, when Geist sees a space broad enough for him to pull in nose first, how could he not do it? The space is a few doors down from where Susan lived. The time is only just past two o’clock, but Geist is not eating any lunch after that breakfast. He has time to spare.
So parked before four-story brownstones with vaulting windows, Geist rolls down his window, releases his seatback, and inhales the city. Even in leafless December, Geist smells Prospect Park—the Olmstead miracle more impressive than the more famous Central Park. Why don’t people know all he knows?
An Hispanic kid dribbles a basketball, his cap on sideways. So the kid wears his cap like an idiot. So what? Live and let live, that’s what Geist always says.
An older woman — she has to be Italian — pulls a squeaky two-wheeled wire frame cart. It’s filled with brown grocery bags. Geist sees celery. His mother had such a cart. This woman’s white wispy hair is under a black scarf tied beneath her chin. Her coat is black; her shoes are like cheese boxes. Where do these women come from? Why don’t they die out? Generations come and go, but there is an endless supply of old women who cannot be five feet tall, bent like question marks, tugging loaded two-wheeled carts up and over curbstones. When she makes her way around a puddle—can you believe it? — the basketball player yields space on the narrow sidewalk. Civility sends Geist into a nostalgic reverie.
Susan and he had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. A freezing night so long ago that the Trade Center behind was almost new, a scandal of sorts because the Port Authority could not rent all that office space, but the windows twinkled like diamonds on black velvet as they moved and their perspective changed. They were lovers by then. Cold, the night, the wind, the moon, the city, it was a conspiracy of perfection. They were lovers. They’d lain damp and sated in each other’s arms only an hour earlier. Their gloved hands clasped, hers in red wool, his in black leather. He would for a lifetime carry that moment, a treasure. What woman before or after could match her? He’d damaged the souls of three wives who could not displace his memory of another woman. They must have found the dark truth lurking in his heart. His memory transformed and grew beyond mere history; no woman could ever have been the Susan he created in his soul. Memory was false. The heart births its own truth. If women suspected what men made of them, what woman would dare lower her eyes or undo her hair? Who would draw close, caress, breathe, yield up her lips? What woman could open to a man? But Susan had. Susan had opened to him, to him, to Geist. The only certainty Geist had of women was that eventually they left. They smiled, but they forgave nothing, and then they left. Susan had smelled of Tea Rose, the skin at her throat skin tasted of copper. In passion that day she bit his lower lip until he bled. On the bridge it was not midnight, though it should have been. They walked from Manhattan, arcing over the river on the bridge’s elevated wooden walkway, as if they walked on a great black cat’s back, their steps hollow on the wood, clouds of silver breath before them, full of each other, but unwilling to end their time together, the touch of their hands enough, the wind too strong to allow them the speech they did not need, an impossible moon above, its light rippling on onyx water below, water black as Susan’s eyes, her striped long scarf tight over her lips, the ends whipping the air before them, the wind a thousand knives slicing through their pea coats, a night when he was young and filled by confidence, strength, his self-evident immortality, and endless hope. What could end? What could he not achieve? Time was infinite. They were lovers. A million such moments would be theirs, indelible, irreplaceable, endless, an army of triumphant moments that could never have become that vagrant mob of ragtag broken promises, betrayals, and self-induced lies that became his life.
Then he sees her. He’s out of the car instantly. Susan. His Susan. She looks just as she always did. He is not ten feet from the stranger when he realizes this is impossible. His mind, out of control and grwing more feeble every day, now plays him dead false. The woman’s black eyes blink quizzically at him, an oncoming stranger. Could she be Susan’s daughter? She looks like her, a figure like a Hindu carving on a temple with a knowing smile. Geist begins to open his mouth to speak, but no word escapes his lips, and a good thing, too, as speech might have been fatal. The young man beside her already clenches a fist, and who knows what weapon he carries in his coat pocket?
Geist’s propensity to live in the past has once more propelled him into the dangerous pursuit of an illusion in the present. He pulls up, slaps his forehead like a cartoon character who has stepped off a cliff and hangs in the air, an anvil in his hands, suspended over nothing.
His heart palpitations and overwhelming shame do not subside until he is well over the Outerbridge Crossing, free of New York and its alluring memories, however false, engulfed in the toxic twilight of the New Jersey Turnpike, I-95, where Geist is back on course. He’d have been on course all day, except for that prick, Richie, Hector’s two shitty tires, and Geist’s impossible series of evil choices.
Geist cannot recall the drive across Staten Island. The space in his mind is like a gap left by a lost tooth. Flames atop the smokestacks that rise from mid-Jersey oil cracking plants paint the sky pink and red. His self-indulgent delays, his absurd daydreaming, Geist is all business now, struggling south in rush hour traffic until he escapes the mob south of Cherry Hill.
Geist has been sliding down the east coast for eight hours, he has skipped lunch, and he has accomplished no more than 200 miles. He could walk at that speed. He has 400 miles more to go. He resolves to drive all night. He has no choices: fuck you, Doctor Phil.
He eats something in Maryland—or was it Delaware?—and tanks up. Why stop again? His tires seem all right, but Geist is a cautious man, so to be certain he pumps air, deliberately over-inflating to 38 pounds. No tailgating, he tells himself. Less rubber on the road.
South of Washington DC, Geist is plunged into unequivocal night. Civil War armies marched for weeks over terrain Geist covers in hours. He has never seen Fredericksburg. Where is Spotsylvania? A river of red taillights recedes endlessly before him; flowing at him is a river of white.
No one defeats physics. Rate, time, and distance do not yield to sudden acceleration, shortcuts, or compulsive glances at his watch. At 60 miles per hour, in one hour, the Toyota will cover 60 miles. At 65, it will take cover 65 miles. If he dares 80, he will accomplish 80, but at such speeds Geist cannot trust his reflexes to guide the car in any emergency, so he hopes for 70 and settles for 65. Lunatics pass him; idiots crawl before him. Time compresses and expands like the chest of a weary marathoner. Released felons summarize even forty years as near nothing. They call it doing time.
So when the Toyota’s defective tires quietly crunch up the gravel of Dennis’s driveway at the end of the cul de sac off a street like a dozen others in the development, though his ass hurts, though Geist has an annoying twitch in his left arm, though his back feels like a column of cracked glass, and though the blue digital auto clock reads 1:07, Geist can hardly remember the trip. He has been on the journey for an instant that started long, long ago.
Geist thinks of taking a room nearby and presenting himself in the morning, but, dammit, this is his boy. He’s made the effort. He’s done what needed to be done, and he’s done it heroically, overcoming a day that started bad and just got worse. Nobility and courage deserve reward.
Dennis’ house is dark. When in hell did the boy put in hedges? Geist stumbles over an exposed root beside the flagstone path, but rights himself before he falls. That would be the perfect end. He’d shatter a hip or something.
Dennis’ place is a generic McMansion, two floors, two wings, gleaming hardwood floors that shine like the lifeless marble eyes of a carousel pony. All the houses in the cul de sac have white columns and a portico. You’d think right after designing Monticello, Jefferson had handed his blueprints to some developer in the Research Triangle.
Dennis’ door chimes sound like church bells. Geist leans on the button three times. He has to pee. He slaps the brass knocker onto the red door. A yellow light within ignites.
The woman who swings open the door is backlit in her diaphanous aqua nightgown. What’s with these kids? No shame. Couldn’t she put on a house dress? She’s older than Geist thought she would be. His future daughter-in-law should be more modest. A single index finger moves the blonde bangs from her sleepy eyes, and then they open in recognition. Her dry lips part.
She turns and shouts up the winding staircase, “Bob, it’s that man again. Bob! You hear me? That man is here again!”
Pushing his head through a t-shirt, Bob in sweatpants and slippers hurries down the maple stairs. “I’ll take care of it,” he says, and touches his wife’s shoulder. “Calm down, Cheryl. I’ll take care of it. I think he woke the kids.”
“Bob, you’re calling the police this time. I don’t care who he reminds you of. Call the police. If you don’t, I will. I swear to God I will.”
Bob steps out into the night, and half shuts the paneled door behind him.
“There is no Dennis here, partner. He moved three years ago, remember? Dennis left no address. Try to remember.”
“But where is Dennis?”
As Bob tries to slide an arm around Geist’s shoulders, Geist twists away like a football runner. All right, Yes. The truth is that he sometimes becomes confused, but why strong arm him? Geist is bewildered. This Bob should know where his Dennis is. Geist’s stomach knots and he feels himself leak urine. Acid rises in his gullet. If a man were to lose his mind, how would he know it? Dr. Phil sits back in judgment. Oh, come on, Geist, you knew. You knew all the time. You had to have known. Come on, Geist, what could you have been you thinking?
Geist doesn’t want to wet himself; he fights nausea. He shakes. He asks again, this time with bewildered hope, his voice cracking, “But, please, just tell me. Where is my Dennis?”
From inside, Cheryl shouts, “I’m calling! Bob, tell him I am calling!” A small child cries. Dennis is not yet married and so he could not have children. All right. But where is his Dennis?
Bob stands squarely in the door. Geist tries to look past him. The house appears comfortable. “Look, partner, you need help. Let me help you get help. But you have to stop showing up here whenever you feel like it. It scares the kids. Tell me this time, okay? Where do you live? Where are you from? Can I help you get back?”
Get back? Geist would like nothing better than to get back. What’s wrong with this guy? There is no getting back. People should know that. “What happened to Dennis?”
“I don’t know any Dennis.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Geist mutters.
Bob sighs, steps back, and the red door quietly clicks shut. Geist’s bladder voids. The warm mess quickly grows cold. He hears Cheryl, but can make out no words. The house’s windows darken to black. The baby cries for a while, but then is still.
Beneath the cloudless crystal canopy of a winter sky, Geist lifts his chin high. The stars blur when his eyes fill. He points a single finger heavenward. There’s Orion’s belt, the Hunter, red Betelgeuse glowering nearby. Geist is a man who knows things, what stars shine where, the stories of the constellations, the figures of the zodiac in eternal pursuit, and how each cold pin of light wheeling about Polaris is in truth a nuclear furnace.
“Go fuck yourself,” he repeats.
Copyright © 2009 by Perry Glasser.