When the Devil Wants You
by Walter Rimler
Ed’s Diner was a hole-in-the wall on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Hardly anyone in the neighborhood remembered Ed, who had been dead for eighteen years. They knew Joe Dale, a former Marine Corps PFC who had bought the place from Ed and replaced him but hadn't changed the establishment’s name because there was another Joe's diner a few blocks up the street.
Joe was a man of medium height and solid build who continued at age forty-two to shave his reddish-brown hair down to stubble, military style. His severe no-nonsense demeanor had been a fixture at the restaurant for so long that only a few old-timers knew he could be cheerful. He had been that way when he'd worked the place with his wife, Clara, and when their son, Joe, Jr.—Joey—who was too young for kindergarten, had had the run of it, his rambunctious ways charming some customers and driving others away. Joey never made it to school. He had died at age five from a bacterial illness that began with flu-like symptoms and ended with fatal damage to his heart.
After the boy’s death, color disappeared from his parents’ lives. Once very happy with each other, they now lived together monotonously, ignoring one another, more like roommates than man and wife. Clara was a tall and elegant woman who in her youth had worn her silvery blonde hair long but now cut it boyishly short. Her throat, once a showcase for pearls, lay hidden now behind high-topped shirts and turtleneck sweaters. She had never directed her anger about the tragedy toward Joe—there was no blame, after all—and he had never aimed his at her. But the absence of blame could not stave off an absence of warmth.
Not long after the boy's death, Clara quit helping Joe at the diner and began working out of their house as a freelance tax consultant and bookkeeper. Their two-bedroom Richmond District bungalow was on Nineteenth Avenue near Cabrillo, very close to the restaurant. Thus, they would spend their days only a few blocks apart but they rarely saw each other in the daytime (Joe worked six days a week) and hardly exchanged more than a few perfunctory words at night.
At work, in Clara's stead, Joe had hired a man named Quinn, who had been a long-time customer. Quinn was a garrulous, slightly built fellow, nearly a generation older than Joe. He was a retired Navy pilot from the Vietnam era, so they had military service in common. But Joe did as little socializing with him as with his customers. He was about work, not talk. Quinn put in a regular eight to five shift but Joe was there from six in the morning until seven at night. Sometimes he wouldn't get home until after eight. During the day he would rarely eat anything. Instead, he would smoke cigarettes and sip beer. At night while watching television he'd eat a BLT—having fixed it for himself at the diner.
Recently, there had arisen an entirely new reason for the hardened look on Joe’s face. One morning, he became sick at work. It began with a chill that rolled up his spine. Then came fever and nausea. He felt so bad that he told Quinn he was going home and asked him to take over and, if necessary, stay late and close up. As nothing like this had happened before, he was careful to make it clear he would pay Quinn time and a half for the extra hours. Quinn told him not to worry, to just go home and take care of himself. Grateful, Joe handed him the keys and walked out in a haze of fever.
He was reaching for his front doorknob when he heard impassioned sounds inside the house. He turned the knob but the door was bolted. When he called “Clara” the sounds stopped. A few long moments later scurrying began inside. Joe was feeling so ill by this time that he felt his knees giving way, and he had to grab the rail to steady himself. This was what he was doing when the door swung open and out came the man: a young fellow in his twenties, very tall, with golden blond hair worn long, down to his collar. He had a bemused look as he nimbly sidestepped Joe and bounded down the stairs, his hands in his pockets. A few loping strides brought him across the street where he ducked into his sports car—a red Corvette —and sped away. For a time, Joe remained where he was, expecting Clara to come out but when she didn’t he decided not to go inside. Rather, he went back to the restaurant and managed to get through the rest of the day.
For more than a week he and Clara said nothing to each other about this incident. At night he would sit in front of the living room television if she were in the bedroom or watch the bedroom television if she were in the living room. They still slept in the same bed, neither willing to move to the living room sofa. The second bedroom was off limits, as it had been Joey’s. But there was a new and unspoken rule that whoever got into bed first would feign sleep until the other got in and turned off the light.
When Joe finally raised the subject of her infidelity Clara’s response was matter of fact and unembarrassed. The boyfriend, Nicholas (she wouldn't give his last name), was a trade analyst for a downtown brokerage house (she wouldn't say which one). He had been farming work out to her for a month or two before things started up between them. She'd gone out with him twice, for drinks. Maybe three times. They’d had sex just that one time. Their affair—if you could call it that—was over; there was no longer even a business relationship. She had had no extra-marital affairs prior to this one. There would be none in the future. Joe was pretty sure this wasn't the whole story but it was bad enough. Thus, the especially grim expression on his face as he went through the next days.
About a month after Joe discovered Clara's infidelity, a new customer began coming to his café for lunch. She was a slim young woman in her mid to late twenties. She wore a stylish work outfit—gray slacks, and a dark gray blazer over a green blouse. Her auburn hair was threaded with strands of red and she wore it straight back, tied in a pony tail. She took a seat at one of the tables in the rear and as she waited to be served a self-conscious smile played at the corners of her mouth. When Joe brought her a menu she smiled at him, then leaned forward to peruse it, revealing more cleavage than one would expect from such a willowy frame. When he was back at the grill Joe looked at her and she met his gaze, then lowered her eyes, which were jade green. He took her order (soup of the day—potato leek—and a small salad) and, as she ate, she worked on some papers using a red Sharpie. A couple of times she looked up, saw him watching her, and smiled back.
The next day she arrived at the same hour and took the same table. Again she ordered the soup of the day—corn chowder--and again she worked on papers. This time he served her not the standard saltines with frozen pats of butter but, rather, two thick slices of warm French bread and a dish of butter curls. For this she smiled at him and would not look away until he'd responded, although the best he could muster was a friendly nod.
When she showed up the next day he resolved to find out who she was, although he was uncomfortable at the prospect of having such a conversation in front of Quinn and others he knew. Moreover, he couldn't think of what to say.
She took charge. “So, Joe Dale, “ she said when he came to take her order, “when do you start saying hello?”
“How do you know my name?” he asked.
“Someone told me.”
“Who?” He figured it had to be a business thing. Maybe she wanted to buy the place. Or she was an agent with a client who wanted to buy it. Or she was a lawyer and someone wanted to sue him—probably Clara suing for divorce. “Before you answer that,” he said, “let me ask you something else.”
“Okay,” she said, leaning forward and, by doing so, allowing a sweetheart neckline to reveal all of her white cotton bra.
“Can we find some other place to talk?”
“Sure. Where do you want to go?”
“Any place but here,” he said. He knew that Quinn and some of the regulars were listening to every word.
“Wherever you like. Why don't you give me a call, and we'll set a time and place.” With her Sharpie she wrote her name and phone number on a napkin.
“May Moon,” he read the name off the napkin.
“Nice to meet you, Joe,” she said.
He phoned the next day expecting to learn the name of her workplace by the way the phone was answered. But she answered with a tired hello. She was surrounded by background noises; apparently, she was in some busy public place. The moment he spoke, however, she perked up. “Joe!” she exclaimed. He asked her where she wanted to meet. She said she'd like him to come to her place and asked if he was free that evening at eight. He said he was. She gave him her address, and so it was arranged.
As the day slowly passed, he kept a lid on his hopes by reminding himself that she probably worked out of her home and would want to get down to business, whatever it was. Which was fine with him. She could talk all she wanted about whatever deal she had in mind. The main thing was that a connection had been established. He would take it from there. It had been a long time since he'd felt this good about himself.
He told Quinn he'd be leaving early, and the latter accepted the news with good cheer. He liked the extra money but, even better, he liked being in charge.
When Joe got home Clara was at her laptop at the dining room table. They exchanged desultory hellos. He showered, shaved, and found some aftershave that had been gathering dust in a cabinet. There was a clean white shirt and a pair of tan slacks in his dresser. He owned one good pair of shoes—black wing tips.
The drive was a couple of miles east to Webster Street in Pacific Heights. Parking spaces were hard to come by in that fashionable neighborhood and he drove around and around before finding a spot several blocks past the address. He lit a cigarette to calm his nerves, then got out of the car and backtracked by foot, going past shops, restaurants and bars along Fillmore Street. Although spring was on the way, it was not yet daylight savings time, so dusk had arrived, and the people he saw in the restaurants and shops were beginning their evening. He was startled by everyone's youth and evident happiness; it stunned him to realize how long it had been since he’d been out at night observing—never mind participating in—the pleasures of a social life. Stepping into one noisy restaurant—he was thinking about where he might bring May to dinner—he was met with a roar of mingled, animated conversations. This was completely different from his own restaurant with its long sepulchral silences. The world of Pacific Heights had fancy food and fine wine and prospects for headier delights as the night wore on. That it wasn't—and probably never would be—his world filled him with regret. Living and toiling for so many years in the working class Richmond District, he'd forgotten about all the people who were more alive than he was.
The address May had given him was of a small Victorian building bordered on either side by high-rise medical offices. A brass plaque on its door read: Timothy Aitch, M.D. So, he realized, she hadn't given him her home address but, instead, the address of a doctor's office. Perhaps she worked for him. Maybe she worked there nights and was about to leave now and wanted him to accompany her home. No, he chided himself. It's going to be all business. But what business?
He dropped his cigarette and put it out with the heel of a shoe. Then he walked up a short flight of stone steps, knocked on a heavy oak door, and was buzzed in to a small reception area. There were six straight-backed chairs, three against one wall, three against another. Only one was occupied—by an elderly woman who sat stiffly, staring into space. Joe took a seat across from her but wasn't there long. The receptionist slid her frosted glass window open and beckoned him with a wiggling finger She was young—probably just out of high school—and pretty, except for her jaw, which was overly prominent and made all the more so by the enthusiastic way she was chewing gum. “You're Joe Dale?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Go on in. Dr. Aitch is waiting for you.”
He entered a hallway. There were two examining rooms, one on either side. At the end was a closed and windowless door which was presently opened by a middle-aged man. He had a big pock-marked face, a roman nose and marcelled, statue-gray hair. He wore a white lab coat over a sports jacket. Although not especially tall or heavy, he seemed thick and concentrated; he emanated solidity. In fact, after he'd motioned for Joe to come forward and as Joe approached him, he gave off a sense of density that affected Joe physically, particularly in the teeth of his lower jaw.
“How are you, Joe?” said the doctor, extending his hand.
”I'm fine,” Joe nodded, taking it.
The doctor stared at him with a look of anticipation “I'm Doctor Aitch,” he said, welcoming Joe into the room with a fond pat on the back.
His office was a small drawing room. It had no table or desk, only two leather armchairs that faced each other flanking a fireplace whose cedar logs popped and crackled. Against the opposite wall a mahogany credenza bore crystal stemware and decanters. Another wall had a recessed bookcase whose volumes had gilt-lettered spines.
“You’re wondering where May is,” said the doctor, closing the door behind them.
“Yes I am.”
“Sit down, Joe. Relax.”
Joe lowered himself into one armchair, the doctor into the other.
“Now, let me say before anything else,” said the latter, “that I am pleased, so very pleased to meet you.”
“What's the point of all this?” asked Joe, his irritation just barely under control. He told himself: it's a scam—she was bird-dogging me for this guy. “What kind of doctor are you?” he asked.
“I am a doctor of neurology and psychiatry. Ah, I see you looking at my diplomas. Yes, they are all superb schools and I am proud of my association with them. Of course, as an alumnus, I am subject to their endless importuning. But isn't that to be expected? Now, Joe, I can plainly see that you are somewhat agitated—justifiably—about having cut in line past the woman in the waiting room. I know a thing or two about you and understand that it's in your character to worry about such things—being, as you are, the honorable type. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that the lady's gone deaf and needs to be told it's because of a hellish little brain tumor that will shortly take her life. A few more minutes of her being unaware of that fact and of my not having to tell her will be a kindness, at least to her. Now, let me fix you a drink. What would you prefer? I have a full bar and am quite capable of concocting anything you’d like.”
“You’re a doctor and a bartender?” asked Joe.
“And why not?” said the doctor. “Now, I know you to be a beer drinker. But I am partial to good Scotch. Care to join me?”
“Sure,” said Joe.
“Straight? Ice? Maybe ice and some soda?”
The doctor filled two shot glasses and handed one to Joe.
“I’m assuming,” said Joe, taking the glass, “that the price of the drink will be included in your bill. Which the young lady out there is busy making out. Not that there’s a chance I’ll pay it.”
“Oh, no. Breanne wouldn’t know how to make out your bill.”
“Let me see if I understand this,” said Joe. “May's your agent. She scouts clients for you. She happens on my little restaurant, sees my sad sack face and thinks, this guy is right up the doctor’s alley. Soon she’ll be getting her commission. Or maybe she’s already gotten it?”
“No, no. It all began with me. I sent her to you. Let me explain, Joe. And I'll try to get to the point quickly, although I need to begin by asking what might sound like a very odd question. All I ask is that you reserve judgment until you've heard me out. Now, Joe, what I want to know is if you miss the old days. I’m talking about when you were first married. Do you miss how it was then?”
“Think back a ways. Remember how amazed you and Clara were to have happened on one another. Remember the bar at Fox Plaza. And you listened as this charming young lady a couple of chairs away told every man who sidled up to her, ‘I’m waiting for someone.’ And you too were waiting for someone. And you both got stood up. And when you realized this—the both of you—you laughed together. There was always a lot of laughter, wasn’t there, Joe? You rescued her from a demeaning office job—she was cooking the books for a crooked shipping outfit, I believe—and married her and you two bought a restaurant and had the boy. Do you miss the joy of those days? Hold on. Relax. Please. I didn’t spy to get this information. Hear me out. Don’t you miss those days, Joe? When you couldn’t take your eyes off one another? When it was a pleasure to be in her company—even when you and she were behind the counter next to a hot grill? And to have the boy with you. So energetic, so smart, so alive!”
“What’s your game, Doctor?”
“Hear me out. Just a moment more. What if I were to tell you that those days are not necessarily over. That love can return. That the boy can be back. And I’m not talking about a new lover and another child. I’m talking about what once was and could be again—reinstated and ready to move forward toward a different outcome. If I told you such things what would you say?”
“I don’t know how you know all this but you are obviously one screwy son of a bitch—“
“It’s perfectly natural to feel as you do. But, please, answer my question. It’s the central question. What if you could have it back? To be in your home with Clara and Joey and have it like it was. Remember how Clara used to be? The droll, sharp wit? The slinky way she held you tight? Remember the boy leaping onto—into—your bed Sunday mornings saying, ‘Breakfast now! Breakfast now!’ Remember those days? The after-breakfast walks on Sundays in Golden Gate Park? The playground at Tenth Avenue? The double feature at the Balboa Theater? Stocking up on donuts from the Sugar Bowl before buying your movie tickets and Clara being so careful to hide the goodies in her big canvas purse. Remember that purse, the one with the wooden handles and the vertical stripes: green, red, and blue?”
“You’re a mind reader?”
“Not one of my talents. So, Joe, tell me. If you could have those days back, would you take them? Even if they were available only under certain conditions? Because if you want them back I am offering them to you. Ah, what an expression on your face! That’s why I enjoy my work so much. Okay, so don’t answer my question. I know the answer already. You would do anything—anything—to have that time back. Who wouldn’t?”
“I think you ought to get yourself a psychiatrist. And a neurologist.”
“Not very entertaining, Joe. Some can crack wise, other's can't. But you have your own qualities. In fact, you're quite an estimable man, Joe—one of the righteous ones. Thirty-six who walk the earth without knowing it’s because of them that billions of their compadres are shown forbearance. Each a tough nut to crack. You and thirty-five others, Joe. Six sixes. One six-six-six and another six-six-six.”
“The best six-six-six, of course, is mine, Joe. The other, unfortunately, is not. It is eighteen. It is life. And it is not a particular friend of mine. Did you know he could be alive again, Joe? It would be as if it hadn’t happened. It—the sickness—mild at first and then the failed heart—oh, Joe, this is no time to leave. Certainly I’ve at least whetted your curiosity. Be easy. When confronted with me people often blanch. It’s perfectly acceptable to go white, to feel faint—although no Marine is ever an ex-Marine, isn’t that true, Joe? Drink up, by the way. There’s plenty more.”
Joe had gotten to his feet and was walking unsteadily to the door.
“So, you're apparently ready to leave me without learning how to reclaim the life of your son. Well, it’s entirely up to you. You’re free to go. Who would blame you for ducking my presence? Well, maybe, for one, your son. Maybe he wants his life back.”
“My understanding,” Joe said, “is that you are trying to drive me around the bend. But why? Is it to have me committed? Do you get a fee for doing that? Do they need people to experiment on?”
“I told you what I am offering.” Dr. Aitch went to the credenza, opened a drawer and pulled out a gun. “Recognize this? I’m sure you do. A Browning nine millimeter automatic. You have one of your own, I believe. It was your service weapon, kept now in the closet of your boy's room—in the trunk, at the bottom.”
“If you're going to shoot me—if that’s what this is all about—go ahead. So, this is how I get to see my boy again. Well, that’s just fine. Go ahead.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work quite that way. Let me show you something else. Watch now.” The doctor stepped past Joe, opened the door, and called down the hall to his receptionist, asking her to please come to his office. She entered, the gum still in her mouth but hidden under her tongue. “Come in, come in, dear Breanne,” he said. “All the way in. Yes, that’s it. Inside the office. Now close the door behind you, please.”
“What’s with the gun?” she asked.
The doctor raised his pistol and shot her once in the chest. Before Breanne hit the floor, Joe was rushing Aitch.
“Wait, wait, wait my friend. Be calm and wait. Look at her.”
Joe would not look at anything except the gun, which he grabbed from the doctor. He was trying to get Aitch into a choke hold when the room filled with an eye-achingly bright light.
“Look at her!” the doctor ordered.
On the floor Breanne’s cakedbody was glowing. Then the glow resolved into a form—a carapace of gold that covered her as if she had been fitted for it. It looked like a gilded sarcophagus.
“Let go of me, Joe.”
Joe held tight.
“Believe me, I don’t have to ask.”
Staring at the Breanne's regal casing, Joe did as he was told.
“Now, watch,” said the doctor. “Watch her. Watch.”
The glow dimmed, then disappeared. The girl arose and stood as she had been standing a moment earlier.
“Forgive me, Breanne,” the doctor said gently. “I didn’t mean to summon you. I found what I was looking for.”
“No problem,” she said and walked out of the room. From the hallway they could hear her snapping her gum.
The doctor smiled at Joe. “Eighteen of them, Joe. I am asking you to make eighteen kills. And I promise that after you've polished off eighteen people and witnessed the shining of eighteen souls, at that moment each will return just as Breanne has returned and each, like Breanne, will resume the life he or she was living before being dispatched. Just remember: none will live again until you have killed all eighteen. And none will live again until you—you, Joe—have witnessed the glow of those eighteen souls. As soon as these two conditions have been met, your eighteen victims will return to the lives they were living before you did them in. And that's the moment when you will have your son and wife back. And it will be just as it was before the boy left you. Choose your victims. Who, when, where, how—all up to you. You need only keep two things in mind: make each of the eighteen kills yourself and watch each soul glow. So simple!”
The next morning Joe's eyes were fixed on the clock above the diner's doorway. She came in at noon as before but this time her clothing was less alluring: a black pants suit. She walked toward her table, her eyes on Joe, and showed no surprise when he stepped in front of her and blocked her way. “We need to go somewhere else to talk,” he told her. He took her arm, somewhat roughly, and she did not protest as he led her out of the restaurant. ”Mind the store, would you?” he said to Quinn.
They crossed the street and went into a bar called Vin’s Vineyard. It had once been a restaurant but that part of the business was now vestigial. The bar was long and S-shaped, decorated with ephemera: post cards, sports hero bobble-heads and Hawaiian/Tikki paraphernalia. Way in the back were a few tables with checkerboard oil cloths. That was where he took May. They sat at the furthermost table, which was sandwiched between an emergency exit and a video game console that was not only unused but unplugged. The only other customers at the moment were a couple of middle-aged men who sat a stool apart at the forward end of the bar.
Vin was a one-time football prospect who, like Joe, was now in his forties and barely making ends meet. He and Joe had known each other a long time—so long that Vin had suffered with Joe and Clara upon Joey's demise. Although he and Joe weren't social friends, they related to one another as shopkeepers and as men saying goodbye to their youth--and there had been moments when each had taken the other into his confidence. For instance, Vin was the only one Joe had ever talked to about his war experiences.
“Busman’s holiday, Joe?” Vin asked as he approached Joe and May at their table.
“Just checking out the competition,” replied Joe.
“Feel free,” said Vin who was checking out May and appeared to be waiting for an introduction, although Joe failed to oblige.
“So, what can I get for you, young lady?” he asked May.
Wagging a hand distractedly from side to side, as if shooing a fly, she said, “Whatever Joe has I'll have that too.”
“Then you'll be having a Coors on draught,” said Vin.
“Fine,” she said, and when Vin was gone she added, “Not that I can drink it. I'd get fired if I went back to work with beer on my breath.”
“What, exactly, do you do, May?”
“At Bufano Elementary. I don't have a permanent assignment, at least not yet. I'm a substitute—a floater.”
“I see. Not much money in that is there?”
“So you moonlight, drumming up customers for your doctor friend?”
“Then you did see him! I was thinking you didn't go in once you saw it was a doctor's office. But if you saw him why are you angry?”
“I saw him, alright. And you know why I'm angry.”
“No I don't.”
“What do you think he said to me?”
“He said he was going to do something wonderful for you.”
“You two are playing a game with me but I don't know what it is.”
“No,” she said. “That's not true.”
“You're in this with him. You're working with him. Just tell me what it's all about.”
“He told me to get you to go see him. He said if you did, he'd give you something you want like he's going to give me something I want.”
“Is it part of the game, you telling me this?”
“Didn't he explain it to you? He must have.”
“I want you to explain it to me.”
“Didn't he say he'd bring someone back for you? Someone you lost?”
At that moment Vin arrived with the beers. Joe and May glared wordlessly at each other until he stepped discretely away and returned to the bar.
“Who's he going to bring back for you?” asked Joe. Although his voice still had a harsh edge he was beginning to wonder if, rather than being Aitch's shill, she was another of his intended victims.
“Somebody I loved.”
“Somebody who died. My brother.”
Joe sighed. “I think I’m getting the picture here. And you’re not in on this scam?”
“It’s not a scam.”
“So, maybe he sees you as another sucker like me. Well, let me tell you exactly what the doctor offered me and you tell me what to make of it. With me it’s my son, who has been dead for thirteen years—as a matter of fact, he was going to go to kindergarten at Bufano—so the doctor tells me he's going to erase all those years from my life. And he put on a hell of a magic show to prove he can do it. Tremendous special effects, courtesy of whatever drug he put in my drink. He made me hallucinate. You too?”
Her brow furrowed, her green eyes narrowed and her expression became resolute. “It wasn't a hallucination. I saw Jeff so clearly. And it wasn't just how he looked but the way he looked at me. He had things to say to me, explain to me. He can be back. And he won’t have killed himself.”
“Tell me if you’re in on this con. Tell me the truth.”
“It’s not a con.”
“It is a con, May. The question is, are you part of it?”
“He told me things no one else could know.”
“I don’t know how he finds these things out. He knows plenty about me too. But it’s a swindle. He uses drugs. He wants something from us. Maybe it’s money. Has he taken money from you?”
“No,” she said.
“Given money to you?”
“What did he tell you about me?”
“He told me to go see you. And do whatever it took to get you to go see him. And if you went to him and did what he told you to do then Jeff would be back.”
“He told me to kill people.”
“You heard me.”
“Any people. So long as I killed exactly eighteen of them.”
“You’re making this up.”
“Eighteen people. Not one more, not one less. Eighteen. I’m sure he’s got a scheme, whatever it is.”
“No, Joe. Whoever he is, he's for real. I believe it. I know it.”
“It's a magic act, May. How'd you happen to find this guy?”
“My principal told me about him. When I got this assignment she kept watching me and she could see I was miserable. I came to San Francisco because in Portland we were all so depressed. I couldn’t work. But it just kept getting worse once I got down here.”
“Well, Aitch isn't the answer. He's a phony.”
As Joe said this he was looking at the soft, fragile, lovely slope of her shoulders.
“Joe, listen to me. If you want to say it's a magic act go ahead. But magic doesn't have to be phony. The whole world's a magic act if you think about it.”
“Sure. So let's call what Aitch does show business. And it was a hell of a show. I watched him kill someone right in front of me and then bring her back to life again. Then he tells me that after I kill a bunch of people they'll come back to life too. He'll transport them back to the moment before they died. And I'll go back to before Joey died. Neat trick, huh? Do you believe that? Because that's the kind of magic we're talking about. Impossible magic. I have no idea why he's doing this or what's in it for him. All I know is he's crazy. Telling me to go on a shooting spree—what do I—what do you—make of that? Do you call that sane? Is that the sort of guy you want to follow? If we follow him we follow him off a cliff. But—please don't look away, just listen to me—if he fooled you it tells me you aren’t part of his act. And I'm glad because it means that maybe you and I--”
“He's real, Joe.”
“No. And I'll prove it to you.”
“Deep down you know he's real. And you have to tell yourself—like I keep telling myself—that if you do what he wants you'll get what you want.”
“I'll prove he isn't for real. And when I do, then you and I will take things from there.”
He returned to his cafe and went directly to the kitchen where he opened the refrigerator and got a beer. He was shaky as he popped the tab and put the can to his lips. This new situation—what to make of it? As much as he'd wanted out of the old one, at least Clara hadn't sicced the bogeyman on him. As for May, she probably wasn't a part of Aitch's act—although he felt no less unsettled for having reached that conclusion. How was he going to defrock that crazy psychiatrist? Why even try? Stay away from him, he told himself. And stay away from her too. She's not interested in me. She's looking for a way to get her brother out of the grave. She's crazy too.
In the midst of these thoughts, he looked up and saw Quinn coming toward him.
“Look, Joe,” Quinn said, leaning—somewhat proprietarily now—against the sink, “I know this is butting into your personal business so tell me to shut up any time you want.”
“Alright,” said Joe. He knew somehow what Quinn was going to tell him. And he braced himself.
“How can I put this? Let’s just say if you’re feeling any guilt about that young woman—don’t.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because your wife is seeing someone too.”
“Should I shut up?”
“No. Go ahead.”
“I've seen them and others have too. Look, I don’t like talking about this. But it pisses me off when someone—particularly someone I like—gets treated this way. If something’s going on between you and that girl—May’s her name, right?—“
“—then amen. And if you’re having fun—a-men. That’s all I’ve got to say. Go on and kick me in the butt if I’m out of line.”
“It’s okay,” said Joe. “I'm glad you told me.”
When he got home that night, Clara wasn't around. He was unaccustomed to coming home to a dark, empty house. He turned on the living room floor lamp, whose low-watt bulb only made the place seem dingier. Then he turned on the TV, lit a cigarette, and had his beer and BLT while sitting on the sofa watching a basketball game. He drank the beer greedily—his mouth had remained relentlessly dry since his visit to Dr. Aitch, and he was wondering if this was a result of whatever chemical the doctor had put into his drink. Unable to focus on the game, he began staring at every dark corner in the room. He studied each shadow and more than once turned to see what was behind him. Then, feeling foolish, he changed from a sitting to a supine position, where he could look at nothing except the ceiling. It was a cottage cheese-style ceiling—a mode in vogue when the place had last been remodeled, forty years earlier. Like everything in his life, it was ugly—everything, except, now, for May. Trip Aitch up, he told himself, or else she'll do whatever he tells her. Unmask him so she can get real. It won't make her happy—not at first—but it'll ground her. She's been through what I've been through and has the same ache. Show Aitch for who he is and she'll know that going forward's the only way, and that she needs something new. And so do I. And I want her.
When Clara finally came home, he ignored her and she didn't say a word to him. As he lay motionless on the sofa, she went into the kitchen, then the bathroom, then the bedroom and closed that door behind her. He assumed she'd been with her boyfriend—probably that young blond guy--and was surprised at how little he cared.
He slept on the sofa. Early in the morning, just before dawn, he got up, went into his son’s room, opened the closet door and knelt down. On the hardwood floor was a brass bound trunk bought when Clara had been expecting and used for five years as a repository for everything the baby outgrew: drawings, clothes, books, cassettes, toys. The Browning was beneath all those items, just as the doctor had said. Joe had put it there thinking that it too was a part of his life that was over—or so he'd thought. He put the gun into the inside pocket of his parka, then drove to the restaurant and worked for two hours until Quinn arrived. Quinn was pleased when Joe asked if he would take over for the rest of the day, and Joe, in gratitude, promised to pay him double time. Then he returned to his car and drove to Webster Street.
Two patients were in the waiting room. One was an emaciated man who sat quietly, stoically staring into space. The other was a young woman who held a magazine in her hands but looked past it as she flipped its pages. Joe went to the receptionist's window and Breanne told him that the doctor's schedule was full that day.
“Just let him know I'm here,” Joe said.
A few minutes later the doctor was standing in his office doorway, his lips parted in anticipation as he watched Joe approach. “Come in, my friend,” he said and he clasped Joe's shoulder and gave it a squeeze as Joe stepped past him into the room.
“Shouldn't I get a chill when you touch me?” Joe asked as the doctor entered after him and closed the door.
“I'm getting to like your sense of humor,” said Dr. Aitch, looking fondly at Joe. “Now, sit and be comfortable. Let me offer you a—“
“Drink? Sure. There’s a lab at the med center up the street and wouldn’t they love to do a chemical analysis of your liquor cabinet? By the way, is Breanne going to come in and do one of her pratfalls?”
“I don’t believe so. Please don’t take this the wrong way but you are not all that witty and I am seeing you ahead of two paying clients—albeit freakish ones—so come sit down and tell me what’s on your mind. And relax! The chair isn’t booby-trapped.”
“Do you mind if I open a window first? It’s so stuffy in here. And do you really need a fire going?”
“Please—open any window you want. Open them all. And sometimes a fire is just a fire.”
Joe opened the windows, then took a seat but not in the chair he had used last time.
“So, tell me,” said the doctor, lowering himself into the other chair. “Have you made your big decision?”
“I’m almost there. Just one or two loose ends. I suppose you know there’s only one way you can prove you’re on the level.”
“And what might that be?”
“It would involve showing me some real magic.”
“And how would I do that?”
“You might, say, take your own life. And not with your stage gun. Help yourself to mine. I have it here with me. You’ll be fine. You’ll take a trip to the other side, turn to gold, then come on back. That’s the way it works, right? But before you do, just in case you can’t make a round trip, would you mind telling me now how you knew all that stuff about me? Because that has me stumped. For instance, how did you know this gun was in my son’s trunk?”
“The way I know things ought to be self-evident to you by now. If not, it soon will be. As for shooting myself, I’m afraid it just wouldn’t work. I cannot be offed—something you might have figured out for yourself had you cared to, although I suppose you’ve had other things to dwell on—more engrossing things, such as your wife’s situation. By the way, and speaking of my knowing things, I imagine you’ll appreciate this tidbit. She has found an ecstatic solution to what has been, I am afraid to say, a longstanding bout of extreme horniness.”
Joe produced the gun. “Well, Doc, what if I just shoot you? And, to tell you the truth, I’m in the mood.”
“Think, boy. Your shooting me wouldn’t work any better than my shooting myself.
“You know, Doctor, it’s still stuffy in here. What do you say we get a breath of fresh air? How about taking a walk with me?”
“Whatever you say, Joseph.” The doctor stood up, took off his lab coat, and lifted his sports jacket from a valet stand.
It wasn't until they were outside that Joe noticed the man’s true size. He was not tall or fat, but massively packed, as if his body were made of something richer, something that produced extra gravity. Joe could feel—he didn't think he was imagining it—that weight acting on him like a tidal force.
They went uphill, past the medical center, neither saying a word. Joe had planned this foray the night before, doubting the doctor would agree to it. But not only did Aitch agree, he went without questioning where they were headed or what Joe had in mind.
From Webster Street they turned onto Sacramento Street, then walked up a block to the shops on Fillmore. Joe remembered from his evening walk along this stretch that a bookstore had a bench out front. That is where he went. They sat on the bench. Neither had said a word since leaving the doctor’s office but now Joe turned to him and asked, “Why me?”
“I've already answered that, Joe. You're one of the righteous thirty-six.”
“Oh, right. I forgot.”
“The real question at hand is what you would have me do, now that you've brought me here?”
“Well, Doctor,” Joe replied, “I'm going to pick someone out—so I know the person isn't working for you—and then hand you my gun and let you take aim. Then we’ll sit back and watch for a burst of gold. How’s that for a plan?”
“Ah, you want a second demo. Breanne wasn't enough.”
“Fine,” said the doctor.
“Are you calling my bluff? The moment I take out the gun out you’ll tell everyone I’m robbing you and off I go to jail.”
“I assure you I will do exactly as you say.”
“You are completely nuts.”
“It’s a bluff. Or a psychology experiment. I bet that’s what’s going on here.”
“There's only one way to find out.” The doctor smiled.
“Alright,” said Joe. At this point, he hesitated. He asked himself, am I really going to give a madman a loaded gun and tell him to start shooting on a busy street? Whose delusion is this, mine or his? And yet, why is this guy—with all his education and his medical practice—willing to ruin himself for the sake of some game?
His heart racing, Joe took the gun from his jacket pocket and handed it over. Whatever else this guy is, he told himself, he is one hell of a poker player.
“Thank you,” said the doctor, accepting it. “And now, if you would pick out the subject.”
A man was crossing the street, coming toward them, an elegant fellow in a charcoal gray business suit.
“Him,” said Joe.
“I’m not much of a shot. Let’s wait for him to get a bit closer,” said Aitch.
After the report of the gun, some passersby dropped to the ground. Others fled. A few remembered their cell phones and made emergency calls and took photos and videos of the dead man sprawled on the pavement. Whether they could see the man traversing the same stages Breanne had gone through, from the golden carapace to a radiance so bright it made his eyes throb, Joe did not know. But he saw it. And he watched as the dead man reconstituted himself and the street scene reverted to its ordinary flow of pedestrians and traffic.
Aitch returned the gun to Joe, who quickly hid it in his pocket. Trembling, he listened as the doctor said:
“Eighteen of them. Not one more, not one less. Eighteen is what I’m after. And they must all be dispatched by you and no one else. Now listen carefully: each must radiate gold before your eyes, and only after the last of them has shown you his burnished soul will they all be restored to life. I have taken the liberty of reuniting this poor fellow’s body and soul, just as I did for Breanne. But until you accomplish eighteen dead and eighteen aglow none of your victims will be allowed to come back. Then, for each of them, the clock will revisit the happy moment before you did him or her in. And for you, it will be reset back to the time before your boy took sick. You see, time is quite a malleable thing. Please take as long as you wish to complete the task, although it would be foolish to give the police time to catch you before the job is done. As to how to do them in, feel free to choose the method or methods you like. By all means, experiment. Have some fun. For my part I promise that immediately after you have polished off the last of them and seen that soul radiate its light, you will be watching your son grow to manhood. And he will be the magnificent fellow he was always meant to be.”
Joe remained on the bench as Aitch walked away. He was stunned. It was all he could do to keep from calling out, “Alright, you fat bastard, I believe in you!” Anyway, he thought, it's never been hard to believe in you considering all that goes on. And we've met before, haven't we, except that then you didn't bother to show your stupid pock-marked face. So why face-to-face now? You want a deal? Well, how about this one: get your claws out of her and you and I can settle up at the end. That's the only deal.”
The doctor was just then disappearing from view as he crossed Fillmore, heading back to Webster Street—back to the office. But at that moment he turned, looked at Joe and smiled.
Joe got to his feet. He felt not only lightheaded but light, as if some of his own mass had been lost. Unsteady, he grabbed hold of the bench. Then he took his cell phone out of his shirt pocket intent on pressing May's number. But he stopped himself. He wanted to make sure his voice would be steady. He started to walk, trying to calm himself. He went around the corner and a ways up California Street until he happened on a small French restaurant, a bistro. It was nearly full with the luncheon crowd. But one small table was free; two busboys were attending it, setting down fresh white linen. Joe went inside and took that table. When the waiter arrived he ordered “wine,” and when the waiter asked if he could be more specific Joe said, “I don’t know one god-damned brand from another. Just bring me something red and leave the bottle. A friend is coming.” He noticed some people looking at him while others were trying not to. When the wine arrived he quickly downed two glasses of what many in that neighborhood—including the doctor—could have identified as a good Beaujolais, and then he took out his phone and pressed the button for May.
“Joe!” she immediately answered.
“Can you hear me in that racket?” he said loudly. She was, as before, in a corridor surrounded by students.
“Yes,” she replied, her voice full of expectation.
There was a pause. Then she said, “I know.”
“I need to see you now.”
“I'm in a cafe on California near Fillmore.”
“No. We'll talk in private. Come to my place. I'll tell the principal it's an emergency. I can be there in half an hour.”
She lived in a high rise apartment building on Van Ness near Union Street. Joe was waiting in front of the building when he saw her disembark from a #47 bus. As soon as she saw him she ran toward him, even though it meant crossing the wide boulevard against traffic. She ran with her hands in the pockets of her red coat, against the cold. Upon reaching him, however, she took them out and grabbed his left arm, hugging it. Then she kissed the shoulder of his parka.
“I knew you'd find out,” she said. “I knew this was going to work. Come inside and tell me everything that happened.”
She unlocked the wrought iron gate with one key and then the enormous front door with another, then led him up a short flight of marble stairs to a hall under a high arched ceiling. He liked this place. It had character. He liked that she was living here and not in some in drab bungalow like his place. They passed a row of hotel-style doors before arriving at hers. As she was taking out a third key a dog in her apartment let out a primeval howl. When the door opened a snarling terrier stood his ground against Joe. May lifted the animal into her arms, saying, “Oh, Mister, shut up.” She grabbed his muzzle which she shook playfully, and Mister, appeased, sprinted across the room and leapt out an open window to make use of the yard. It was a garden apartment.
“Let him stay outside a minute,” she said. “Then he'll come back in and we can close the window and turn on the heat. Here's a biscuit. When he comes in give it to him and he'll be your friend for life. I'll take your jacket.” She hung his parka on a hook by the front door, then took off her own coat which went into a small foyer closet. She was wearing a white cotton blouse and snug-fitting bluejeans.
Her apartment—actually, a studio—pleased him too. It was clean, uncluttered, and tastefully furnished. In the kitchen, skillets dangled in size order from a mounted rack. In the main room, which served as both a dining room and a bedroom, she kept the attractive and—despite the dog—spotless hardwood floors bare except for a braided rug that lay under a bright red settee. On the walls were children's crayon drawings and watercolors, each carefully framed. Her bed was under the window. It was a day bed covered with a sheet to protect it from the dog’s soiled paws, as Mister used it as a springboard into the yard through the open window. The yard was large—so big it made the little apartment seem like an adjunct to the outdoors. Just then, the sky could be seen darkening with rain clouds. A downpour was on the way but at the moment there was only some drizzle accompanied by fog that obscured the adjoining apartment buildings, giving the view a pastoral look, like a landscape portrait of rural winter, its centerpiece two bare maple saplings.
Joe, squatting, fed Mister his biscuit, and the dog, as promised, was placated. That accomplished, May closed the window and went to sit on the sofa, off to one side of it.
“Come sit next to me,” she said.
“Tell me what happened,” she said.
After describing what had occurred outside the book store on Fillmore Street, he concluded by say saying, “Maybe, deep down, I believed from the start that he is who he is.”
Her expression softened and her look became one of gratitude and relief. Quietly, almost whispering, she said, “When I found Jeff hanging it wasn't believable but I had to believe it. But I always felt, somehow, that there was something else just as as real that would make it not have happened. Maybe that's what drew me here to San Francisco. Maybe I knew, somehow, that all of this would happen.”
“Maybe so,” he said. “For you. But it never occurred to me that I could undo what happened to Joey. Or any of the other things that have happened to me.”
“What else has happened, Joe?”
“My mother dying when I was a little kid. That's the main one, I suppose.”
“Nothing that happened in the service?”
“No. Not really. Nothing I want to talk about.”
“Okay. I don't want you to talk about anything that makes you uncomfortable. But there's something we do need to talk about. And that's how to get this done. Have you thought about that? About how and when? And whether there's any way I can help you?”
“I'm not inclined to do it, May.”
“But you have to. There isn't any other choice. And I know you can do this.”
“How do you know?”
“You have the background—in the military, I mean.”
“I suppose Aitch gave you my whole story.”
“I know you were in the war.”
“And that was enough for me.”
“But this won't be like that. That man today—he came back to life didn't he?”
“I'm not making this deal. It's a bunch of bull, May.”
“Why do you say that? He's real. We know that now. Why won't you believe what he's saying?”
“You want to know something?” he said, turning toward her. He put his hands on her shoulders. “A day ago you talked about magic. You said the world might be magical. And just now I was looking out your window. Those trees are going to be coming back to life in a few weeks. I think it works the same way with people. Without Aitch's help.”
“You don't believe that for a second, and neither do I. I want Jeff back. You want Joey. We're not talking about trees. And even if we were—isn't that proof of what he's saying? That it's possible. That it happens. That he can make it happen for us?”
“He's the horror of it, not the wonder.”
“No. That's not true. The horror was Jeff being dead. Joey being dead. Aitch is telling us how to get rid of the horror. You've got to do this, Joe.” She put her hands around the back of his neck and pulled his face toward hers. “You've got to.”
The touch of her hands made him say to himself, ruefully, Talk about magic. He wondered if this was the moment to stop talking and kiss her. But he could tell from the set of her mouth that she was intent on pressing forward with words, with an argument. “Think about him, May. Who is he? You know as well as I do. And you don't want to say his name any more than I do.”
“How do we know? What's he done that's evil? All we know is that there's this other way. I'm not saying I understand how he does things. And I don't know who he is. We only know what we know. And we know he's not a fake. And that we can have them back—the ones we loved. You have to do this, Joe.”
“Of course you can.”
“Listen,” she said,” the urgent expression on her face softening.” Her hands went from his neck to his shoulders and they kneaded his tense muscles. “Listen to me. Don't throw this chance away.”
“Listen to me. It's you I want. No one else.”
The smile she gave him at this was one of sympathy and concern. “It's okay,” she replied. “I understand. I want you too. I love the way you stood up to him. Held your own with him. The way you made him prove himself to you.”
“A couple times with that guy—I thought I was going to pass out.”
“Not you. I can't picture that. You can handle yourself. It's because you can that we're together. See? We're here together now because of Aitch. Because we're part of the same thing. Tell me you understand that.”
“He's a warped guy, May. The warped guy. And he's nowhere near as amazing as you are. Not to me, anyway.”
She touched his cheek lightly with the backs of her fingers. She smoothed his hair. It had been growing out and was wavy now. She felt along his stubble, and as her thumb crossed his lips they parted. “Maybe we should have a drink,” she said. “I have brandy. And Jack Daniels.”
He longed to be with her in that small apartment, to make it part of—the center of—his world, to know not just her but the people she knew and the things they did and the places they went to and what they talked about. And to be in that bed under the window as it started to rain, as it was beginning to do now.
“Maybe in a while,” he said. “Right now you're all I want.”
“But it can't be just me. Because it's not about just us.”
“It's about your son. And my brother. And the fact that no one's going to get hurt.”
“People always get hurt,” he said.
“Not if we plan it right. And we can. I know it. Say you know it too. Say yes to me. And I'll say yes to you.”
“I'll always say yes to you.”
“And to him?”
“But that's part of saying yes to me. Don't you understand that?”
“Don't let him ruin this for us.”
“Don't be selfish.”
“I'm not selfish. And I know you're not either. The way you're trying so hard to do something for Jeff. The way you put your students' pictures up on your walls. The way you are with me when you let your guard down. I know we'd be good together. Don't let him ruin us.”
“May—he's fooling you.”
“But you proved he isn't.”
“No. I let him prove who he is.”
“All he's doing is helping us.”
“That's not true.”
“How isn't it true?”
“Because it's his game. Don't let's play it.”
“You make it sound like it's a game for some dumb prize like at a county fair.”
“He makes a prize out of what he thinks will tempt us. Don't fall for it.”
“I have to. I want to.”
“Then you're going to have to choose between him and me.”
“And Joey? What about him? Doesn't he count?”
“I won't deal with Aitch. I don't care what he offers me. You need to choose between us—and I guess you've already made your choice.”
She drew away from him. Her look became steely. He saw that the next step was the final one, but he was loathe to take it. Maybe, even if she couldn't come to her senses, she'd at least come to his rescue and say something that would allow them to retreat from the precipice. Couldn't she see how desperately he wanted to avoid an impasse? He wanted to say to her, go on, keep making your case, knowing she would eventually see that she was wrong. But he could tell by her petulant eyes and the set of her mouth that that would be futile. He said, “I'm not going to ask what you'll do after I leave. I know you'll go back to him. And I know I'll never want anyone as much as I want you. But I won't deal with him. No deals!”
He walked to his car, expecting a storm of misery. The weather itself had changed from a drizzle to a downpour but no such thing happened in his mind. In fact, his spirits rose. He wondered if maybe, in losing May, he had freed himself of her. And when he thought about Clara's now open adultery he was amazed at the satisfaction it gave him to realize that he could be rid of her too. In fact, why not be done with all of his dreadful situation? With excitement he considered the prospect of finding a place of his own to live in and a woman to share his life—someone whose own life was worth entering. As he drove up Geary Boulevard in the fierce and pelting rain he luxuriated in this unexpected optimism and the prospect of renewal.
But over the next weeks he had to, by necessity, return to the life he'd been living. And the misery of it was, if anything, worse. Clara would often stay out all night long, returning home only after Joe had gone to work. Then she would get her own work done at the dining room table and leave again before he returned.
His days at the diner were drearier than ever. Although he warned himself not to, he couldn't help but watch the door each day—not only at noon but all day—in the hope that May might come in. And he couldn't avoid terrible disappointment when it didn't happen. Despite his decision to find someone else, he still longed for her. Certainly he was beyond negotiating with her about Aitch. But just to know that she missed him would have been enough. And if she missed him she might say she'd thought it over and concluded that his assessment of the situation was, in fact, the correct one; that she had decided to be with him now on his terms.
These thoughts would not stop pestering him despite the knowledge—which he constantly drilled into himself—that he was free now to utterly change his situation. Clara had changed hers so why couldn't he do the same? There were lots of women out there. He was not an unattractive man. He had a lot of years left.
Still, as the days passed, the dreariness of home and the drudgery of work drained and enervated him. It was no pleasure to realize that people knew he was a cuckold. And at home, the room that contained his son's things and memory haunted him, as did the bedroom that held the bleak remains of his marriage. He was especially tormented when he and Clara crossed paths—in their own home. When she was home in the evening, she went about her business as if he weren't there. She even seemed happy as she carried out this charade. In fact, she had never looked more pleased with the world—and with herself. She'd always had a stylish bent, but now there was a jauntiness to it. She seemed more youthful. Her hair graying hair had reverted to platinum blonde and was expensively cut. Her movements were confident, decisive. She'd made a new world for herself—and it was apparently a happy one. And she had done all this without giving up her house or work, only him.
But for him this time was pure misery. He got no relief from it except when he slept. And there wasn't much of that because he couldn't fall asleep until he had first tortured himself with thoughts of May, and of how close he had come to having her. Over and over he replayed in his mind the moment when his lips had come close to hers and he'd inhaled her breath. He couldn't stop replaying that afternoon with her, giving it different endings. Sometimes it would conclude with him saying yes to all she wanted, with the result that they would lie together in the night and wake together in the morning. Sometimes it would be an alternate version—she saying yes to him and all he demanded from her. And that fantasy was all the worse for being more thrilling. As he lay in bed he was sure he would never find anyone he wanted as much as her. He blamed this on Aitch, who, he was certain, had gotten May Moon into his blood.
The winter ended and the days became longer and lighter. The small garden patches in front of some of the houses on Nineteenth Avenue—not his house—bloomed with daffodils. There were a few plum trees on the street and they blossomed, adding to the spring fragrances. In the new season, sunlight on the stucco walls of these buildings resumed its Mediterranean brightness. Balmy breezes brought the salt and verdure of the ocean. Sometimes Joe would open the bay window in his living room and just stand there, inhaling this freshness. He found that if he concentrated on it and breathed deeply, it temporarily lifted the gloom of his life.
Late one morning at the diner, as he wearily geared up for his vigil of door-watching, he made a decision: he would figure out a way to make a decent income from the place without having to be in it. He would hand its reins over to Quinn and take up the reins on himself. And at that moment a feeling of optimism returned. He resolved to figure it all out right then. He would take a walk in Golden Gate Park and by the time he reached the ocean he'd have a plan of escape from misery.
The following day Clara came home at mid-morning, having spent the night elsewhere. She closed the door behind her and removed her knitted cap, releasing her buoyant hair. There was an uninhibited joyousness in her expression. She was not expecting Joe to be home and, thus, had not seen him. But he was there, waiting and watching. He noted the youthfulness of her movements. It was as if she was someone else—or, more accurately, the person she had once been. He was reminded of how daringly sexy she'd been when they’d first met.
She gasped when she saw him. He was sitting in a stuffed arm chair on the other side of the room, his legs crossed ankle to knee. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“Oh?” she replied. She'd recovered and was walking to the table where she had her laptop.
“Want to know what about?”
He could see that she was afraid of him. He'd anticipated this and thought he might enjoy it but it proved unsettling. “Clara,” he said in a calm, businesslike voice, “I just want to talk.”
“What about? About where I’ve been? Are we going to have an inquisition?”
“No. About our situation. I know you’ve found your way out of it. Now I need to find a way out too.”
“Oh?” she said warily.
“We’re separated but we still living together. That doesn’t make sense. I’m not talking about divorce, not yet. I’m talking about being free of each other. Do you want me to go on?”
“Yes,” she said and paused. “I am sorry it’s come to this, Joe.”
He did not reply.
“I can’t expect you to be happy about me finding someone else,” she continued. “But we’ve both been unhappy for a long time. ‘Unhappy’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. Dead. Dead to each other, dead to everything.”
“This isn’t what I wanted to talk about,” he said.
“No. You never have. All you ever wanted was to suck the oxygen out of a room.”
“Go on and stick it to me. That’s what you’re good at.”
“No. That's not what I want. I really don't. Look, Joe, maybe—maybe at last—things have changed, not just for me but for both of us. Because you’ve found someone too. And that makes me happy for you.”
“I haven’t found anyone.”
“So don't bother being happy for me. I’m not here to rehash my life or yours. If I was, I’d be asking why you brought that guy into our house—Joey’s house. Into our bed. What were you thinking except ‘how can I torture Joe?’ That’s what I’d ask and that’s what I’d want to know. But what’s the point? Because you’re not the only one who likes to torture me. I like it too. I was just a couple of blocks away working my tail off. And here you were—with him. How could you? But don't answer that. We won’t get into it. It’s over. I just want to talk now about what we’re going to do next. What makes sense for each of us. Okay?”
“So let’s get it straightened out. We need to separate for real. And here's what I've been thinking. You keep the house and I’ll keep the restaurant. That’s a good deal for you because the house is worth a lot more. Actually, I don’t think the restaurant’s worth anything. I don’t own the building. All the equipment is old. It’s falling apart. If there’s any equity it’s in my customers—and there aren’t many of them. You’re smart about money so you know it’s a good deal for you. So here’s my idea. You get the house and in return give me a small monthly payment—a thousand a month—which I’ll need because I’m going to hand the restaurant over to Quinn. I want a complete break with everything. I’ll ask him for a monthly payment too. I haven’t discussed this with him yet but I think he’ll go for it. With the money I get from him and you, I’ll be able to get an apartment on my own.”
“That won’t work, Joe.”
“Let me finish.. I’ve thought about this and I know it will create a problem for you because I won’t be contributing to the mortgage payments or the bills. So you take a roommate—as long as it’s not your friend. I’m not saying don’t see him. Just don’t see him here. Not while Joey’s things are still here.”
“No. It won’t work. I’m not making enough to carry the house by myself, much less give you a thousand a month. And I’m going to be honest with you. If you move out, Nicholas will be coming here and spending the night. You can leave or stay, whatever you want, but I’m not giving you any money. The financial arrangement will have to come through a divorce—which you can have whenever you want it.”
“All right,” he said. “Then this is our last conversation.”
“Don’t be melodramatic.”
And with those words he left. Anyone looking at him as he walked down Nineteenth Avenue toward Geary would have assumed, given his purposeful strides, that he was a confident and successful man. But he knew that he had boxed himself in and that he was now, in all likelihood, heading for a sheer cliff. When he reached the restaurant he looked through the door and saw that it was nearly full. It was no longer breakfast time and not yet time for lunch, but business had picked up. May, however, was not among the customers.
Quinn was busy inside. He cooked, served customers, chatted with them. He was better at this job than Joe had ever been.
“Are you alright?” he asked when Joe came inside.
“Not really,” said Joe. “Let's go in the kitchen and talk.'
Once they were off by themselves, Joe leaned against the sink, his arms folded. Quinn gave him a squint. “What 's going on?” he asked.
“I’m thinking of renting this place out.”
“I was thinking about you.”
“Are you interested?”
“Well, I don’t know. Tell me more.”
“Say you take the place over. You run it by yourself and don’t pay me anything up front. You meet your expenses and keep your profits. All you do for me is give me a monthly payment. Say two thousand. What would you say to that?”
“I’d say it’s interesting.”
“Would you do it?”
“Maybe. But with some modifications.”
“Well, this is off the top of my head. I don’t have any numbers for your expenses or income or anything like that. I’d need to see your books. Of course, I know who comes in and what they spend. I’m guessing that two thousand wouldn’t be feasible. There’s just not enough business.”
Joe did not want to negotiate. He wanted it done. “What would you consider a fair amount?” he asked. “Just off the top of your head.”
“Maybe a thousand. I’d say a thousand, tops.”
“And if I say okay to a thousand? Would we have a deal?”
“Maybe. But we’d need to bring in an accountant, a lawyer, all that.”
“Or we could just do it on a handshake.”
“Tell me this, Joe. Is there anything you’re hiding from me? Anything—taxes, lawsuits, liens. If you say this deal is exactly what you’ve said it is and nothing else, nothing hidden, then I’ll say all right—on the condition that you believe I can run this place and that I’ll have your help along the way.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Joe's income from Quinn wasn't enough to pay for decent living quarters. He could only afford a room in the basement of an apartment building. The room had two doors, one leading to an alleyway where the garbage chute fed into a dumpster, the other into the garage where there was a refrigerator, washer and dryer, all available for his use. There was no stove but that did not bother him; he was used to living on beer and cigarettes. In place of his nightly BLT he bought some sandwich meat. .
The room was mostly below street level, although it did have a window set high enough for him to observe what was happening on the block. This was important because Bufano Elementary was directly across the street—a fact that had been his main reason for renting the place. Perhaps she had gone back to Aitch and he'd found another guy for her to work on. Or maybe she'd had success and was now where she wanted to be—with her brother. But maybe she was still at the school. He imagined catching sight of her, perhaps with the kids on the playground, which he could see from his window.
Without employment now, he commenced his mornings with beer, not sipping it as before, but drinking it. Because he was no longer at the restaurant and no longer doing much of anything, he didn't sweat the alcohol off. By mid-morning he would be tolerably oblivious. He had purchased a reclining chair, which he sat in by day and slept on at night. He also had a television, which he never turned off. Most days he eschewed shaving. Some days he didn't shower.
In the meantime, Quinn did well. He hired a cook—a Vietnamese man whose proficiency and versatility preserved the loyalty of the old customers and brought in new ones as well. Business was very good, and Quinn, freed from the kitchen, had more time to be gregarious with the customers. The place—still called “Ed's”—had developed a following. After two months Joe let Quinn name the diner after himself, and “Ed’s” became “Quinn's.” Sometimes Joe would drop by for a meal, and Quinn would feed him for free and, at least at first, treat him with deference. But with Joe’s turn to alcohol and slovenliness, Quinn grew wary. One evening as Joe lingered at the counter, Quinn leaned in toward him and asked if he had a working shower. Then he moved in even closer and asked Joe if he wanted to hear some interesting news. Joe nodded, and Quinn told him that Clara’s boyfriend had moved in with her.
Some days Joe would leave his room and cross the street to watch the school yard, his nose to the Cyclone fence. In his inebriated state, the sounds of children on the yard were like birds chattering in a tree. The kids alighted from their climbing equipment like birds; fluttering down from jungle gym ladders to the rubber mats spread under the play structure. He would stand there and, while watching them, keep an eye out for May. Once he walked up the steps of the school with the intention of asking if May was working there, but he held back.
One day as he was at the fence in a hazy inebriated state, a matronly and broad-shouldered woman with carefully sculpted—seemingly lacquered—gray hair walked across the yard toward him. She took a resolute stance on the other side of the fence and, looking at him with narrowed eyes, said, “Might I ask what you are doing?”
“What are you standing there for?”
“What does it look like?”
“You tell me.”
“Looking at what?”
“And why would you be doing that?”
Joe was not so drunk as to fail to catch her drift. In response, he locked eyes with her and, in a menacing tone, said. “Because I like them.”
“May I ask you your name?” she said.
“Yes, you may.”
“And what is it?”
“And your last name?”
“You tell me your name,” he said. “Since I pay your salary.”
“Mrs. Blankenship is my name. Shall I tell you what I’m doing here?”
“I’d love to know.”
“I’m the principal of this school. And I doubt that you are paying my salary. Now what’s your last name?”
“And what do you do?”
“What do I do? I stand here.”
“For a living?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because I’m curious about you.”
“What do you do, Mr. Dale?”
“Let’s see. What do I do? Well, I’m a restaurant owner, a homeowner, a married man, a Marine Corps private, and a father. All formerly, of course.”
“And how about presently, Mr. Dale?”
“Presently? Not much. But I’ll tell you what I don’t do.”
”Alright. What don’t you do?”
“I don’t do the devil’s work. Isn’t that what you’re accusing me of? But you, Mrs. Blanken—Blankenstein or whatever your name is. Do you do the devil’s work?”
“It’s time for you to go back to your home, Mr. Dale. Wherever that is.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I didn’t answer your question because it was a stupid question, Mr. Dale.”
“No, it's not stupid at all, Mrs. Blankenstein. You think you’re looking at the devil. But you’re not. I’m the one who’s looked at that face. And you know what? He looked like you.”
“Alright, Joe Dale. Let me tell you something. This time it’s a warning. Next time it will be the police. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Go ahead. Call out your hobgoblins.” He laughed and, turning around, walked away from her—moving slowly so as not to wobble.
Because of this exchange with the principal he no longer spent his days at home, where it was impossible not to eye the school from his window or cross the street to stand at its fence; instead, he went to Vin’s Vineyard. He would arrive there at ten in the morning when it opened, take a table up front by the window and drink Coors while watching people passing by on the sidewalk. There was always a chance that May would be one of them. She might still be working at Bufano's or, having gone to some other school, might return for a visit. If so, wouldn't she be tempted to come this way? There was a fairly good chance she would, he believed, and so he looked out the window as he drank. The place was all but empty at that time of day and Vin would come by now and then, and sometimes sit and chat for a bit. He was solicitous toward Joe and tried to draw him out, but Joe found him annoying and made it clear he was in no mood to talk. It did Vin's business no good to have a sullen and increasingly unkempt man sitting at a window table, but he indulged Joe and let him stay. Joe, for his part, was always gone by four, when the happy hour began and Vin’s real clientele arrived.
One day just before four o'clock Joe was at Vin’s watching the foot traffic when he saw a tall man hurrying along the sidewalk. The man was bobbing and weaving through the throng, barely avoiding other pedestrians, many of them elderly Russian women who, despite the milder weather, were still wearing heavy coats and weather-beaten headscarves. Joe recognized him as Nicholas, and the latter was having a good time with his dodging game, all but skipping along, when a woman he was deftly circumventing stepped unexpectedly to the left and he bumped into her, knocking her down. As she lay sprawled on the sidewalk, he didn't stop but continued on just as happily, only backwards now, as if he had pivoted on a unicycle. As he did this he acknowledged the woman by tipping an invisible hat.
Joe rose from his chair and hurried from the restaurant. He kept Nicholas in view and moved toward him. Had a red light not stopped the young man a block ahead, Joe might not have been able to catch him. But he did catch him, and when he did he grabbed him from behind, spun him around, and shook him by the shoulders with such force that Nicholas’s body took on the rubbery illusion of an oscillating pencil. Then Joe threw Nicholas to the sidewalk, fell upon him, and slammed his head against the pavement.
Bystanders backed away. One man adopted a wrestler’s squat—ready, it seemed, to take Joe on—although he too kept his distance. Others were busy with their cell phones. Joe got to his feet and looked down at Clara’s lover. Nicholas’s skull had been cracked, his golden locks were caked with blood, and on his immobile face was an expression of innocent surprise. He then proceeded to shine with a light so bright it made Joe back away.
Joe ran. Two men followed him north toward Clement Street, careful to keep their distance. He was able to reach the corner well ahead of them and there he saw a construction site. An old cottage had been torn down and a larger building was going up in its place. As there were no workmen around, it was a good place to hide. The two men stopped at the site but did not seek Joe out. Rather, they headed back toward where Nicholas lay, presumably to tell the police where Joe had gone.
The building was no more than a wooden frame set on a concrete foundation. Joe, inhaling musty sawdust, hurried to the rear where he stood motionless behind a beam for a few seconds, then leapt to the ground, which was strewn with rebar. He climbed a slatted fence, ran past a row of garbage cans, and was again on the sidewalk. With the yowling of sirens in his ears, he managed to make it back to his room. There he grabbed his rainy day cash supply as well as his gun, which he zipped into the inside pocket of his parka. Back on the street, disguised somewhat by having turned his jacket inside out—it was now gray now instead of black—he tried not to appear in a hurry. He walked north to Lake Street, then east, passing nearly half a mile of that street’s baronial Victorians before turning south onto Park Presidio, where he could move inconspicuously on a dirt path that wound through pine and eucalyptus trees. The sirens continued—lots of them—and when he returned to Geary Boulevard he boarded a 38 bus.
It was now nearly five o’clock and the bus was packed, even though it was headed toward, not away from, downtown. At that hour in San Francisco all buses are full no matter where they're going. Hiding amidst a cluster of standees who congregated up front he watched the driver become agitated as sirens approached from the rear—the direction of the crime scene—and saw him brake sharply to avoid the slowing traffic. Once the emergency vehicles passed by—one of them a slow-moving ambulance, probably with Nicholas’s body—the bus lurched back into traffic.
Joe's heart was racing and he was having trouble getting enough breath. Those sirens weren't after him but others soon would be. He was to be hunted now—the quarry of police officers and upstanding citizens everywhere because he had just done what he had so much wanted to avoid doing. A primal instinct told him to flee, to move and keep moving, get as far away as possible. His mind raced with images from movies: jungles, islands, deserts, caves. All the while his common sense told him he had no real alternative except to give himself up. How easy it would be to explain how it had happened and why. He could expect understanding and leniency. After all, the man he'd killed had openly cuckolded him and then mocked him by moving into his house and his bed, living openly with his wife while he lived in exile, in a dank basement room. Surely, these facts mean something.
All the while, as his thoughts and emotions contested each another, he couldn't rid his mind of Nicholas's look of innocent surprise. Nor could he free himself from the sound of the young head thudding against the sidewalk. The bus passed Fillmore Street where, a few blocks to the north, he and the doctor had sat together on the bench outside the bookstore. Then came Webster Street, where Aitch was now, presumably, in his office. A few blocks further was Van Ness—May's street. The two of them—Aitch and May—had become the only ones he could look to for refuge, although each would exact the same price.
Scrutinizing the other passengers, he saw how vulnerable they were. It wouldn’t be hard to kill a lot of them in such an enclosed and unescapable place—seventeen was the number now. Many were old, a few were children. It could be done quickly before some hero had a chance to mess things up. Had he brought an extra clip for his Browning, he could do it right now. Why not get off at Van Ness and go to her, he told himself. She'll be coming home from work right about now, assuming she still works—and assuming she hasn't made some other deal with Aitch. Tell her—tell her what? That she has to take me in? Hide me? How long could I be there without getting caught? Would she threaten to turn me in if I refused to go on a shooting binge?
He didn't get off at Van Ness but remained on the bus as it sped downtown. The end of the line was the Transbay Terminal. There he could catch a Greyhound bus to some other place.
The bus arrived at its final stop, the Transbay Terminal, an Art Deco relic from the 1930s. Not many passengers had come this far. Of those who had, some walked away from the terminal—mostly toward Market Street—while others entered the building and walked up ramps leading to buses bound for the East Bay. There were separate steps to the Greyhound platform. As Joe headed up those stairs, he was keenly aware of the police patrols that were a regular feature of this terminal—it being a haven for dead-enders, crime and drugs. He took a seat in the waiting room on one of its long wooden benches, facing a glass door that a uniformed Greyhound man slid open each time there was an arriving or a departing bus.
According to the schedules posted on an old-fashioned felt letterboard, no buses with out of state destinations would be leaving until late in the evening. Intrastate buses were coming and going all the time but Joe was thinking of getting as far away as possible. Next to the ticket counter were acrylic boxes with promotional flyers. He stood up, took one of each, and sat down to look them over. One was for a Hawaiian cruise. The others were for tour buses to gambling casinos in the Reno-Lake Tahoe and Watsonville areas. Reno seemed like as good a place as any for anonymity. But the idea of Watsonville stirred thoughts like those he'd had on the municipal bus. He knew that such excursions were taken almost exclusively by the retired and elderly. A San Francisco to Watsonville run would require a trip through the Santa Cruz mountains. What if he bought an extra clip for his Browning and put an end to his dilemma with speed and efficiency aboard one of those buses? As things stood he was undoubtedly at a dead end. He would soon be cornered, captured or worse, no doubt about it. Why not do what Aitch wanted and get it over with? Hadn't Nicholas's soul glowed—like a host of suns—just as had Aitch's victims, just as Aitch had said Joe's victims would glow? Why not do it and be done with it. Why not move on to what would come afterwards? Would that be so dreadful? Wouldn't he have given anything thirteen years ago to have been able to continue on with his son and young wife?
He could carjack his way to a good spot on Highway 17 and wait there for an oncoming tour bus. He would do away with the driver, bring the magic number down to sixteen, and position the car so that it faced the oncoming bus, its hazard lights flashing. He would stand beside the car, waving for help. If the bus driver failed to slow down, he could shoot out its tires.
Such a strategy might work—although, of course, there were certainly pitfalls that had yet to occur to him. But even as he tried to anticipate those problems and imagine their solutions, he knew he wasn't going to do it. He was going to give himself up to the police. That was the only rational thing to do. And, as he thought about it, it became increasingly attractive. He could turn himself over to one of the patrolmen on the main floor of the terminal, just a few steps away. It made sense. It would be easy. And he was exhausted.
As these thoughts passed through his head, he heard one voice in the room rising above the others. To his right, sitting on the same hardwood bench, a middle-aged woman was speaking forcefully to a young man who was sitting to her right. They were sitting like football players having a confab on the bench, their heads bowed, one pair of knees angled toward the other. She was a broad-shouldered lady who wore her hair frosted blonde and done up in a bouffant. He looked to be around thirty, had sunken cheeks covered by mossy black stubble, and was wearing a black watch cap. Now and then his head popped up and he looked around warily with frightened eyes.
She said, “You can't keep making excuses for yourself.”
“I'm not making excuses,” he replied
“That's not what it looks like to me.”
“I didn't ask for your opinion.”
“But I'm giving it to you. If you keep doing this to yourself—wait a minute, I see the top of your tattoo. An eagle, right? You were in the Navy?”
“Well, that kind of needle I'll allow,” she said, laughing. “So, why don't you go claim your G.I. Benefits?”
“Do you use them? For treatment? For school?”
“Lady, leave me alone.”
“Fine,” she said. “It's none of my business. It's just that you look like a man who can use some advice.”
“I don't want your advice. I'd just like you to shut up.” His voice had not risen, but there was pent-up anger in it. “And let me catch my bus,” he added.
“Where you going to?”
“None of your business.”
“Okay. But I don't see good things happening to you if you don't turn yourself around.”
“You say it's none of my business—but I say it is my business. When you served you did me a good turn. So I owe you one. I want to do some good for you.”
“But you can't.”
“How do you know? Listen: my husband and I would be happy—grateful—if you came to visit us. Any time. No strings, no lectures, just a home-cooked meal or two and a bed. We live in Santa Cruz on a little dead-end street. Bonnie Street. You can't miss our place because its got a big gold-fringed American flag out front. My husband never served so he overdoes the patriotic stuff. But he means it. And so do I. One thing, though. No drugs. No needle marks except for tattoos. Okay?”
“Just think it over. And now I'll zip my lips. Oh, wait. One more thing. Tell me the truth—isn't it nice to hear a friendly voice? Even when it's mine? You're smiling, so that's my answer.”
“Yeah, lady, you're great,” he said wearily.
“I don't pretend to be great. But you know what I did this weekend? I sat with my sister. She’s at the Laguna Honda home. Stuck in a wheelchair, stuck with MS. So a couple of times a month I come up and do what I can for her. Then I go back and do for my husband. So, you see, I'm not great but I'm not bad either. Gwen.”
“My name's Gwen,” she said, offering her hand.
He shook it.
“And my husband’s Roy. And here's my bus. Good luck—what did you say your name is?”
“Well, it doesn't matter. I'll recognize you. And even if I can't recognize your face—because maybe you'll shave—I'll know you by the tattoo.”
She stood up. The bus for Santa Cruz had pulled to the curb outside and the Greyhound attendant slid the glass door open. As Gwen passed through the portal, she turned to look back—but not at the man she'd been talking to. Instead, she looked at Joe, who had been watching her, and smiled at him. It was such a kindly smile that he not only saw it but felt it—felt its warmth.
It was at the moment of that smile, and from it, that Joe conceived a plan that promised to get him out of his predicament. He would go to May and tell her that, with Nicholas's death, his hand had been forced and that he would have to go ahead with the other murders. He would describe his idea of lying in wait on Highway 17 for a tour bus out of Watsonville. He would tell her about his fortuitous eavesdropping on a woman who'd offered a troubled vet her home as a refuge. He was certain she would present him with the same offer were he to appear on her doorstep. This would give the two of them a place to hide and time to work out the details and timing of their undertaking. But he would instead spend that time proving to her that her true interests lay in being with him. If he could accomplish that he would tell her that the only way they could have a life together would be for him to give himself up to the police, plead guilty to manslaughter or second-degree murder—after all, there'd been no intent to kill and no malice aforethought—and serve his time, which would probably be no more than a few years. Upon his release, they could face the future together.
There was a fair chance she already knew about the murder. It was certain to have been on radio and television. Maybe he'd already been named as the suspect. Perhaps a photograph of him was on television and the Internet. If so, it would be an old one, as it'd been years since anyone had bothered to take his picture. Probably they'd have his Marine Corps induction photo, which would be okay since he no longer bore much resemblance to that eighteen-year old with the shaved head and set jaw. Certainly, police investigators were or soon would be visiting Clara to get information about him and to inform her of Nicholas's passing. This thought brought a ripple of sympathy for her, given what she was certainly going through right now, along with an aching remembrance of his earliest feelings for her. At one time he would done anything to keep her from harm. And never, despite everything, had he reached the point of wishing her harm. But look at the harm he'd done her now. And then he was visited by his memory of Nicholas's dead face—that astonished, innocent and questioning look that asked, What's this? My life taken from me just like that?
Don't wallow in this, he warned himself.
He stood and walked down the steps to the terminal’s main floor. His best chance of getting to May’s place undetected would be to move with the crowds. But where he was now, in the lower South of Market area, pedestrians were sparse; everyone who worked in offices there had scattered. It was a ten-minute walk to the base of Market Street, which was more congested. There, outside the Hyatt Hotel, tourists waited to board the California Street cable car, whose other terminus was Van Ness, just a few blocks from May's apartment building.
He stepped onto the running board and shouldered his way into the cabin. As before, he hid among other standees, all of whom steadied themselves by grasping the dangling leather straps. The gripman released the handbrake and the car moved forward, but at the frustrating pace of a slow pedestrian. Then the brake had to be suddenly applied, bringing the car and its passengers to a sudden, jolting halt as a man on foot casually crossed its path. A sweet burnt smell permeated the cabin as the brake sent a block of pine against the track. This was the San Francisco of tourists, out for fun. On the sidewalks well-dressed and well-heeled San Franciscans were hurrying to their families or to rendezvous.
At Stockton Street the car entered Chinatown and passed its narrow alleys, then commenced a steep ascent to the luxury hotels of Nob Hill before ending its run a half mile later at workaday Van Ness Avenue. He was now just a few well-populated blocks from May’s apartment.
“Are you alone?” he asked when she answered the intercom.
“Joe!” she cried out, and she not only buzzed him in but rushed through the hallway to meet him in the lobby. She was wearing skinny jeans and a green University of Oregon sweat shirt. Her hair was swept back and pinned up with a flower clip. Her eyes were wide open. So was her mouth. She pressed her cheek to his cold, grimy parka, wrapped her arms around him, and said in an excited whisper, “I know about it. It's on TV. They've got a helicopter out looking for you.”
“Let's get inside,” he said.
At Joe's approach Mister howled and wouldn't stop until May gave him an angry swat on his snout. They were hardly in the apartment—were in its tiny vestibule by the door—when she said, “Tell me, how it happened.”
“Let's sit down, May. Let's talk.”
They went to the little sofa. He was caked with old sweat, his clothing filthy, his eyes sunken with fatigue. He was hungry; he hadn't eaten anything that day, just a few beers. He glanced down at his shoes and noticed for the first time that Nicholas's blood was on them. Shaking his head, he felt a need to explain what he'd done. “He was running up the street in that silly way of his—weaving around people. And when he knocked someone down—an old woman—and didn't stop to help her I snapped.” Then he noticed that May was listening to him with an expression of approval. There was no need to justify what he'd done—not with her. “Anyway,” he continued, “I get you now. We have to undo our nightmares. We have to take Aitch's offer.”
“Yes,” she said, exhaling deeply on the word. “We'll take it. We'll make it happen.” Then she brought a finger to her lips, moistened it with her tongue, and bent to press it to the the dried blood on one of his frayed shoes. Her finger came away red and she put it back to her lips. “We're in this together now,” she said to him. And then her lips, glistening, kissed his. He responded hungrily. His hands, finally at liberty, reached under her sweatshirt for her—her!
When he awoke it was pitch black and cold, the window just behind him having been left wide open. May wasn't in the bed. He wondered if she had gone to the bathroom and kept the lights off so as not to waken him. He listened but couldn't hear anything. He looked out the window; it was a clear night and he could see lights in the adjoining apartment buildings, so it wasn't very late. He hadn't meant to fall asleep; after May had shut her eyes he'd tried to stay alert. Awake again and vigilant now, he spoke her name but she didn't answer.
It was too dark in the room to see anything except some of the furniture in silhouette. He felt his way to the sofa, which was where he'd left his clothing. No clothes were around, neither his nor hers. His cigarettes, which had been in his shirt pocket, were on the coffee table along with his wallet, watch and keys, all removed from his pants. He took a cigarette from the pack and put it in his mouth—unlit because his matches weren't on the table. Then he walked guardedly across the room toward the kitchen. No light was on there but a faint blue glow was coming from the bathroom. He had a bad feeling about what he was gong to find in that room so walked there slowly and uneasily but it turned out to be empty. The blue light was a nightlight plugged into one of the sockets under the medicine cabinet. On the cabinet's mirrored door was a yellow Post-It note that read, “Errands. Back soon. Beef stew in frig. Love ya.”
Relieved, he returned to the kitchen and lit his cigarette from one of the gas burners. In the refrigerator, the stew was in an iron pot, which he put on the stove to warm. A ceramic vase with cooking utensils held a serving spoon, and he used it to eat directly from the pot. When Mister approached with a beseeching look Joe put some of the meat into his bowl. Together, they finished the stew before it had a chance to warm up. Back in the bathroom, he lay his cigarette on the vanity, then turned on the water in the stall shower. It had a strong jet—better than anything available to him recently—and when it was going full blast and steaming he stepped inside and let the water attack him. How long had it been since he'd bathed? Had May really slept with him, filthy as he was? He reached outside the stall to grab his cigarette, continued to let the water pummel his chest, and thought about her—in particular about how she'd barely missed a beat between the end of their lovemaking and a resumption of her fixation: “Do you have a plan, Joe? For how you'll do it?” “Yes,” he'd replied, no longer knowing where he really stood on the matter. His self-recriminations over Nicholas had receded. He wanted May, just May. Where was she? What errands? When would she be back? What chances was she talking out there?
“Then tell me now,” she'd urged him. And so he gave her the speech he'd prepared. He told her about his ride downtown on the 38 Geary, and his thought that in a confined space like that, he'd be able to pull off the killings. But city passengers wouldn’t be docile. And there would be people outside looking in, seeing what was gong on, and they'd try to interfere. He wouldn’t be able to control the number of deaths on a city bus. And that glowing—how blinding it was—it would make him vulnerable to counterattack. And the need to make sure of a precise body count. Aitch had said: “not one more, not one less.” That wouldn't be easy—at least, not on a city bus. It would have to be a long distance bus, traveling at night through an unpopulated area, maybe a mountain road. A bus full of old people—one of those excursion buses going to a gambling casino. With two clips for his Browning he could get it done there and then, and it would be over quickly. “There’s a casino in Watsonville, which is close to Santa Cruz,” he told her. He told her about the woman—Gwen—who'd offered to shelter a down-and-out veteran in her home. Maybe she'd let them stay with her in Santa Cruz—which was close to the Watsonville casino and the mountain highway. After all, he too was a veteran. Wouldn't that be the perfect place to hide while they fine-tuned their plan? And they'd need that time because they were going to have to make a plan that accounted for every possible contingency.
After listening to all this in silence she asked if it wouldn't be too dangerous taking such a big chance on someone who could—and probably would—identify them. Why not get it done sooner rather than later? “You're saying to wait for a few days. But think about the police who are looking for you right now. Maybe it's chancy to hurry but aren't we making it more chancy by waiting?”
How could she switch gears so quickly, he'd wondered. Wasn't she still in his arms? Couldn’t she feel him against her, wanting her again? If we have to talk, why not talk about how good it is to be together? But instead of saying that he told her, “I think my way is best. The next bus to Santa Cruz is at ten in the morning. There'll be a lot to do before then.”
And now he was alone in her apartment, his clothing gone, sitting on the sofa draped in a couple of towels. He remembered her mentioning a bottle of Jack Daniels, which he found in a kitchen cupboard. He poured a glassful and took it back to the sofa where he picked up the TV remote and turned on the set. It was nine o'clock and no news programs were on. He would have to wait until the Channel 2 news at ten. He looked around for a radio but couldn't find one. Nor could he find a computer—not that he would have known what to do with one. Clara had been very secretive about her laptop, and he'd never asked her how to use it—why would he have wanted to learn? But you'd think, he said to himself, that May—a teacher—would have one. If so, she's probably taken it with her. But why? To keep it away from me? And where did she go? To the police? Is it possible that while I was sleeping she had second thoughts? Did she get scared about being a fugitive like me? She's an accessory now and could can end up jail. Maybe this is what Aitch wants. Hoping I'll get caught before I can get all his killing done. Or that I'll kill too many, which would suit him even better. He wants to turn me—after all, I'm one of the “righteous ones”—into a mass murderer, hated by everyone, a Manson. And the law would see May like one of Manson's girls. She was probably thinking about all that while I was asleep. Who'd blame her if she turned me in? She could do that and then go back to Aitch and say, “Well, I got rid of him, that must make you happy. Now give me what I want.” And what she wants—the only thing she really wants—is to go back to her brother.
Having these thoughts, however, wasn’t the same as believing them. He reminded himself about how straightforward May was. Had she ever even once wavered from her goal? I'm waffling now but she isn't. Even in the beginning, when she came into the restaurant with that slinky look—there was nothing fake about that either. She is slinky.
Mister was lying at his feet and Joe scratched his ears as he sat waiting for whatever would happen next. But nothing happened—except that his fatigue returned and he felt sleep coming on. His consciousness began to flicker and jump like a small flame. Despite himself, he slipped into something between sleep and a blackout. He willed himself to the surface and broke through with a gasp. But then he went down again and this time the loss of consciousness came and, with it, a dream about May. She was with Aitch and the two were laughing. They were in league with each other—a union that was also sexual. They were walking arm in arm, laughing about something they were going to say to Joe—something that would bring him to his knees. They were at the door now, ready to give it to him as he sat draped in towels.
Once again he had to fight to wake up. Reaching for his bourbon, he checked his watch and saw that it was almost ten-thirty. He hurriedly switched on the television news but the crime roundup portion of the show was over and they were moving into weather and sports. He'd have to wait until eleven, when there'd be local news on other channels. That was when he saw a report about about Nicholas’s murder. The police chief, in a gold-trimmed uniform and cap, was telling an assemblage of reporters that Joseph Dale, a Richmond District resident and restaurant owner, was being sought in connection with the murder of his estranged wife’s lover. Along with Joe's name, the station presented a picture of him—it was, as he'd figured it would be, his Marine Corps induction photo. No mention was made of May. Satisfied, he leaned back and refilled his glass.
The next he knew he was rousing himself once again He looked at his watch, which said two-thirty. Could it possibly be that late? He looked around. The darkness was broken only by the bathroom's blue light and by the flickering television. May hadn't come home. Looking out the window he saw that all of the nearby apartments had gone dark. Fearing for her, his skin went clammy. But then the dog sprang to his feet, listened with his ears cocked forward, and raced joyously to the door. A key scraped in the lock, hinges squeaked, and there she was—smiling sheepishly, hunching her shoulders in an apologetic shrug, her fingers holding tight to the plastic handles of four large shopping bags. “Sorry,” she said with a self-conscious laugh. She closed the door behind her and lay the bags on the floor. “I was in Oakland—let them trace my credit card there—but I didn’t realize BART would stop running so early. I had to wait for a bus to get over the bridge and then for a cab to take me here. Hey, those towels make you look like a pharaoh. Anyway--” she began removing items from the bags--”here's a nice pair of slacks for you. Your old ones—thrown into a garbage bin in Oakland, by the way—were 34-30. I think you've lost some weight but I got you the same size and bought you this belt. Also a pair of jeans—Dockers—same size. And a couple of shirts. Very classy. Tee shirts too and shorts and—just in case—swim trunks for the beach. And socks and, look at these hiking shoes—Timberlands. I was trying not to go too yuppie on you. And they're a half size bigger than the ones I threw away because your feet were popping out of them, or almost. And a backpack—it’s an Eddie Bauer. Now, here’s what I got for myself besides a lot of cash”—she was reaching into another bag when he stood up and grabbed her.
“You're something, you know that? I could never have imagined loving anyone so goddamned much.”
As the bus sped along Highway 17 he was on the aisle seat watching her as she sat looking out the window. The fresh spring day was all around them and it even managed to penetrate the bus, despite the chemical smells emanating from the restroom, the morgue-like chill of the air conditioning, and the sea green tint of the windows. She was observing the passing scenery. A hillside covered with new green grass made her smile; it was the same enigmatic smile he'd noticed when she first came into his diner, beginning at the corners of both sides of her mouth, then pulling back. He had learned that it didn't mean she was keeping some thought to herself or that she was hiding anything. It was just the way she smiled and it was lovable. He took hold of her right hand and pressed it between both of his. He had become used to loss and despair; he'd learned to expect both. But having her beside him was never going to get old. The sight of a hillside whose formerly skeletal oaks were in luxurious full leaf brought from her an appreciative nod of the head. New life was what she wanted, he told himself, not the dead, not the past.
But then, as they passed a meadow blanketed by mustard flowers, she pointed to it and asked, “Was it like that, Joe?” And when he gave her an uncomprehending look, she explained: “I mean the glow, is that how it looked?” “Sort of,” he replied, “only more.” And when the bus approached a bend in the road and came upon a turnout that would be a blind to oncoming traffic, she remarked, “This would be the perfect spot, don't you think?” He responded with a shrug. “Maybe.”
Yes, she was still thinking about it, still caught up in her pursuit of it. Everything she did could be seen as done in its service But with a little more time, he believed, she'd realize what she really wanted. She'd made that obvious in the night. With more time she'd understand that what she wanted was him.
There'd been a moment in the night that had given him hope that it was losing its grip on her. She'd been crying in her sleep, saying “No, no, no” and “I'm sorry, so sorry.” He'd spoken her name, hoping she'd wake up and remember the dream and that the memory of it would dislodge the truth from her subconscious. He wanted her to say, “I don't want you to do it. I don't want it anymore. I don't want anything but us.” Instead, she began moaning, making such unsettling guttural sounds that he'd had to shake her hard to wake her up. When he'd finally roused her she turned to him and wet his face with her tears. “What were you dreaming about?” he asked. “You were terrified.” She didn't know.
Shortly after that, when they were up and about, getting ready to go downtown, she was once again her teasing, flippant, girlish, calculating self. Her eyes weren't teary now but alive, merry, determined. In fact, her mood was so good she was able to take in stride the fact that she had to give up her dog. It was a prospect that didn't seem to bother her at all. She brought Mister to an elderly neighbor—a woman she knew only to say hello to but who was apparently a kindly sort. She told the woman that she'd had a sudden family emergency and asked her to watch the dog until the evening. Coming back to her apartment she happily told Joe, “She fell for it.”
What to make of May Moon? The bus droned on through the hills and then down toward the sea, heading for Santa Cruz, and he thought ahead to what might await them there. Gwen would do one of three things: turn them in, take them in, or turn them away. Joe considered what his options would be in each of those scenarios. If she turned them in that wouldn't necessarily be bad. In fact, it would probably be for the best. He and May would face the law together. She'd get off lightly and he'd be charged with something less than first degree murder and spend a few years behind bars. That would be the test for May: would she wait for him or not?
And if Gwen let them in? He'd use that time to make May want him more than she wanted what Aitch was offering. He could do this, he believed, because she was on the verge of that already. Just some time—a couple of days maybe—and once she reached the right conclusion, they'd give themselves up to the law and bide their time until they were reunited.
As for the third possibility—that Gwen would turn them away—that was what would most likely happen. And if it did he would continue making May think he was preparing for the murders. He'd reconnoiter with her in Watsonville. What sorts of buses did they use? How many passengers did the buses accommodate? Which were more likely to be full—the daytime or the night runs? They'd research the schedules, study the maps, and settle on a time and a place. He'd buy that extra clip for his Browning. But all the while he'd be wooing her. And in the end she'd recognize that he was her true desire and true future.
The Santa Cruz bus station was a slapped-together structure, considered provisional when built in the 1940s but looked on now as permanent, even venerable. Buses deposited and took on passengers in a narrow alleyway. Thus, Joe and May were able to leave the premises without having to enter the terminal, where every newcomer was subject to the scrutiny of employees and bored, lounging travelers.
The alley ended at Front Street. There they entered a stream of pedestrians and walked north, keeping an eye out for a place to get something to eat. It was just past noon and they were starving. Knowing they'd have the same problem in a restaurant as in the bus terminal, they bypassed diners and coffee shops and looked instead for a market where they—or, better, May alone—might slip in and get something to take out. Front Street gradually turned west and before long they were heading into a sea breeze that brought the smell of fried food from the beach. Crowded, bustling stands at the Boardwalk would suit them perfectly, so they walked on toward the ocean.
It wasn't long before the sidewalk paralleled the sand, which was brilliantly white and dotted with beach umbrellas and blue lifeguard stands. The sun was directly overhead and, unhindered by clouds, it shone brightly in a baby blue sky. The ocean was darker—an intense navy blue—except where it was churned into whitecaps and milky foam by the wind, which was strong at the water's edge. The surf gathered, roared, then broke. The breakers, rumbling over one another, hissed onto the sand. Facing the sea and looking into the wind, Joe and May let the fresh cool gusts slap their faces; it made their noses feel like the prows of two ships. It was impossible, at that moment, not to feel elation. Children squealed at the water's edge. Screams of delight came from the roller coaster—the antique Giant Dipper which, from their vantage, looked like a great upturned harp. Adding to the din was the carousel's um-pahing organ.
“Do we have time to ride the roller coaster?” May asked.
Joe laughed. She asked the question in a childlike way, with her chin tilted up at him, her eyes half closed as she let the sun baste her face. He wanted to respond in kind—although he wasn't much for acting like a kid—when he was brought up short by the memory of a day when he and Clara had taken Joey to a beach. They'd driven down the coast and stopped at a seaside restaurant where they'd had fish and chips under a metal umbrella on an outdoor patio, their faces sandblasted by the wind. Joey had screamed with delight when a seagull swooped down and plucked his offering—a French fry—downing it in flight, ketchup and all. It was unsettling to remember this now. Grabbing May's hand, he walked onto the sand. And then, suddenly, he became childlike in the only way he knew how. He started running across the beach toward the sea.
“What are you doing?” she called after him.
Water was pulling away from the shore; the sea was drawing its breath. Joe strode through the shallows, taking off his shirt which he threw back at her. With the water at his ankles, he removed his trousers and tossed them too.
“You idiot!” she called.
He swam past the breakers in nothing but his shorts, calling back to her, “Come on!”
She had to yell, he was so far away now. “Stop it!”
She collected his clothing, set her duffel bag onto it and then looked for him. To escape her view he ducked under the water, executed a few breast strokes, and rose to the surface some twenty yards farther out to sea. He'd been performing for her but his brief underwater swim had the curious result of making him feel, if momentarily, free—free of everything, including her. Then she was running into the water after him, fully clothed except for her white canvas shoes, which she'd left on the sand. When she reached him he grabbed her waist, his fingers like pincers, pulled her up and swept her through the air like a human trophy. “I love you,” he said at the top of his voice
“Joe!” she tried to squirm out of his hold. “We're making a scene.”
“Do you love me? Do you?”
He'd been frightened by that moment of freedom. He did not want to lose her. He didn't want to want that. With his eyes honed in on hers and his demeanor uncompromising, he repeated, “Do you?”
She shook her head from side to side—not to say no, apparently, but to express disbelief.
“Say it,” he said. “Say it one way or the other.”
She clasped her hands around the back of his neck and said, “I do, Joe.”
But they spent the rest of that afternoon arguing. She wanted to rent a car. He refused. She said if they were going to Gwen's and if Gwen and her husband knew who they were and called the police on them, they'd need to get away quickly. It would be stupid to be without a car. He argued that the moment she plunked down a credit card for a rental the police were going to know their whereabouts. What he left unsaid was: now that we're lovers why are we still planning these murders? Aren't we going to stick by each other, come what may? Isn't that what being in love means? Why not face the fact that there's only one thing to do. I turn myself in and take my punishment and you wait for me. All day he was thinking those words. But he avoided saying them.
They spent the afternoon at the Boardwalk. They went on the rides, ate at the food stands, strolled past the novelty shops. His right arm was always draped possessively across her shoulders. Her left was always around his waist. To everyone who saw them they were happy, proud lovers. But anyone listening heard tense negotiations. Why not skip going to Gwen's and just head for Watsonville? she asked. No, he said. We won't rush into this. They continued this discussion as they ate ice cream, rode the Giant Dipper, took the sky glider, and were constantly touching each other. When he touched her blouse he could feel her skin through it. Her hands were no less busy. If he leaned forward her fingers would lightly brush his neck or knead the small of his back. But she persisted in urging that they go straight to Watsonville. She enticed him with the prospect of staying at a hotel near the casino. After all, she said, there was hardly a better place to be anonymous. They'd pay with cash, not a credit card. And no one was going to quibble about I.D.--not at a casino hotel. They could be in their room in less than an hour, she said in a soft voice, pressing herself to him. No, he replied. Not yet. But he couldn't help thinking about the prospect. In a hotel room within an hour. Why am I saying no to that? Why go to Gwen's? Do I really want to give myself up and be separated from May? But he remained true to his plan and when he spoke he said, “We need to go to Gwen's because it's where we can catch our breath and think things through and get the lay of the land.” Meaningless words, he knew, but he stuck with them because going to Watsonville meant getting the tour bus schedule, getting the extra clip for his gun, studying the map, doing the killings.
As evening approached they went to the pier. At its end was a weatherbeaten Italian restaurant. It was nearly empty. The luncheon crowd was long since gone and diners hadn't yet arrived—assuming the place was ever busy. It was dark and bleak inside. The décor was half-hearted—a fishing net had been tacked to the ceiling and was sagging low, nearly to eye level. A couple of mid-sized marlin—fake or real, it was hard to tell—were mounted on opposite walls. Joe and May took a seat by the westernmost window, which looked out at the final length of the pier where anglers were baiting hooks. They sat at their table looking out to sea, avoiding each other's eyes.
By the time they left the restaurant the sun had set. They walked silently, hand in hand, along the pier toward the shore. When they got to the street Joe said, quietly, “We're going to Gwen's.”
“Alright,” May said.
It was the last of twilight as they walked east on Bonnie Street. A harsh wind from the west sounded like surf as it passed their ears. The street was poorly lit; there were only a few unevenly spaced lamps and these emitted a dim, sulfurous light. The uneven sidewalks were buckled and covered with pine needles. It seemed that Bonnie Street was making its way back to what it had once been—a field of rocks and sagebrush lying between the foothills and the sea. The houses were small; some looked like garages. As Joe and May watched for the one fronted by a big gold-fringed American flag, they had to be careful not to mistakenly veer off onto some other street or even into the surrounding fields.
Since leaving the beach they hadn't said much to each other. But now May wanted to know just how they were going to go about this business; that is, what were they going to say to Gwen and her husband about why they were showing up at their door?
“We're going to tell them the truth and leave out everything we don't want them to know.”
“How, exactly, do we do that, Joe? What do we say—that we're lost, homeless, wandering around with no family or friends to take us in and that we just happened to be on their street walking by their house and decided to knock on their door and ask them to take us in for a while—for a day or a week or a year? You think they're going to go for that?”
“I'm going to say,” he replied, speaking slowly to control his temper, “that I overheard Gwen telling some guy who was obviously a stranger to her that he could come stay at her house. The guy was a down-and out vet. I'll say, look: one down-and-out vet is about the same as another. Can you make that offer to me—and my lady friend? I'll say that things haven't been going so good for us and we need a place to be, to get away from everyone and everything for a while and work things out.”
“And when they slam the door in our faces or call the police? What happens then?”
“We go to Watsonville.”
“But wouldn't it be easier to go there now when we're not on foot being chased by police cars?”
“So you want to walk into a trap.”
“I told you what I want. Anyway, it's probably a trap no matter what we do.”
“That's not true and you know it.”
Rather than reply to this, he continued on up the street, quickening his pace. She had to walk double time to to keep up with him. They passed a couple of ramshackle storefronts—a fix-it shop and a vegetable stand. The house they were looking for was at the far end of the street next to an open field. Its flag was unmissable: lit in a crossfire of two spotlights. Flapping in the wind from its sturdy white pole, it looked like a giant bird. The house, bordered by azaleas, sat lengthwise on a large lot. Between the azaleas and the street was a well-tended front lawn, and winding through the lawn was an s-shaped brick path that led around to the side of the house where the porch and front door looked east toward the fields. The big living room window, which faced the street, was divided into a honeycomb of small panes. The drapes weren't drawn, so Joe and May could see a man and a woman sitting side-by-side on identical recliners, reading. Joe recognized Gwen. Her hair was in rollers and covered by a chiffon scarf. She wore a faded floral print housecoat that started at her neck with a ruffle and continued on down to her open-toed terry cloth slippers. Her husband—Joe remembered his name, Roy—was a man of medium size with receding sandy hair. His face was squarish and craggily handsome. Except for his slippers he was still in his day clothes: a tan shirt and brown slacks.
“Whatever happens, we're--” Joe said, and paused. He was searching for the right word. He hated that they'd been sniping at each other. He thought to say “inseparable” but settled on “bound together.”
“I know,” she said.
They followed the winding bricks to the porch. There was a small window in the door but it was covered by a curtain so Joe couldn't see into the room. He knocked. A long silence followed.
“They're calling the police,” May said.
Joe knocked again.
“Let's get out of here.”
Gwen and Roy were whispering but Joe couldn't make out what they were saying. Finally, the door's window curtain was pushed to the side and Roy's face came into view. He and Joe stared at each other.
“Smile at him,” May said.
But Joe didn't have the knack for smiling on cue.
Roy wasn't smiling either but he finally opened the door.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“Sorry to bother you,” said Joe.
“No. I'm hoping this won't sound too strange. Yesterday I overheard your wife—Gwen is her name, I think—telling a man that if he wanted to or needed to he could come and stay with you for a while. He was a down-and-out sort, a veteran. I'm pretty sure she'd never even met him before.”
“There's no one like that here,” said the man.
“I'm not looking for him. I'm—it's just that I'm like he was. And I need a place to stay. We both do.”
“Gwen,” the man said, “come over here for a second, would you?” Gwen quickly appeared next to her husband who put a protective arm around her shoulder. “Is this the fellow?” Roy asked her.
“Well, look who's here,” she said. And then she smiled at Joe. It was the same warm, nourishing smile she'd given him at the Greyhound station in San Francisco. He couldn't remember ever getting a smile like that from anyone else. And that was when he knew that this was why he had come here—for that kindly smile.
“You look a lot better than you did yesterday,” Gwen continued. “Which I guess is due to this young lady.”
Although Roy continued to look suspicious, he allowed them inside. Joe and May were shown to a sofa that bordered the recliners on their left. To their right and completing the “U” was a redwood rocker sofa. All of this furniture was angled toward the standalone TV. These people were apparently television watchers, and that made Joe uneasy. He faced Gwen and Roy, who had returned to their recliners, and made the speech he'd rehearsed in front of May. When May added what Joe had failed to say—that he'd been in the Marines—Roy smiled. It then came out that May was a teacher, and Roy relaxed even more.
“A teacher and a Marine,” he said. “The best and the best. My great regret is that I was never in the service.”
“Never in that service,” Gwen said. “But you were in the service—a fireman.”
“Which makes you a hero,” said May.
“He saved people,” Gwen added.
“Stop it,” said Roy.
“Why shouldn't I tell them?”
And she talked about the night Roy had gone into a burning hotel—this was when they were living on the Massachusetts coast—and rescued several of the guests, and how, after that, he'd gone back to rescue a painting. “It's that one there,” she said, pointing to an oil portrait of a girl with golden curls and a cherubic, mischievous face.
“You'll never guess who that kid is,” said Roy.
“Gwen?” said May.
“Right,” Gwen laughed.
“I saved another painting too. Come here,” he told May. “You're a teacher so you'll like this one.” May followed him to a wall in the adjoining dining room where there was a painting that portrayed a bookshelf. The artist had stocked the imaginary shelf with an assortment of whimsically titled volumes: a fat one called The Origins of the Safety Pin was next to a wafer thin History of Mankind. This made May laugh.
Chuckling, Roy remarked, “A pretty girl’s laugh—nice to hear.”
It was at this point that Gwen began bringing out the food. Although May and Joe protested that they were full, having just had dinner at the restaurant at the end for the pier, this only made Gwen more determined to give them something good to eat. And out came platters of roast beef, potatoes, green beans, and then rhubarb pie, ice cream, coffee, brandy. When Joe asked if he could smoke, Roy escorted him to the front porch, where he himself lit a pipe.
Ten o'clock came and went. Then eleven o'clock. And they were still chatting. The TV wasn't turned on so there were no newscasts to worry about. Shortly after midnight, Gwen showed Joe and May to the guest room—their second bedroom. Its queen size double bed was covered by a George Washington bedspread. Along the walls were twin dressers, a writing desk and a vanity table. A window looked west to open fields and the pitch-black sky.
“This is lovely,” May said. “You have such wonderful taste.”
“It looks to me like Joe is the one with good taste,” said Gwen.
After Gwen had left and the door was shut, May walked to the window, which was open and screenless like the one in her apartment. The incoming breeze ruffled the window curtains and brought in scents of grass, flowers, the soil, the ocean. For a moment she remained there looking out as Joe sat on the bed watching her. He couldn't believe how happy he was. It seemed impossible that they'd been welcomed into this home, this redoubt. And who was he, Joe Dale, to be with such a lovely girl, one who was so—so—he couldn't put a word to it. There she stood at the window in her denim jeans—the ones she had worn right into the ocean—and her untucked blue shirt. Here she was in the room with him. Their room. Was she, as she looked out the window, thinking that this was enough? That the two of them had sanctuary, a bed, a future—was it enough for her?
“It’s too perfect,” she said, turning around.
“What do you mean?”
“These people—you know them don’t you? You and Gwen and Roy have worked it out, haven't you?”
“What? I met Gwen yesterday. I met Roy just now when you did.”
“No. It’s a set-up.”
“That’s not true.”
“You're not going to keep your word. You and your friends have it all worked out. And I'm not going to fall for it.”
“When would we have gotten together to work everything out?”
“How would I know that?”
“You wouldn’t know. Because it didn’t happen. Don’t you think this is better than what might have happened? What you were afraid would happen? Would it have been better if the police had been at the door instead of Roy and Gwen?”
“This is just too easy.”
“What’s wrong with you? This is what we wanted. What's wrong with something being easy for a change? Would you have liked it better if we'd been handcuffed and dragged away? Would you have liked that?”
“You have no intention of going through with it, do you, Joe?”
“I told you I’d do it. But suppose you’re right. Suppose I do refuse. What then? What will you do?”
“I’ll go back to Dr. Aitch.”
“So, you’re using me.”
“Is that what you think?”
“No more than you’re using me.”
“I’m not using you.”
“You’re going to keep me from what’s been promised to me. You and Gwen and Roy. You’re going to ruin everything for me.”
“You’re using me.” he said. “And keep your voice down. They can hear us. Look, May. Think about what you’re asking me to do. Have you ever thought about it? Pictured it?”
“I’m not asking you to do it. He asked you. And if you do, you’ll be doing if for yourself, not for me. You’ve got more things to make right than I do.”
“Yeah. I'm a bigger fuckup than you, no two ways about that. But right now I’m not thinking about myself.”
“Yes you are.”
“No. I’m thinking about us.”
“It’s not what we agreed to.”
“I know what we agreed to. And I am going to do it. Because if I don’t you’ll go back to Aitch and he’ll come up with some other scheme to get you what you want—what he wants.”
“So it’s settled. You’ll do it. You aren’t lying to me—you’ll do it, right?” With her eyes—olive green now—narrowed and her teeth clenched she seemed set to explode in fury. “And don’t blame me for any of this. I never asked for it to happen. I’m not using you. It’s for you as much as for me. So don’t fool with me. Don’t be a fake. Because I’m not a fake. Tell me—was last night a fake?”
“How can you ask that?”
“Because you asked it.”
“So you think I’m using sex to get what I want from you?”
“Look at me,” she said. She went to where he sat on the bed and leaned over him. She was wearing a thin gold necklace with a tiny pearl pendant which swung away from the hollow of her throat and toward to his lips.
“Am I fake?” she asked.
Oh, May, he thought but would not say, how can you possibly want this ever to end?
They awoke in the night, lying in the darkened room on top of the bedspread. That covering, formerly pristine, was now in disarray. A streetlamp cast its pale yellow light into the room. The house was quiet. Groggily, May asked what time it was. He looked at his watch. Two o’clock. It was very cold. They got under the covers facing one another. It's heaven to hold her,” Joe thought. “Nothing less.”
Later in the night he was awakened by a grating sound. He couldn't identify it but assumed it to be harmless: a toppled aerial caught against a roof shingle or maybe an animal trying to get inside a garbage can. Whatever it was, he wasn’t going to worry about it. May's hair lay fanned across her shoulders—lush and chestnut red in the dim light. Lying on her side, every now and then she breathed in with a gasp. More troubled sleep? he wondered. Another nightmare? Was she fighting it out with herself over what to do?
Looking out the window he could, despite the streetlight, see a few stars. The lower pane remained up, and he enjoyed the tang of chilly night air. Then came that sound again; a squeak or a squeal. He considered investigating but figured it to be harmless whatever it was. Or, he teased himself, was it Aitch loping about in the dark? If so, would he be in his lab coat? Blazer? Roaming the fields on hooves?
There was that noise again. It wasn't an animal. It was harsh, metallic, and getting louder. He left the bed and went to the window but could see nothing in the field. He slipped on his pants and shirt and left the room. It was too dark to see anything in the living room but he knew someone was there.
“Hello, Joseph,” came a man’s voice.
Joe started. At the other end of the room was Roy in silhouette, sitting on the sofa rocker. He had a small light, a flame. As Joe stepped forward and his eyes adjusted he could see Roy waving a match over his pipe. He also saw that Roy had a shotgun on his lap. He was pushing the ball of his left foot against the floor, making the sofa rock. It moved forward with a groan, then backward with a squeal.
“So that’s the sound,” said Joe.
“I keep meaning to oil it. Did I wake you up?”
“She’s still asleep.”
“Good.” He paused and then he said, “Listen, Joe, don't you think we need to talk?
Joe pulled a pack of cigarettes from a front pants pocket and put one into his mouth.
“Gwen's okay with pipe smoke,” Roy said, “but not cigarettes. Let's go outside on the porch. It's a nice night, not too cold.”
On the porch each faced the railing looking out at the open field. Roy's elbows were on the top slat with the rifle lying across the crooks of his upturned arms.
“I know what’s going on,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“It was on television. What you did to that fellow. And what he'd done to you.”
Joe remained silent.
“I suppose you know the hunt's on for you,” Roy went on.
“And for May too? Do they know she’s with me?”
“That I don’t know.”
“Or that we're we're in Santa Cruz?”
“That I don’t know either.”
Joe took a breath. “Have you or Gwen talked to the police?”
“Or told anyone else about us?”
“Do you intend to?”
“Because we’re on your side.”
“I don't understand. What do you intend to do?”
“That's what we need to talk about. Last night Gwen and I were watching the news and they said what'd happened. They showed your picture. A Marine, no less. And then there you were at our house. Well, we decided to take a chance on you. ”
“We're on your side. The shotgun is just in case you're not on our side. But I don't think we have anything to worry about.”
“And you want us to move on now, right? Is that what you're going to tell me?”
“No. That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying that people know why you did what you did. And no one’s going to want your head over it. No fair-minded person, anyway. Gwen and I both feel that way.”
“Do you own a car?”
“Does it run okay?”
“It's old but runs fine and you can have it if you want. It’s in the garage.”
“I’ll get it back to you one way or the other.”
“I’m sure you will. But I advise you not to take it. I advise you not to go. It’s best if you stay here. We'll put our heads together, the four of us, and figure the best way to handle this. I believe they’ll go easy on you, Joe. You were the aggrieved party.”
“If we stay here you and Gwen are going to be part of it. You can't want that.”
“We’re in it already. We can’t be accessories any more tomorrow than we are today. Here’s what I think. And I want you to give this serious consideration. I don’t know how much time we have before they find you here. But they'll find you one way or another. It won’t be from anything Gwen or I say but someone’s going to figure it out. We’ve got friends and neighbors who drop by. Maybe we can keep them at bay for a while, but not for long. I wouldn’t count on having more than a day or two.”
“That’s why we should leave now.”
“I don’t think so. You won't have much time no matter where you go. If you stay here we can be a buffer for you. If you’re on your own I’m afraid of what will happen. They’ll corner you, and it isn't hard to imagine how it will end. Is that what you want? Is that what you want for May? Stay here with us and we’ll work it out.”
“You’re saying I should give myself up.”
“Yes, I am.”
“I’ll tell you something. That’s exactly what I intend to do. But first I need to convince May it’s the best way.”
“I’m sure she knows there’s no alternative. What does she want you to do?”
“She has other plans, Roy. I won’t go into the details, but I need time to bring her around. The minute she agrees, I surrender. If I know she’ll stick with me after they take me in I’ll give myself up. I can plead to manslaughter. Second-degree murder at worst. They won’t send me to Death Row or put me away for life. I just need to know that May will wait for me.”
“Well, you already know that, don’t you? It’s pretty clear how she feels about you.”
“It’s complicated, Roy.”
“Then stay with us. Let us run interference for you while you get things worked out with May. You won’t be on the run and you’ll be with friends. Look, Joe, like I say, you can have the car if you want it. But don't leave because you’re worried about Gwen and me. We’re going to be alright. And I’ll tell you something else. You can relax about May. I think she’s alright too. Gwen says you two were meant for each other. And she's got a sixth sense about things like that.”
“Alright. I still think you're risking too much by letting us stay. But I’m grateful. Can I ask you one more favor? Will you promise not to tell May what I told you? About surrendering.”
“We’ll keep quiet. And don’t worry about May. She's a sensible girl. Why would she want to spend the rest of her life running away? It's not as if she's running from you. She's gone this far because she wants to be with you. There's no reason she'd abandon you.”
Joe went back inside, undressed, and got into bed. For a time, he thought about what Roy had said. He felt good about their conversation. Here were two decent people who were willing to put themselves out for him, which was no small thing—and it had to be a good omen. It was with these thoughts that he fell asleep.
He was awakened later that night by May who was, as the night before, crying in her sleep, saying again and again, “I'm sorry.”
“May—listen to me,” he whispered. “You don't have to be sorry for anything.”
Still asleep, she repeated the two words until she was convulsed in sobs.
“Wake up,” he said. “I'm here. It's okay.”
“I love you so much.”
“I love you, baby. I'll never let anyone hurt you. Never.”
Her eyes still closed, a new tone entered her voice and she said in a harsh whisper, “How could you leave me? What did I do? Don't you know how I loved you? What more should I have done? Why didn't you stay with me and love me and make love to me?”
“Wake up, May. What are you saying? Who are you talking to?”
Her eyes opened—sluggishly at first, and then she was alert. “What?” she said, startled.
“You were talking in your sleep.”
“What an awful dream!”
“You were talking to someone. Who? Not me.”
“It was a dream.”
“A dream about who?”
“I don't know.”
“Yes you do. Tell me.”
“I told you. I don't know.”
“Yes, you know. Just tell me. That's all I'm asking.”
“Will you leave it alone. Will you just go back to sleep?”
'Alright. It was about Jeff. Is that okay with you?”
“Jeff? You wanted him to make love to you?”
“It was a crazy dream. Can we forget about it? I think I have a fever. It was all that ocean and sun. Hold me, Joe.”
“Who was Jeff? Who was he really?”
“Nobody? How could he be nobody? What are you talking about?”
“Nobody except what I've—who I've been--”
“Lying to me about?”
“After all this time, Jeff was a nobody? All you ever wanted was get back to him. So who was he? Who?”
“My brother. I told you. So leave me alone. What's wrong with you?”
“Did you really love your brother? I mean, physically?”
“Or was he really your brother?”
“I told you who he was. Now, stop it!”
“I'll stop it when I know the truth. What was going on between you two?
“You and your brother were sleeping together?”
“No, you idiot, of course he wasn't my brother. He was my husband. Are you happy now?”
“All this time—all this time a lie? You said you never lied to me.”
“And weren't you lying to me all the time? You weren't ever going to do it.”
“Why'd he kill himself?”
“I don't know. I just can't understand it. But that's not any of your business.”
“And what is my business?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“I'm a damned fool.”
“Listen. Listen now because this is what's important. For you as much as for me. Do it for you.”
“Don't say this.”
“Do it now. It's not about me anymore—right? It's about Joey. You want him back. You want it the way it was. When you were really happy. And you can have that. Everything can be the way it should have have been.”
He sat up and leaned forward, his arms hugging his knees. “I should have seen through you. I was a fool to think you loved me.”
She sat up too, holding the sheet to her chin. In a calm, slow, teacher's voice she said, “Listen to me. We've both wanted the same thing all along. To get back to the ones we really love. You can do that now. And it's the right thing to do, the only thing. You just haven't seen the rightness of it until now.”
He looked at her, expressionless.
“Start with them,” she continued.
“Them? Gwen and Roy?”
“Yes. Then it will down to fifteen. Fifteen will be easy, Joe.”
“It's all a nightmare. Everything.”
“You can do me. That'll make it fourteen. I'm sure Roy has a gun or a rifle. You'll have all the bullets you need. Stores will be open on Front Street and people will be going to work. It's almost dawn, see? People will be on the street. You'll only need fourteen.”
“Do Roy and Gwen quickly. Roy first. He's the one you need to worry about. He wants to be a hero. Then her. Real fast. Don't let her scream. Don't do me first because they'll hear. Right now, Joe. First Roy, then Gwen, then me. Are you listening? Don't look like that. You have a stupid look. This isn't the time to get stupid or go into a trance. I thought you were a Marine. Or was that a lie? Come on, Joe. Joe! Listen! It's the only way now. You know that. I'll come with you into their room. I'll watch you. I want to see the glow.” She got out of bed. She stood naked and trembling.
He got up too.
“Your parka's in the closet. Get the gun.”
He stepped toward the closet, opened it, and reached inside for his Browning. Then he faced her. “Tell me this is a dream. Make me wake up. Can you do it, May? Can you say wake up?”
“Don t be an idiot. You know what you've got to do. There's no other way.”
He left the room. The living room was empty. Roy and Gwen's bedroom door was closed.
“Go, Joe,” May said. “It won't hurt them. And they're not going to die. It won't be anything to them. They'll never even know.”
He stopped and went back to the guest bedroom. He lay the gun on the mattress. Then he reached for his clothes which were on the rug at the side of the bed. He put on his trousers, then his shirt. He took the cigarettes out of his pants and lit a smoke.
“Tell me what you're thinking,” May whispered. “If you're thinking of doing me you can, but not before them. We can't wake them. You have to think. You're going to have to do a lot more thinking when I won't be here to help you. So calm down and think it all through. Wasn't the doctor calm when he did it? You have to be like he was: very calm and careful. Are you listening to me? Do them now. Then me. We don't have a lot of time. Then fourteen more. It won't be hard if you stay calm and steady and keep thinking. Remember, nothing matters anymore except Joey. Not me. I don't matter now. It's okay to hate me. Maybe it's even better if you do. Like with Nicholas. Remember: I loved Jeff. Jeff, not you. He's the one I want. The only one. So hate me. Get Gwen and Roy and then me. Now! Let's go to their room.”
Instead, he left the house. He went to the porch where he sat on the top step. She followed and sat next to him. She had her tee shirt on but nothing else. She was trembling violently. “I'm cold,” she said with a laugh. “That's why I'm shaking, not because I'm scared. I'm not scared at all. Remember going in the water and diving under and being happy because we knew we'd come back into the air and feel the sun? That's how it's going to be. For you and for me. Listen to me, Joe. Do it. No one has to be afraid. Listen. If you want to do me first then go ahead. But not with the gun. Do it quietly and I'll be quiet too. Its so cold out here—that's why I'm shivering. Because I'll come back to the air and the sun and to Jeff. You and I—we didn't do anything wrong except love people who died. Think how happy we'll be in just a little bit. But first you have to get it done. And that means staying calm and thinking straight. Are you listening to me? Tell me what you're thinking right now. Are you thinking you want me to go first? Because that's okay. Just don't make any noise. Use your hands or a knife. And I'll be quiet, I promise. But it has to be now. Please, Joe. The sun's coming out. People are going to see us if we stay out here. Gwen and Roy will wake up. It has to be now. Come on, let's go back in the house.
“Is this the kind of thing you did to him?”
“We can't talk about all that.”
“You drove him to it.”
“No. I didn't do anything wrong. I loved him. But we're not going to talk about that. We can't. There's no time and we have to stay calm. Think about who's waiting for you. Think about Joey. You haven't allowed yourself to think about him. But soon he'll be with you. You can do it, Joe. You can be the hero.”
He stood up and walked down the steps leading to the grass. He was wearing a white tee shirt and khaki trousers but no shoes.
“Joe,” May said quietly.
He walked across the lawn.
“Joe!” she said and her voice, as she tried to be louder without raising it, became a raspy whisper.
He kept walking. He went along the uneven sidewalk listening for her footsteps behind him but they didn't come. A block later he could just make out the sound of her sobs. In response he shook his head—not in sympathy, but to get rid of it. He lit another cigarette. A load seemed to be rising from his shoulders. As he turned from Bonnie Street onto Seventh Avenue, he heard the hydraulic groans of a garbage truck. It was lifting huge trash containers up over its cabin and onto its backside—like an elephant showering itself. The thought made him laugh.
He walked along Seventh Avenue toward the central beach. He had the strange feeling of being an audience for his own thoughts—a receptive audience, like someone in a theater anticipating the next clever line of dialogue. Am I actually happy? he asked himself. Or is it some high that comes just before the big crash?
Walking double time, he turned from Seventh Avenue to Beach Street and arrived at the shore. The sky was becoming mauve, the beach's drab gray a welcoming yellow, the ocean a forest green. The tide was out and there weren't many waves, just a few rollers. At the water's edge the surf had a skirt of foam, which made Joe think of the sea as a vast vat of beer. That thought made him laugh out loud—a laugh that, to his startled surprise, was returned from the direction of the carousel. When he looked into the darkened arcade, he saw, standing on the merry-go-round, his left hand wrapped around one of its golden posts, Dr. Aitch.
“Well,” the doctor said, “it looks like you left the little woman back at the house, crying her eyes out. Two women crying now because of you, Joe. Quite the ladies' man in your own way. But May's no longer the point, is she? No, my friend, you're the point—always have been. So don't let me interrupt you. By all means do what you came here to do. Although first, I suppose, congratulations are in order. No kills—at least none in cold blood—to get your boy back. Ah, you Tzadikim Nistarim are a tough crowd. Incorrigibles! So, tell me, Joe. Is it game over for you? If so, no matter. One incorrigible leaves, another steps in. Meanwhile, it's still game on for old Timothy Aitch. Luckily, I enjoy it—although you'd think that by now I'd have managed to corrupt at least one of you. But there's time. Plenty of time. Too much of it, actually.”
Joe smiled at Aitch, looking at him in same humorous spirit he'd taken in the sight of the garbage truck. Now, however, the doctor had nothing to say to him that was as important as the drama unfolding in his own mind. In fact, Aitch seemed to have come to the same conclusion because he'd stopped speaking and was just standing there, his figure, despite its great bulk, not really so imposing. Then he was no longer on the floor of the carousel but, having moved without any apparent motion, was sitting astride one of its carved wooden horses. He broke the silence. “Yes, Joe—by all means rejoin the bouillabaisse. Who knows—maybe on your next go-around you'll get the brass ring.”
Joe nodded. He took a final drag on his cigarette, removed it from his mouth and flicked the glowing butt at the doctor. A moment later he was running across the sand toward the water. Morning light hid the moon. Cold sand crunched nicely under his feet and between his toes which then suffered the shock of the icy, sudsy water. There was quite a distance between the shoreline and where the water was deep enough to swim in but he was moving swiftly and soon he was far past where he could stand. He put his head into and then beneath the water. He expected it to be black down there but instead he saw a brilliant green. Could the rising sun be strong enough to create this color? But then he saw that it was a phosphorescent green. Upending himself, he dove way down. Now he was surrounded by twinkling lights mostly green but some a beating, pulsating red. As he expelled the air from his lungs it seemed that they were welcoming him.