Stern was kneeling on motel carpet between two queen-sized beds and shouting into his phone while it charged in the wall outlet. “Do you have any idea what I’m proposing? Any idea at all?”
“All I can verify is that we are in receipt of your request.”
“It’s obvious I’m talking to the wrong person,” he said. “Connect me to your manager, if you’d be so kind.”
“Would it be okay if I put you on hold for a moment?”
She put him on hold and didn’t come back. They never came back. Six business days in a row he’d made the call and six business days in a row the call ended the same way. Following two or three minutes of hold music, which Stern knew well enough by now to hum along with, a recorded voice returned to the line and said, “Thank you for calling the Department of Homeland Security, goodbye.”
After this last hang up, he’d had enough. Of everything. He jumped in his rental and headed out on I-87 for the border. Let him take his case to the agents themselves. They knew his work. Who didn’t? Rescue Animal Butlers had made Pickles, the retired helper monkey, a bonafide star. God bless Pickles, Stern thought, the autumn air rushing through the window, chilling his left ear which, at fifty-eight, still had a tiny diamond stud threaded through his fleshy lobe. Pickles looked sharp in a tux and mixed the most wonderful Manhattan he ever tasted. Pickles also paid the bills. Stern had been able to move Mom into Park Meadow Senior Living Community and that was where she lived for five years, up until ten days ago. Now she lived in an urn, a receptacle not unlike the one that had housed Stern’s father since that morning in 2000, when Dad called out to Mom from the bathroom, “Babe, have you seen the charger to my beard trimmer?” and then dropped dead of a highly stenotic left main coronary artery. Both urns were presently en route to Stern’s West Hollywood bungalow, in a FedEx Ground box. Mom and Dad had given him his first home and he was giving them their last.
He lifted his coffee from the cup holder to his lips, realizing too late that he’d grabbed yesterday’s cup. The cold dregs were already down the hatch. He wished he was en route to his bungalow. Instead he was in the town that spawned him, the town that had employed Dad at the townie college, “Part of the great state education system,” Dad loved to say (and though Stern told industry people his father had been a professor, the man worked in procurements—thirty years spent mostly buying golf carts for campus police to tool around in), the town that his mother had refused to leave, even when the holes in her brain made it impossible to remember what about it she found lovely. The holes in her brain, hence Park Meadow Senior Living Community. He’d settled the last of her affairs by filling out the shipping label on the FedEx Ground box and yet he remained in Plattsburgh. Why?
Border Cops: Northern Heroes. Mexico got all the press. Cartels, gang wars, kidnappings in Juarez, decapitations in Zihuatanejo. The Canadian border? Canuck, please! Stern was about to change that. This TV show would present these unsung United States border agents for the courageous men and women they were. Who didn’t love a story where the most unrecognized and humble amongst us got the shout-outs they richly deserved? Stern knew in his heart it was a winner.
Plan was: zip across the border and see if he couldn’t chat up an agent or two on his return, planting a seed by passing along his business card. Stern said all the right things to the Canadians and breezed through the checkpoint. This morning he’d felt too jangled in his nerves to eat breakfast and was now starving. He quickly devoured a gas station tuna salad sandwich while driving with one hand, crumbs and mayo on his lap, tossed the wrapper into the backseat (which lately had become something of a graveyard for food wrappers,) banged a U-ie at the next exit, and eased the rental into one of the many lanes heading to the States.
He checked his wallet for business cards and put one on top of his passport photo. It was hard to believe that when Walter Janneck, an administrator of some import at Park Meadow, called two weeks ago with news that Mom was deteriorating, it would lead Stern to the best idea he’d had in over a year, one that would likely whitewash memories of The 13th Step is Love, his dating show that was shot in a halfway house and starred newly recovering, albeit lithe and tan, addicts, the show that was pulled after three episodes when Amber, the fan favorite, OD’d on a handful of smuggled Vicodin after she failed that week’s Sexy Challenge. That was the beginning of Stern’s rough patch. Almost immediately after 13th Step was cancelled, his longtime business partner and mentor, the man who’d taught him everything he knew about television producing, Dennis Raptis, went in for an easy-peasy lap band procedure and never came out. Stern’s ideas dried up after that. None of his pitches had sold in close to fourteen months. So yes, maybe he was in a state the day Walter Janneck called, and maybe that was why he thought it was a shakedown.
Walt J. was a CASP, a Certified Aging Services Professional, a title that sounded to Stern about as important as a production assistant. Walt J. also sounded completely full of shit, saying, “Audrey’s condition has reached the point where perhaps we should start the conversation regarding a wide range of options available to service her long term care. I hope you understand this doesn’t have to be an unpleasant conversation, or one without Audrey’s input.”
“In other words, you’re about to sell me the deluxe package. Isn’t that right?”
“On the contrary. What I’m saying is your mother’s condition has outgrown our facilities.” He suggested Mom needed around the clock care.
“You’re kicking her out? I’m a paying customer.”
“Mr. Stern, I said this didn’t have to be an unpleasant conversation.”
Several days later Stern was back in his hometown, camera in hand. He was going to record Mom, show her in fine fettle, or as fine a fettle—whatever the fuck a fettle was—as you could reasonably expect from an eighty-seven year old woman with mid-stage dementia. Let Walter Janneck watch indisputable visual evidence of Mom’s not infrequent lucidity and still tell him she had to go.
For some reason, Stern’s line at the border wasn’t moving. He inched the rental a little to the left to see what was happening. The car at the checkpoint was being pulled over. Then additional agents showed up. Then the driver got out. There was some discussion between him and the agents. One of the agents started searching the backseat of the car. The first agent put handcuffs on the driver. And that was when a woman climbed out of the passenger seat.
Even the hangover was almost perfect. An overstatement, of course, but Eric found in his sour mouth, his headache, his low-grade nervousness, something resembling a former version of himself that had been attractive to them both. What he meant was this: he accepted a Monday hangover as a valid part of the weekend that had just ended. Which made it almost perfect. As in: the weekend had been so great that not even dry heaving at the sink when brushing his teeth this morning diminished it. He and Angie were driving out of Montreal, heading home. They had coffees and bottled water and periodically they took queasy sips, alternating from one to the other.
He turned up the radio. Angie snort-laughed at the French rapper.
“So lame,” she said.
Considering the expectations he’d heaped on the trip (and she was no slouch in the expectations heaping department either) any number of tiny irritations, real or perceived, could have derailed their jaunt. The fact that he openly called the weekend “A delightful little jaunt,” in a French accent (ironically, of course), could have derailed it. Only everything turned out amazing. First, Friday night, when they arrived, the hotel upgraded them to a suite, gratis. They didn’t even ask. The desk clerk just said, “I took the liberty of moving you into a more spacious room.” Eric loved that the man had said “I took the liberty,” as if it was a matter of his freedom, his inalienable right to a room with a whole other freaking room attached, replete with a sofa, floor to ceiling windows, a dining area… it set the tone of the trip.
The whole weekend was like that. They wandered the streets with no map, no GPS, and let the city wash over them. The Jean-Talon Market, for instance, where they ate slices of apples practically out of a vendor’s hand, then bought two pounds of unshelled, raw almonds as a gesture, even though what were they supposed to do with all those nuts? They took lunches for two or three hours, guzzling wine and beer. You know how it is when you’re walking in a foreign city in the early evening, glassy eyed with booze, holding her hand like it wasn’t the same hand you’d held so many times over the last decade that you couldn’t even remember when it finally lost the electrical charge that used to run up your arm when you held it. What he meant was this: the charge was back, in her hands. Recharged. They were able to recharge that air of conspiracy that had brought them together in the beginning, that feeling of collusion against the rest of the world, because they got it in a way no one else did. All right, perhaps that sounded unnecessarily confrontational to the rest of the world and didn’t exactly explain how they had once felt. Perhaps it could be better described as a skill, which they believed was uniquely theirs, of disengaging from all things unrelated to them. Which had been the stated purpose of the trip, the jaunt, whatever. And last night, oh man, last night.
They made it to the border and got in line for the checkpoint. He panicked briefly when he couldn’t feel his passport in his pocket, and he took a frantic mental lap around the suite, wishing not to see it lying on the dresser top. Then he remembered Angie was holding both in her purse for safekeeping. He powered down the window and breathed the crisp air.
The unstated purpose of the trip was the reason for all the expectations heaping. It was the thing they had tried to do and failed to accomplish for how long now, a year? He said it to himself like it was a question, as if he didn’t know how long. Then last night there was the dinner at L’express, all white table cloths and waiters in black vests. They ate bone marrow and sea bass, maple syrup pie for dessert. And wine. And beer. More wine and beer. Really too much, overindulgence. Back in the suite they overindulged in each other. He was still tender below the equator, the vigorous sex chaffing him where he needed not be chaffed.
Well, what if they had done it? What if this jaunt to Montreal had somehow changed everything? They would have to put a needlepoint in the baby’s room: Conceived in love… and Molson. And then take it out before the child could read because why give the kid a stigma? As if his parents were drunken stumblebums. They’d take it out before the child could read, maybe at two years if he was a real prodigy. But no, Eric didn’t want a prodigious child. Neither did Angie. Those kids always burned out quick, seldom living up to their early promise (talk about expectations heaping), or else were socially weird and also, let’s face it, how could the child relate to two average parents? Might as well admit that he and Angie were lifelong B students. But not dullards. They had lots of interests, well-rounded was what it used to be called. Just a happy child was what they both wanted. A healthy child was enough. He was getting ahead of himself. He wasn’t sure they had accomplished anything. What was next for them if they hadn’t? A doctor? A specialist? And then treatment? Pills, hormones, injections? He didn’t know. Of course he knew. He’d scoured the internet. Now he looked over at Angie. She was resting her eyes, arms folded over her chest. She looked peaceful. Injections would definitely disrupt that peace.
He pulled up to the checkpoint where, at any rate, he had to disrupt her peace. “Ang, can I have the passports?”
The agent had his name, SHERMAN, stitched over his chest, and snatched up the I.D.’s like Eric was handing him a parking ticket. So pointlessly gruff. The agent asked the standard questions—at least Eric thought they were standard—and seemed bored asking.
Sherman started to hand back the passports, but something caught his eye. “Would you mind pulling your car out of the lane?”
“Just pull out of the lane.”
What could he to do but oblige?
“What’s the matter?” Angie said. Eric just shrugged.
Sherman was now out of the booth, at the window of the car. Eric saw another agent coming up behind Sherman and another coming from the other side.
“Who owns this car, sir?”
“I do,” Eric said.
How long have you owned it?” Sherman was holding their passports, waving them around a little, sort of teasing Eric with the possibility of returning them.
“I don’t know. A couple of years. I don’t really understand the problem.”
“Your car’s not registered.”
“Of course it is.”
“Okay, expired. That doesn’t mean—”
“Can’t let an unregistered car into the country.”
“It just means—”
“It just means—”
“How much have you had to drink today, sir?”
“Drink what?” He was so taken aback he couldn’t answer right. “Drink nothing. No. Not drink.”
“Why does your car smell like alcohol?”
“Oh, okay, see, it’s probably from last night sweating out of us.”
Sherman just stared blankly. It got worse from there, as Eric kept trying to explain he probably just smelled last night’s booze because they had to check out of the hotel and didn’t get a chance to shower, because they hadn’t had a drink in what, six or seven hours?
“That’s about right, isn’t it, Ang? Seven hours? Maybe eight?”
The explanation sounded more like an excuse, and it didn’t bolster Eric’s case when Angie leaned over him to talk out of the window, saying she was offended at the accusation since they were both responsible drivers, responsible humans, and had never done anything as reckless as drive impaired. Then Eric was being asked, told, to step out of the car and Sherman asked, told, him to put his hands on the hood and then one of Sherman’s associates opened the back door of the car and started poking around. Eric turned to tell him he had no fucking right, but Sherman pinned Eric’s arm behind his back and then his other arm and then the cuffs went click click click click click.
If Stern learned one thing from his mentor, Dennis (who was he kidding? He’d learned everything from that enormous Greek genius), it was that you had to be ready to pitch. Anytime, anywhere. That was how he sold his first show, in 1986, a scripted kids program called Cattitude, about an alley tom hell bent on becoming a world class tap dancer (later retooled to a leopard training to be a prize fighter). Stern saw Marty Posner at an Exxon and went for it right at the pumps, even though he was so nervous that sweat poured into his eyes and Posner must have thought he suffered some kind of ocular tic he was blinking so much. From then on, however, the smell of gas fumes always reminded him of winning.
So it was nothing to approach the border agents about the project. It wasn’t even a pitch in the true sense of the word. He just wanted to gauge their interest. Or if they weren’t aware they were interested, enlighten them. They might not have known it but that arrest was Stern’s opening. That was precisely what he wanted the world to see: fearless border agents taking on risks of all kind. Sometimes it was foiling a terrorist plot; sometimes it was preventing illegals from taking a shortcut to the American dream; sometimes, like today, it was arresting an ostensibly harmless white guy for no apparent reason; and sometimes it was shedding light on the disturbing trend of senior citizens—aided and abetted by burgeoning felons like Walter Janneck, CASP—making monthly trips into Canada to purchase contraband prescription drugs.
Walt J. should have believed him when Stern came to him. He shouldn’t have been so dismissive, so quick to put the blame on Mom. Not when he himself was chartering bus tours every few weeks for the purpose of subverting the FDA and defrauding American pharmaceutical companies. Stern didn’t care if the prices were cheaper north of the border and that many Park Meadow residents lived on fixed incomes or that Medicare Part D was a morass of confusion. Ours was a nation of laws.
Stern had made the trip to see how Mom was doing and, to tell the truth, she looked shriveled and a little disoriented when he first entered her room. But after mistaking him for his father, she remembered Stern. Soon they were talking like they always did. He fired up the Canon 7D and began recording their conversation. He knew she was doing well when she complained about looking like an old lady, and having been raised in a time when only certain types of carousing girls were brash enough to want to be on film.
“It’s digital, Mom,” Stern said, but her point was taken. He couldn’t wait to show Walt J. the footage. Would a woman unable to care for herself worry so much about her appearance? Would she have her morals so confidently in place?
An aid came in to retrieve Mom’s lunch tray. Mom said, “Nazi, this one,” wagging a thumb at him.
Stern apologized for his mother and gave the aid ten dollars. “Jesus Christ, Mom,” he said after the aid left.
“What? Since when am I not supposed to point out Nazis?”
“That kid is probably nineteen. And black. I doubt he’s a Nazi.”
“Well, he hates Jews.”
“If everyone who hated Jews was a Nazi, they would have won the war.”
“Oh, you mean, Aurelli?”
“Frank Aurelli. Room 213.”
“What are you talking about?”
She glanced around as if people were listening. “Last time we went north to get our meds…” She couldn’t go on.
Stern leaned closer. “What is it?”
“He was goose stepping like no tomorrow. Mein Fuhrer this and that.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “He’s a war criminal. High up in the SS, I found out.”
“Aurelli is hardly a German name.”
“I thought you were supposed to be a shrewd producer. The man changed his name,” she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Stern turned off the Canon. He took Mom’s hand. “Mom, are you okay?”
“Promise me you’ll keep that bastard away. Promise me.”
She kept repeating, to herself it seemed, that no one was taking her seriously. It was hard to watch, and harder when Mom, almost at once, grew incoherent. When she started crying it wasn’t like an adult, but a child. Mom had regressed eighty-five years before Stern’s eyes. She started wailing, real horror in her screams, that Aurelli was coming for her. The aid came back in the room to pacify her. It was too much fear to be a symptom, Stern thought. Maybe there was something to her claim.
But when he brought his concerns to Walter Janneck, he was met with raised eyebrows.
“I can’t discuss other residents, but I assure you that Mr. Aurelli is not a war criminal. He’s a retired electrician.”
“My mother isn’t a liar, Mr. Janneck,” Stern said.
“Your mother suffers from a progressive loss of cognitive ability.”
“She forgets things. She doesn’t make them up.”
“Mr. Stern, this is part of the disease. This is why I called.”
No. Absolutely not. Mom was loopy but not a psycho. Because what did this say about us if this was how we fell apart? What good was our evolved brain if, at the end, it was always Nazis, or demons, or people fucking us out of money we never had in the first place, or waking up every day without the words to tell someone that we loved them? What kind of Pleistocene terror lived in us that we couldn’t just lose our minds in a good way? If we were doomed to misremember our own lives, couldn’t it be swimming the English Channel and being elected town mayor and building a Fortune 500 company out of stake money won in a card game in a Tupelo cathouse?
So no, it couldn’t be as grim as that. Aurelli was a Nazi. Stern left Walt J.’s office and went right to room 213. Security removed him from the premises. Police weren’t called.
Mom died two days later. Stern was once again in the administrator’s office, where he received condolences on behalf of the Park Meadow family, along with several documents needing his authorization. He scanned the forms. Little of what he saw found purchase in his mind. His pen hovered over some clause he was supposed to initial.
“If you have any questions about what you’re signing, Mr. Stern, don’t hesitate to ask.”
He looked up from the paperwork to reassess his take on Walt J. Mom might have been on her backslide, but she had five more good years in her. At least. He was sure of it. She was well when he last saw her. Okay, not well exactly, but not dying either. He was right to be suspicious as hell.
“Can you explain how it happens that a woman under your care dies all of a sudden?”
“Let me say that I’m mourning Audrey’s passing with you.”
Stern stood, the paperwork sliding off his lap to the floor. He made his case. “BP, cholesterol, lung, kidneys, liver function, you name it, were not too shabby, all within normal range.”
“Your mother was very ill, Mr. Stern.”
“The macular degeneration was in its incipience.”
“I can’t presume to know what you’re going through right now.”
“If you think it might help, I can arrange for you to speak to a professional.”
“This is actionable.”
“I know a couple of highly-rated bereavement therapists.”
“Best case scenario is you’re negligent. You don’t want to get me started on a worst case scenario.”
“I can refer you, if you’d like.”
“As if I’d have anything to do with someone connected to this drug smuggling, Nazi protecting, Mom murdering crime syndicate.”
It was while security escorted Stern off the property that inspiration hit. Border Cops: Northern Heroes. He blamed himself for what happened to Mom but was he going to make things right once and forever by bringing the Department of Homeland Security crashing down on Walter Janneck and the entire Park Meadow Senior Living Community.
Now he needed to summon every last bit of the old Stern charm, that considerable amount of charisma he got from who knows where. Mom and Dad, as wonderful and supportive as they were, were upstate people, jocular, good natured, loved to laugh, their house was full of music and laughter. But straight shooters, those two. They didn’t operate with hidden agendas, wouldn’t know where to start to take advantage of anyone. Stern often wondered how Mom and Dad ever talked themselves into each other’s pants to make him in the first place. So who knows where he got it, but he had it, and now—as he braked the rental at the checkpoint and smiled at this spit-shined paragon of security and order keeping, SHERMAN—Stern was going to give it to him with both barrels.
“Yes, sir, good morning, sir,” he said, with an informal salute. “Can I tell you that what you did, just now, a few minute ago, got my blood pumping? I was shaking like I was lost in the woods. Tremendous job. Right hand to God, I mean that.”
“Thanks. Passport,” Sherman said.
“But, of course,” Stern said, flipping his document open, his photo obscured by his business card.
Sherman took the passport and turned the card around in his hand, looking it over quickly front to back. “What’s this?” he said.
“An opportunity of a lifetime.” Stern wasted no time getting to the point. The elevator pitch. Sell your project in the time it takes to go from the lobby to the tenth floor. In his prime, he could close by the sixth.
Sherman wasn’t an artist and therefore missed the big picture. “No offense, but who would want to watch us sitting on our asses all day?”
“I beg to differ. The service you provide to the safety of our country is an invaluable one, and one with real entertainment cachet.”
“This isn’t the movies.”
“I’m talking syndication, bud. I mean, just look at your jawline. You’ve seen yourself in a mirror. Now, imagine if we had been shooting today, when you subdued that wildman, that rabid sonofabitch, for reasons that are no doubt confidential intelligence of national security. You’re telling me you wouldn’t watch that? I know that’s not what you’re saying.”
“You know what that is? Two hours of paperwork. He’ll be out of here before I get started on it.” Sherman poked his head out of the booth, inspected the growing line of cars. “Time to get moving, sir.”
“Call in a day or two. No rush.” He knew he was solid gold if Sherman kept the card.
Sherman pocketed the business card and returned the passport. “Time to get moving,” he said.
Stern had to stifle a smile. He drove out of the checkpoint, feeling once again that wondrous rush coursing through his veins, the mad disorder belying his cool demeanor. He was sick with giddiness. Soon Mom would be avenged and he would be back on top.
“But how am I supposed to bail him out if you’re confiscating everything?” she asked.
“Your husband’s not under arrest so there’s no bail. We’re just detaining him until we can get this matter sorted out.”
She was standing beside a row of plastic road barriers, talking to the one with CARLSON stitched on his chest. Behind them a tow truck lifted the front end of her car.
“Detaining? What the fuck?”
“I understand you’re upset, but this is the way it’s going to be.”
“All my stuff’s in there,” Angie said, pointing at the car. “It just doesn’t make any sense. You know we’re not criminals.”
“You can’t stand here, ma’am. It’s not safe.”
“Where the fuck am I supposed to go?”
Carlson was already turning away from her. She stood by the barriers for a minute, thinking he was returning to take her to a waiting room or to give her information about Eric. Carlson stayed gone. Having nothing else to do, she walked straight into the middle of nowhere, hiking a half-mile on the emergency shoulder, with traffic zooming by her. How was this safer? At the first exit, she climbed the ramp, up the hill, to the Mobil station. She had no purse, no luggage, no ID, no cell phone, only the clothes on her back and what was in her jeans pockets: thirty-seven American dollars, ten-fifty in Canadian, a tube of ChapStick, and her birth control pills.
At the Mobil Mart she bought a pack of cigarettes. She hadn’t smoked in two years, quit right on her thirtieth birthday as if it had been prophesized, and not a single slip up. Barely thought about it, even when she had to walk past the smokers huddled up outside her office building every time she went in or out at work. But this was an emergency. Plus, she earned it. Even without this calamity it was going to be nine out of ten on the stress scale today.
Outside the smoke hit her lungs like she never took a day off. She looked down the hill at the border crossing. She didn’t see anyone else getting pulled over. It was goddamn motherfucking bullshit, cocksu—she took a deep breath and held it until she felt her heart beat in her ears. She had to calm down, even if the situation was insane, which it was, even if her anger was justified, which it was. She had to be in control of herself when she went back for Eric. If she went back there presenting anything less than the model of composure, those cops or whoever might decide to detain her. Then she’d have to wait until both her and Eric’s matters had been sorted out. However long that would take.
A few drags later she was in control again. That was when she noticed the old man. Not ancient old, but older. And balding. And double-fisting bottles of Diet Coke, grinning and nodding at her.
“Anything I can do to help?” he said.
This wasn’t happening. On top of everything else. Did he think he had a chance? Was that an earring? “Don’t be that guy,” Angie said.
“Hey, no, you got it all wrong. I was at the checkpoint. I saw.”
She sucked the cigarette to the filter and went to light another one, fumbling with the matches, two of them extinguished in the wind before getting the tobacco to burn.
“They said he’s only detained,” she said.
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Well, in my experience, it never hurts to have representation. If you want I can give you a name or two. Real bulldogs. Entertainment lawyers mind you. But still. I’m from L.A. I’m in town visiting my mom.”
Angie looked down the hill to the checkpoint. She studied the outcropping of buildings off the highway, squinting as if she could see her husband through a window. “Your mother. That’s nice. She must be happy to see you,” she said, changing the subject.
“She was.” He drank his soda. “But then she died.”
“Don’t sweat it. You didn’t know. I haven’t really talked about it. I just wanted to try it out, say it, see how it felt. Didn’t feel good.”
“Excuse me, I’m going to get something to drink,” she said. It wasn’t the kindest response, she knew, but thinking about this man’s dead mother reminded her she hadn’t taken her birth control. She was grateful he’d weirdly jogged her memory.
He held out his unopened bottle of Diet Coke. “I don’t know why I bought two,” he said.
She dropped her cigarette on the ground, stepped on it. She washed down the pill with his beverage.
“Can I try saying something, to see how it feels?” she said.
“Be my guest.”
“Yesterday my sister and her husband moved my stuff out of the house. It’s in boxes in their garage right now.”
“How’d that feel?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Let me give you your privacy,” he said, but didn’t move.
“He doesn’t know.”
“You haven’t told him?”
As Angie saw it, the problem was simple: Eric thought she wasn’t able to. But she knew the truth. She didn’t want to, which explained why she was sneaking pills. Yes, when she looked at it this way, it was a very simple problem. Where it got complicated was when she admitted to herself that maybe this wasn’t the problem at all, but one of the ways the real problem expressed itself.
“He did this thing last night at dinner and I almost caved. I almost called my sister and told her to move it all back.”
She tried to give the guy his soda but he waved her off. “Keep it,” he said.
“He ordered in French. He tried to. He doesn’t know a word of French. He was struggling like if he just concentrated hard enough, he would do it. The waiter thought he was a psycho. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
What she didn’t tell the balding guy with the earring was that when she asked Eric what he thought he was doing, he said he really thought he could pull it off. That if he wanted to speak French bad enough his brain would unlock the language center for him, giving him the miraculous gift of speech.
“Because it’s all in here,” he’d said, tapping a finger at his temple. “Like that guy walking on the beach in Puerto Rico who got bonked on his head with a falling coconut and was suddenly fluent in Mandarin.”
She almost backed down when he’d said that. How did you walk away from a man who believed so strongly in the transformative power of his own optimism? And that was when she realized she had to leave because she was saddled with the flipside of that coin: she believed in the crushing weight of reality. For a while she’d thought that being with him would rub off on her and that, over time, she could be more like him. But, over time, she stayed who she always was and he, just being himself, made her feel worse by comparison.
She said to the guy, “Our wedding cost fifty thousand. We had the highest hopes.”
“My mom wore a brown dress at her wedding. That way she could wear it again. It would be a waste of money otherwise. The idea of wearing something only once—Mom and Dad couldn’t see the point. Different times,” he said.
“I have to get back to the checkpoint,” she said, hoping that saying it aloud would stir her to action. She was anxious about dealing with the rest of the day, of course, but she wasn’t afraid of bungling it. What stalled her was the feeling that her decision to leave Eric would one day be proven correct, and right now the only way that future moment could ever be disproven was to go through with it and await the results. So she thought about buying time with another cigarette and letting the potential of this bold move grow brighter inside her, only to realize that the feeling itself was contingent upon her not standing still.
“I’ve got to get back,” she said again and this time it worked. She started walking.
“Want a ride?”
They pulled out of the gas station. He kept apologizing for the trash. “Since Mom died, I’ve been eating in here a lot.”
The litter didn’t bother her. She appreciated the company, even if it was a strange, sad man. “I’m sorry if you already told me,” she said, “but how did she die?”
“You’ll find out soon. The whole world will.”
Angie had no idea what he was talking about but he spoke with such conviction that she believed him. She believed him when he said, “Let’s get your husband. We’re going to clean this mess right up.”
Aaron Jacobs’ debut novel, The Abundant Life, will be published in 2018. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, JMWW, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. Sometimes he tweets at @itsaaronjacobs.