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.