|Chagrin River Review||
Where It Started
I met Joe Reno in Freemont Park at 1 a.m. as planned. He was lying on a picnic table, smoking a cigarette. His clothes were black. If it hadn't been for the orange ember, I might not have seen him. As I approached, he sat up with a jolt and blew a cloud he'd half-inhaled.
“Jesus, man. I didn't hear you.”
He reached into his pocket, found his smokes and offered one up. I took it and lit it, felt the first drag hit my lungs. We sat together on the picnic table and mapped the night ahead. First we'd hit the Freemont streets, then move on to Ballaster Heights. After that we'd climb the hill to Upland Ridge. Wealthy people lived there. They had Jaguars and Benzes and SUVs—models with alarm systems. We wanted to start in the lower-class neighborhoods. Folks down here drove older cars.
It's important to note that me and Joe Reno weren't crooks. Just two people with nothing to lose. Joe was a washed-up banker, or day-trader or something. He lost his job in a cyber-attack. He lived in his car, a beat-up Rabbit we used as transport. I had a wife and a newborn kid. My motel-room contained a suitcase that I packed each morning and emptied each night.
Joe was as strange to me as I was to him. But we'd both partaken of life's sweet fruit and spit out the good parts along with the seeds.
When the plan was set, we paused in the darkness. The park was empty. A thicket of clouds had covered the moon. Traffic rumbled down I-85, a few miles east of where we sat. The wind carried smells of fire and decay, lightbulb dust, charred ends of crack-pipes and aluminum foil. It was early fall. The rains were coming, but they weren't here yet, and a stale feeling drew over the city like a musty blanket over a corpse.
Reno drummed his thumb on the bench.
“Alright,” he said. “Let's hit it.”
I flipped my cigarette into the grass and pulled on my gloves. We stood face-to-face and grinned at each other. We shook hands and bowed our heads. Then we were off, our feet tapping over the footpath.
We left the park and zig-zagged the road, sticking to shadows between the streetlamps. The houses were shabby, one-story boxes with chain-link fences and wilted grass. People had left things behind in their driveways. A truck jacked up with the front-bumper missing, a saw-bench with sheet-metal gripped in its vice.
A little way down, the streetlamps ended. We each took one side of the road. The first car I touched was an old Honda Civic. The latch creaked as I pulled the handle. It was locked. I moved on. A few yards up I noticed Joe. He'd scored already. All I saw were his legs and ass, protruding from the open doorway of a Jeep.
Two houses later my attention was caught by a newish truck in the driveway of a duplex. I stood still and scanned the house. No lights. No sound. No sign of intelligent life. I crept forward and made an attempt. This time the door came open. A light turned on inside the truck. I gave the house another look and climbed into the driver's seat.
The truck's interior smelled like shoe polish. I searched the cup-holders (a dollar or two in nickels and dimes, a gas receipt, a stick of gum). Rummaged through the center console (CD collection with too much Eagles). Checked the pockets behind both seats (maps, a lighter, more CDs). I pocketed the lighter and opened the glovebox, searched the floor on the passenger side. It had been too long. I stepped outside and hurried out of the driveway.
So we went, Joe Reno and I. Shadows moving car-to-car. Motion-lights flaring, lighting the road. The street terminated a half-mile down. The last car was parked at the top of a cul-de-sac. Joe arrived and took a breath.
I shook my head, reached into my pocket and flicked the lighter I'd found in the truck.
“Besides this, about five bucks in change.”
“That's it?” He scrunched his nose.
“Not shit. Some quarters. A Carly Simon CD. Which reminds me—”
He reached into his back pocket and produced the disc, which had no case. He held it up in front of his face and examined his reflection in the shiny underside. Then he wound back and hurled the disc like a frisbee. It landed in a hedgerow off to our left.
“Let's hit this one and get back to the Rabbit,” I said. “Ballaster's gotta be better than this.”
“Go ahead,” said Reno. “I'll keep watch.”
I studied the houses. The cul-de-sac was out in the open. A single street-lamp off to one side shed a wide glow across the asphalt. Anyone standing at one of those windows could see us clearly.
“Fuck it,” I said. “Let's just go.”
We weaved our way back to the park. We had a smoke at the picnic table and walked across to the gravel lot. Reno cleared the passenger seat and I climbed in beside him.
“What time is it?” he asked, leaning on the wheel and inspecting the sky, as though the clouds might give some hint. “You think it's after two already?”
“Probably,” I said.
“I could use a beer. You wanna buy some beer?”
“Yes. But let's make it quick. We'll stop somewhere along the way.”
We bought a six-pack with the change we'd found and clinked the cans in celebration. The night was off to a sluggish start, but things were starting to feel all right.
We arrived in Ballaster to empty streets. The cars were parked in people's drives, or else were absent altogether. Reno rolled his window down and the sound of a street-sweeper filled the car.
“Fuck,” he said. “I forgot about that.”
“Let's just go.”
He looked at me.
“Think,” he said, tapping his temple. “That thing is loud as hell.”
We parked and stepped outside. The air was cooler here. We walked around and checked our options. All the homes had real yards. Flowerbeds with wilted plants. Hedges, trees and yellow grass. Actual features of life on earth.
The sweeper kept droning. Reno was convinced that the noise would help. I worried we wouldn’t hear cars approaching. Anyone could sneak up behind us. People liked to stay out late. Before the kid, my wife used to go out drinking with her friends. They’d sip martinis, flirt with barflies to get free cocktails. That kind of womanly business. One night she was driving home and stopped at a junction to light a cigarette. As she cracked the window something caught her eye in the dark. A flat-screen television, floating in the window of a house on the corner. The TV was off, but the screen’s surface caught light from the intersection. She peered at this TV she thought was floating, and realized what was happening. There were men on either side of it, one in the yard, one in the house, passing the TV out through the window. Both men wore stocking-caps and black spandex undershirts. The light turned green but my wife stayed still, the engine murmured. The burglars succeeded in passing the unit and the one in the house climbed outside. They were half way through the intersection when they noticed her. Through the stockings she saw their eyes; fierce, snarling, aimed at hers. She tried to flick her cigarette out the window but in doing so she caught the glass. Orange sparks showered her lap. By the time she looked, the men were gone.
The night it happened she told the story with trembling eyes. I pulled her close and kissed her forehead, explained to her that these things happened. Her mascara was running and her words were slurring. She must have chain-smoked half a pack. We went to bed and tried to sleep, but she kept getting up to check the locks: Front door, back door, all the windows, then back to bed for a few more minutes before her breathing grew shallow and panicked. Up she got again, stumbling through the dim apartment, touching her hand to every latch. When she returned I pulled her close and put my hands on all her spots. Her breathing formed a humid space between us. We made love in a pool of sweat and tore apart, our skin sticky, muscles trembling. She went right to sleep, and I thanked the silence for sounding so sweet. But nine months later I woke up beside her and there was this thing screaming at the foot of our bed. And all that fear came rushing back. Her obsession with locks reached manic highs. The night was a tangle of dreams and awakenings, clicking latches and turning keys. She made me install a safety-chain on the bedroom door. She sequestered herself, growing anxious, skeletal. Purple rings burdened her eyes. The kid could sense her stress in the air. My ears were raw and bloody inside.
It took six weeks for the urge to come.
Joe Reno walked two steps ahead. He looked from left to right as he walked. My veins had turned electric shortly after my third beer. I felt each nerve firing off inside me. This sensation grew as we turned down a street that had no lamps. Everything dimmed to blues and blacks, the way things tend to look in a dream.
“There,” said Joe. He pointed to a Volkswagen, off to our right. The car was parked in front of a rolling garage. The driveway had hedges, taller than us, on either side. Joe went forward and ran his finger on the rear door. He looked back at me. I stood still and turned my head from side to side. The sweeper was approaching. I could feel it vibrating under my toes. Joe went around to the driver's side. I heard a click and the creak of a hinge. The car's interior stayed dark. Joe leaned inside and came back up a moment later.
“Check it out,” he said.
I went to the passenger side and opened the door. The seat was covered in small, plastic cylinders. Joe reached across the center console and picked one up. It made a rattling sound.
“Film canister?” I asked. Joe cracked his lighter and held the flame up to the label.
“Vicodin,” he said, and I saw his teeth light up in the darkness.
He popped the cap and tapped two pills into my palm. I chewed them up and licked the chalk from my glove.
We loaded ourselves with the full containers. Stuffing them into our pockets and sleeves. When the seat was clear, I checked the glovebox. A tiny light came on in there. I picked out an Altoids tin, shook it gently. It didn't contain any mints. I opened it up and found a pipe, a bag of stems; both of which went into my jeans. By this time, Joe Reno was kneeling on the driver's seat, reaching over into the back.
“You want a tennis racket?” he asked. “There's two here. And a can of balls.”
“Why not?” I said. We both starting laughing. I slapped Joe Reno across his shoulders and he cracked the top on a second bottle.
He leaned his head back and tried to swallow, but at that moment the street came alive with a blinding light. Joe spit the pill and it bounced off the headrest. Through the rear window, the sweeper appeared. First the headlights, burning tunnels through the darkness, then the howl of cogs and machinery; scrape of gravel in dull metal blades, rotating brushes and clouds of debris. We sat there watching, holding our breath. In the corner of my eye, I noticed a light growing taller and taller.
“Reno!” I yelled, but Joe didn't hear me. I jabbed his arm. He looked at me, saw my expression, turned his head and opened his mouth.
The garage door was rising. With the street-sweeper going, it made no sound. Frantically I reversed myself out of the car. I felt the blood move through my head and angry splotches filled my vision. I lost my balance and tumbled backwards through the hedgerow. It was sharp, whatever it was. I came out the other side covered in thorns, hit the sod of the adjacent lawn and felt my organs swing together. Then I was on my hands and knees, crawling away as fast as I could. Behind me, I heard a woman yell. The bushes rustled. I got to my feet and sprinted hard, forgetting it all, aiming blindly into the night. The grass ended, my feet hit the road and I shot around a series of turns. The sweeper was off in another direction.
I ran a quarter-mile before the present world appeared. My pockets were rattling. I had to slow down. Running was too suspicious. I carried on at an awkward pace, half-walking, half-jogging. My intention was to find the Rabbit, stand beside it and wait for Joe. But the farther I walked, the more the streets looked alike. And suddenly I felt the pills kick in.
A gentle thing—my veins split open, and from the cracks came hot, wet honey. Everything bloated and slowed into frames. I was rolling now, more gliding than walking. I crossed a street and saw the blue of someone's bike-light paint a streak across my eyes.
“On your left,” they informed me.
“On your left, more like.”
I was heading uphill. I climbed a fence and carried on. Around me was a schoolyard. There were all these poles with yellow cubes on top, and the cubes had holes with plastic spouts so you could shoot a ball and get it back. I thought about that. It seemed to make sense. To let a thing go and have it return, no questions asked. But what happened inside the cube? What strange mechanism forced the ball to fall so cleanly down that spout, and head right back to where it started? I wanted to know. I stopped a yard short of one of the poles and stood looking up. It wasn't so tall. I paced backwards five or six steps, ran forward, jumped high and grabbed the top. With all my strength I hoisted myself up over the lip. I curled my legs and hunkered down. It was like a nest. There were four compartments inside the cube, and each one led to a different spout. It was a multiplayer game. I lifted my head and breathed the air.
Time reset. I had no idea where I was, or which direction I had come from. I was crouched inside a plastic cube—on top of a pole—and all around I heard the rain. It began as a crackle, like static at the start of a vinyl record, and soon a rhythm started up. The tempo rose. The earth was humming. Droplets broke and cloned themselves, turning to mercury under the streetlamps.
I steadied myself inside the nest and stuck a finger down my throat. The vomit came like foamy salsa, shot down one of the four compartments and trickled out through the spout below. I heard it splatter against the ground, wiped my chin and craned my neck. I must have imagined the two white pills, half-digested, drifting apart in the pool below me.
Slowly I swung my feet over the side. The plastic dug into my ass. I was afraid that when I jumped, I'd catch a piece of clothing and arc down headfirst into the pole. It didn't happen. I hopped off smoothly, landed with purpose and started out. My footsteps clashed on a film of rainwater. Dampness crept inside my shoes. I was in a neighborhood where everything appeared to be A-OK. The front lawns were mowed and the houses had porches with American flags.
I could have lived in a place like this. Ten, fifteen years from now. But I left that behind when I went to the door, turned one of those sacred locks, stepped outside with my own stars and stripes and descended the stairs of my apartment complex. I hailed a cab, threw my suitcase in before me and told the driver to take me away. Somewhere, anywhere. I didn't care how far he went.
“Get that meter through the roof! I don't give a shit. Just get me out of here.”
I kept checking over my shoulder, expecting to see her standing there.
As we pulled away I shut my eyes and kept them closed the whole ride through. Eventually we stopped and the backs of my eyelids filled with color. We were parked beside a neon sign. The word read, “Vacancy.”
I set my suitcase on the bed, looked through the window and saw a street I didn't know. After a good deal of standing and looking, I remembered that every good street has a bar. I walked a few blocks and found the place and went inside and ordered a beer.
“Hey,” a voice said. “You look like a guy who's lost a thing or two.”
I put my glass on the bar and looked at the man who addressed me. His suit was creased and a size too big. He skipped a stool and sat down near me. He bought himself a drink. We sat together and he told me things. He’d discovered a way to find things he'd lost—even if they were gone forever. He said he knew where we could search. He'd help me find myself again.
So here we were, a lifetime later. Living this moment from either side of a rolling door. My clothes were soaked and my hair was dripping. From the crest of a hill I squinted out at the lights of town. They shone with a holy, steady brilliance, like vigil candles for missing souls. My own flame burned in that vast sea of lights, and she would be pacing, watching the sky for signs of a star. All those dust-trails, shimmering coldly. And something told me the door was unlocked.