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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 18


The folded Cracker Jack flap had that crumpled, stepped-on look that I recognize from seeing myself in the mirror in the morning. Ann pulled me past the door and around a bend in the corridor.

I took the room key out of my pocket. Ann clenched my arm.

"Let's see who comes out."

Her plan, heavy on justice, was to wait and identify the culprit as he escaped. My plan, heavy on vengeance, was to catch him in the act and show him his large intestines.

"Wait here. If I'm not back in one minute, call the police."

We synchronized our watches like commandos, then I tiptoed down the corridor.

I pressed my ear to the door. Nothing. Standing off to the side, I slid the key gently into the lock, and turned it. Nothing. I opened the door a fraction, freeing the catch. I wiggled the key out and slipped it back into my pocket. Twisted the doorknob, tried to swallow, then shoved the door open and rolled back out of sight against the wall to the right of the door. Nothing jumped out at me.

But my couch and television were cockeyed to the wall. The short hairs at the nape of my neck stood like quills.

I crossed the threshold, alert as a deer. This time I looked behind the door. Nobody. I peered out onto the fire escape. Empty. Heart thumping, I stalked over to the bathroom.

Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I watched as an odd expression crossed my face like I'd just taken a pitcher of ice water down my pants. Why do I look so startled? Oh, yeah. Ann won the bet.

At that moment, someone did a grand job of making me jump out of my skin by the simple act of clearing their throat behind me. In response, I flapped my arms, darted and ducked, bobbed and weaved--all while clearly expressing my dilemma to the world.

Help, however, had already arrived.

Ann flashed a big smile. "Did I scare you?"

"No. I periodically jump out of my skin for routine maintenance."

Hoover initiated an exhaustive snoofling check of the premises, bumping into furniture until I straightened it back to the way it had been. Ann sat on the bed. I went to the refrigerator and toyed with the door handle. I needed a drink badly, so I poured Canadian Club into two paper cups. Then I sat across from Ann, just squatted on the edge of the chair like I didn't want to use up too much of it. We drank in silence.

However, she kept grinning over her cup at me.

"Would it be possible for you to stop grinning?" I asked.

"I want details."

I stood and gazed out the window at the wet buildings glistening under the streetlights and began concocting diversionary tactics. Only when confident I could sidetrack her did I sit down again.

"I knew the exact moment our marriage was in trouble."

"Which was?"

"When I found my lunches packed in road maps with arrows pointing to Iraq."

"Bullshit," Ann said softly, but with feeling. Smoothly, she moved over to me and towered above my cowering figure. "Stop with the Howdy-Doody grin. You have less range of expression than the average fish. I'm not letting go of your collar until you tell me the truth."

"You don't have hold of--"

"I do now, Clark. A bet is a bet!"

"Let go of me!"

Grudgingly, she released my collar.

Slowly I began unruffling it.

"I'll help you get started," she said. "Bill told me that in every way that counted, you and Jessie were miles apart, with no road between you."

Oh no! If Ann knows part of the truth, how can I enhance it without risk?

"All right. I thought our marriage was perfect, until my wife said I was shutting her out." I knocked back the remainder of my drink and crushed the paper cup as though demonstrating an impressive feat of strength. Still thirsty, I began uncrumpling it. Ann waited quietly. Strangely, her silence was more encouraging than if she'd spoken.

"She said that I shared only the facts of my life with her, not the dreams." I held up the bottle of Canadian Club. Ann closed her eyes and shook her head. I poured myself another.

"After a while, I started to suspect Jessie was cheating on me. When I asked her about it, she told me about the forty-year-old divorce lawyer. I pleaded, 'Let's make our marriage work.' 'Make it work?' she said. 'You mean, give it a paper route or something?' The next day she was gone, leaving behind only a note."

"Saying?"

I stared at the ceiling, the cracks making rivers, the stains, lakes.

"'Each day is empty without shared feelings. You want forever, but I can't promise forever, empty in todays.' That's all she said. I thought there had to be more to it. I read the note over and over. Backwards and forwards. I think I even smelled it." I drained the last of my Canadian Club.

"We all make mistakes," Ann said. "We all have regrets. That's the price of being human. But eventually there's a point when guilt and remorse become self-indulgent. Examine the pain, then let it go."

There seemed magic in her observation. I felt something begin to unfurl inside me, like a plant uncurling its leaves and reaching toward the sun. Dredging up the past, examining the pain of my divorce, at long last I was breaking out of my self-imposed emotional isolation. Of course, I was drinking liquor straight out of the bottle at the time.

Emotionally spent, I yawned.

"What would you have asked me," she said, "if you had won the bet?"

"Tell me about the men in your life, starting with your dad."

"Both my parents died in a car crash when I was two. My grandparents raised me." She reached in her purse and pulled out two photos. In the first, a young couple holding a terrier smiled up at me from behind a judging table at a dog show. The pleasures of that day came through undiminished by the years. The second was a more recent photo of the same couple. They looked like duplicates of the first couple crumpled and smoothed out again.

Ann slipped the photos back into her purse and drew out two pieces of hard candy. She offered me one. I declined. Her eyes were sparkling.

"I've had one boyfriend."

I tried not to hyperventilate. "The guy in law school?"

"For three years."

"What happened?"

"We shared an apartment the third year. At first, everything was great. Then he decided I was suffocating him." The hard candy went from side to side in her mouth, like a die in a dice cup. Finally, she held it still. "At first he liked all my attention--then suddenly I'm a dry cleaning bag."

She can't be serious. "Any others?"

"A few, but compared to those, party streamers are permanent."

"Why?"

"You probably already know. Working with the A.L.F., other parts of my life vaporized. Most of my relationships were like passing ships--rocket ships--and ended with some heartfelt farewell like 'Lock up on your way out, would you, babe?'" She looked surprised, as if I'd been the one talking. "Listen to me prattle on. Anything else you'd like to know?"

Does every child who loses a parent build a wall around them? "Will you keep playing with Fluke, or go into law full time?"

"I'm staying with Fluke. That is, if Richard is okay. I mean, if Fluke continues. . . ."

"Wouldn't you make a lot more money as a lawyer?"

She nodded shyly.

"Are you bothered by their reputation?"

She grimaced in good humor. "Were I concerned about my reputation, I doubt I'd play in a rock band."

"The public does have a preconceived notion about the character of rock musicians."

"Especially female musicians. Men in the audience are convinced women are in a band only because they're sleeping with another band member. I think this belief dates back to the time when every 4-piece band included a corresponding number of girl tambourine players. And the women in the audience think you're a slut. If their boyfriend thinks you play well, then you're a cheap slut. I'm staying in Fluke because Fluke has become my family. Especially Corky."

"Are your grandparents gone?"

She nodded. "You know what? After they died it took years, but I learned to cope with loneliness. I really enjoy a quiet evening of reading. But the emptiness that comes over me when I think Fluke might break up is something new."

"Can I ask you something, Ann?"

"Uh-oh."

Does she know where I'm heading? I pressed on, aware I was on the precipice of asking her a question it might hurt her to answer. "This work you do, the child abuse cases . . ."

Her green eyes pierced the distance between us and she started nodding.

"If you don't want to talk about it right now, that's fine. But I'd like to hear about it when you're ready."

She swept her hair away from her eyes. "Thanks for understanding."

From fighting, my face was starting to bloat and soften like a melon going bad. I'd nearly lost a father figure. I was out of work and going to starve unless I learned some as-yet-undefined marketable skill. I understood nothing, but the concept of ignoring emotional problems until I could figure out ways to deal with the rapidly mounting backlog of concrete ones appealed to me.

Ann got to her feet. "Listen, I'll see you in the morning, okay?"

"And at night, at our 'family gathering' at Laurel." I stood, too.

She gave me a big warm hug. Having revealed so much of myself, I felt close to her.

"Want to stay here tonight?" After a moment of silence I added, "In case Ransacker returns."

"No, thank you." Her words showed she felt nothing of the closeness I was experiencing. Her tone was perfectly polite, her answer thoroughly reasonable, but all the same I felt it put distance between us, as if she'd taken several steps away.

"Lock your door, then," I said, hoping my voice betrayed nothing of my unsettled thoughts.

She leaned forward, kissed my forehead, and fled without looking back. I walked into the kitchenette, alone. In single file. Intoxicated. Somehow I had reached excess without having ever passed through satisfaction.

Smuffkins ambled over and sat looking up at me. I watched her stretching her legs on the glass, reaching out, conveying, Oh please pay attention to me. Please, love me.

"Look at how much I loved Mom and Dad," I said. "Love ends in pain." I headed to the fridge for an Eskimo Whip. "I prefer what cholesterol does to the heart."

I watched rain washing down the window. I paced, drank Canadian Club, and wondered if I could face up to the foolish hope that Ann was my soul mate. I was ashamed of this fresh glimmer of hope, of the naivet´┐Ż it revealed, the secret need, the quiet desperation.

I tossed the key left by the Ransacker into the top dresser drawer, then sat on the bed. Hoover, asleep on the floor, was dreaming, his legs twitched and he cried a little. For a long time I sat with my back against the wall. Eventually I fell asleep. Twice during the night I snapped the light on and tumbled out of bed to make sure the key hadn't disappeared. I listened to a man and a woman in another room threatening to have each other arrested, for what I had no idea, although I went into the hall twice hoping to find out.

I greeted the morning with a fairly spotty memory of the previous evening. One thing I remembered: stupidly asking Ann to stay the night. The bathroom mirror's reflected light struck the back of my skull, bursting inside. The prickly burrs of my hangover were mild compared to the sharp thorns of memory and self-awareness that bristled deeper inside my brain.

I called Ann and told her I was leaving to scout Laurel.

"You okay?" she asked.

"Didn't sleep much."

"Ever try counting sheep?"

"Never. Thinking about sheep while laying in bed is kind of weird to me."

Her laughter gave my headache a moment's relief, like rubbing a cramp.

* * *

To scout for the night's raid I drove north on Highway 1, then west on 128, away from Salem where not too many generations ago they burned witches. We entered a small farm town, Buffalo, with one industrial complex. Along the complex's east border was the Buffalo Bill Motel, a country bar called The Buffalo Stampede, a mobile-home park, and Laurel.

From the Buffalo Bill's roof I studied Laurel. Its test lab, an ordinary one-story brick building, was in a shallow canyon, its roof slightly above street level. The scientists, management, and maintenance crews were all local hires, which served the dual function of keeping labor costs low and security high. No one was going to do damage to the largest employer in the area, regardless of what they might see or hear.

I tested my walkie-talkie.

"Have any music?"

"No," a stolid voice said.

"How about sneakers, laced per code one-two?"

"Hold on, I'll put you through."

Corky answered and confirmed that everything was on schedule--vans painted, keys issued, updated codes and directions distributed.

I cracked a few marbles off the pavement below. A slingshot had replaced the Cobra, which had disappeared when the van crashed into the snow bank.

I drove the side streets and mapped everything. The Buffalo Stampede and the mobile home park presented a problem in that their entrances were only a block from Laurel, and The Stampede was open until three a.m. After my final surveillance pass, I headed home.

Back at the Suite Night I coated the pads of my fingers with Elmer's glue and watched it dry nearly transparent, then pressed my fingers to the window to make sure the layer of glue was thick enough to cover the minute lines in my skin.

Ann came into my room wearing what appeared to be an evening gown that converted into a sleeping bag with a secret compartment for her head. All in black.

Then I made a terrible error.

I said, "I'm ready. Let's go."

Ann looked me over. "You're going to wear that?"

"Yes," I said hesitantly. "I think so."

"Nice outfit. Powder blue sports jersey, green pants, and a yellow shirt. You're dressed like the villain in a Batman movie."

"I don't understand." I studied her clothes. "Should I dress as if I'm going to an Amish funeral?"

"Do you consider yourself inconspicuous if you don't fluoresce when the lights go out?" She took me by the arm and led me to the bathroom mirror. I leapt out of it. Behind me, she blended in with the shadows.

She went to my closet and pulled out layers of drab.

"But those are my good clothes."

"Should be easy to replace them. The Salvation Army has a really nice selection in your basic taste."

Hatful of Pain 19

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