all I should like to know is whether he was converted
out of gratitude to the kindly jaguar or whether the orchid,
more powerfully spellbinding than any other game,
had once and for all cast him deep into those regions where
a man finding himself between the devil
and the deep blue sea
does not fail to choose the worse alternative.
New Jersey, November 1983…
THE OCEAN IS GRAY, THE SKY IS GRAY. Smoke stands far down on the beach, close to where the highest waves roll in and try to catch his feet. The wind sweeping over the sand and surf is damp and cold. He feels the sting of grains whipped up from the beach and drops of icy sea water light on his face, sticky with the ocean salt.
Smoke tells himself if he had half a brain, he’d find some place to sit wrapped around a hot cup of coffee, even just sit in the car, anything besides standing here getting whipped and chilled by the wind.
But he doesn’t have half a brain, he tells himself, doesn’t have a fucking lick of sense at all. He shivers and pulls his jacket close around him, pulls the collar up, but still shivers, and keeps telling himself stupidstupidstupid...
Asbury Park was one of the closer shore towns to where they lived, maybe a forty-minute ride down the Parkway. He and Pop made the trip almost every weekend of the hot summer that finished his mother, the heat hammering away at a heart built not quite right. She didn’t want him watching her die a little more every week, so Pop would wrap their bathing suits in a couple of towels, throw him in his rusting Biscayne and off they’d go.
Smoke didn’t know his mom was dying. She was always a little tired, always having to say, Let Mommy lay down for a little bit, ok? Just give Mommy a few minutes. When it got harder for her to get out of bed, Pop told him it was just the heat that summer, that was what the heat did to some people, and it was especially hot that summer.
So every weekend that summer, he and Pop made the trip down the Parkway, and Smoke was happy to have so much time with Pop. Pop usually put in a lot of overtime at the Peerless factory making squeezable toothpaste tubes, working extra shifts when he could because he needed the OT pay for all those doctors Mom was seeing even though she was just tired. But that summer, no matter how beat up by the hours and the heat and the machines at the plant left him, Pop had time for that drive down the shore every weekend.
They’d spread their towels on the beach, and Pop would take Smoke’s hand and walk him down below the tide line. Pop would plop down on the wet sand, holding Smoke safe and tight in his lap and let the waves roll in and hit them and knock them down. Hold on! Hold on! Here it comes, boy! Pop would call out, watching the waves build and crest and start to break. Hold on, boy! Hold on!
When they were tired of playing in the surf, Pop would take him to the Carousel House behind Casino Pier, by Wesley Lake, where the wooden horses spun around inside a glass-walled Victorian pavilion that Smoke thought looked like a big birthday cake with its capping dome and metalwork frills and iron swirls in the panels over the sliding glass walls.
Then they’d walk across the street to the Palace Amusements. One time, as they were walking over, Pop told him there used to be paddle boats shaped like swans on the lake, and he was sorry they didn’t have them anymore because he would really have liked to have paddled around the lake with Smoke, and Smoke was sorry because he would’ve liked that, too.
Smoke didn’t think the massive green blockhouse of the Palace looked anything like a palace. The Paramount and Convention Hall, with their colonnades and connecting cathedral-like arcade -- that was a palace; the Casino, so big Smoke didn’t see how its pier could hold it up -- that was a palace. Still, sometimes he wished they could spend the whole day in the Palace.
They’d pass under the big grinning “Tilly” face on the wall over the Palace’s doors, and, inside, they’d crash around on the bumper cars, and ride the Ferris wheel which took them through the roof, taking them higher than Smoke had ever been, high enough he thought only airplanes went that high, where they could see down the shore all the way to Ocean Grove and the cone-capped highest tower of the Great Auditorium, and the other way to the end of the Asbury boardwalk where Convention Hall stood on its pier, an equally regal bookend to the Casino.
Later, they’d walk the boardwalk and Pop would sit him on the counters of the wheel games and give him dimes to play to win some stuffed doggy or turtle. Smoke’d say he was trying to win one for Mommy but he knew if they ever won, which they didn’t, Mommy would probably say, Why don’t you keep it in your room for Mommy?
Then the sun would be going down and the breeze from the water would turn cool and they’d have dinner at the aqua and orange-trimmed Howard Johnson’s near the Paramount which Smoke, as a kid, used to think, because it was circular and double-decked and had a spiral ramp circling the outside from the boardwalk to an observation deck, looked like some kind of spaceship.
They’d sit upstairs which he thought was cool the way kids do because it seemed like everybody else wanted to sit downstairs. They’d sit up on the second deck looking down at the people on the boardwalk and the people still out on the beach, and Pop would make up funny things he thought the people would be saying, making up cartoony voices for them. He would order Shirley Temples for Smoke and pretend they were at some fancy restaurant like the ones they saw on TV and show him how the fancy people held out their pinkies when they drank and held their noses up in the air and talked like faw-faw-faw. After dinner, there’d be a movie at the Paramount, and, if they weren’t too tired, a stop at the Kohr’s stand for an orange-and-vanilla swirl of frozen custard on a cone.
Smoke’s eyes would start to slide closed on the ride home, and when they did, he’d climb up on the rear dash because then he could look up through the bubble of the rear windshield of Pop’s old Biscayne, watching the stars slip by until his eyes shut, and then it seemed like just a second went by before his father was whispering they were home, and Smoke, still half-asleep, would put his arms around Pop’s neck and Pop would slide him off the rear dash and carry him into the house and bed.
One Saturday, they didn’t make the trip, Pop telling him Mom wasn’t feeling well and they should stick close by. He told Pop, But Mom never feels well, so what difference does it make? And Pop, for the only time Smoke could remember, got mad enough to smack him one.
She never did get out of bed again, and they were burying her by the end of August.
There was no wake because Pop knew not many people would come. There was a small service at the church and not many people came to that, either, because her family had never forgiven her for marrying a black man, and Pop’s family had never forgiven him for marrying a white woman.
Asbury Park had been dying the same way his mom had died, a little bit every day, every week, every year. People went down to Seaside and Point Pleasant instead, where there were more rides, more games, more beach, or they went after the giant boardwalk all the way down south at Wildwood, or they went to Atlantic City when the casinos went up and where nobody seemed much interested in a quiet afternoon on the beach.
The daytrippers and weekenders stopped coming to Asbury Park, and all the little hotels and rooming houses where they used to stay became dumping grounds for old people, cripples on welfare, wackos. The rides closed, the pizza places and Italian ice and frozen custard counters folded, the booths with the wheel games boarded up. Some hotshot wheeler dealer came along and said he was going to save the town by building a huge, fancy-ass retirement condo complex right on the boardwalk. He razed a couple of blocks along the beachfront, dug a huge hole, and got as far as the second floor of the girder skeleton and some of the shell when his money ran out. So now, where the kiddy rides and taffy places used to be, is this big, empty shell of a place sitting at the head of the beach.
Smoke’s Pop had once told him that a long time ago, a big ocean liner had caught fire off the Jersey shore and beached at Asbury. He said even before the fires had died down, people were picking over the ship and selling pieces on the boardwalk as souvenirs. That’s how the whole town looked to Smoke now; beached, scavenged, gutted.
The way Althea calls his name, he can tell she’s worried about spooking him, but he’s heard her coming, heard her calling him from the boardwalk. It’s that he doesn’t feel like moving. His toes hurt and his ears are burning from the cold, but Smoke still doesn’t feel like moving. He doesn’t feel like saying anything because he’s afraid the minute he opens his mouth, it’s all going to spill out the way you bleed when somebody cuts an artery.
He feels her hand squeeze his arm. “How long’ve you been out here?”
He shrugs. He doesn’t know, not really. Since he called her, that’s all he knows. Since he got here whenever that was.
“C’mon, you’re gonna freeze out here,” she says and tugs at his arm, but he doesn’t move. He just wants to stand there, stinging in the cold, watching the gray water roll in and out.
“You’re gonna freeze,” she says. “You’re probably half-frozen now.”
She tugs at his arm again, and he lets her turn him away from the wind, looking back up the beach. The boardwalk lights are on, but he doesn’t know if that’s because it’s getting late, or it’s so early, or just because it’s so goddamn gray.
She’s saying something about how sorry she is it took so long for her to get here, she came right down, but he’s not really hearing it. He looks over to Casino Pier where the bank of doors running the width of the boardwalk are chained closed and the missing glass nailed over with plywood. Above the plywood, he can see through the broken windows of the vaulted gallery and see pigeons flying around inside.
“Your hands are like ice,” she says and he’s just now aware she’s holding one of them. She pulls her mittens off with her teeth, little red wooly mittens like small kids wear, and she holds them in her teeth while she rubs his big, leaden hand between hers. “Like a corpse,” she says and he almost starts crying.
She slips an arm in his and leads him down the boardwalk past the boarded up booths and the stubby shell of the unfinished condo complex. The Howard Johnson’s is still standing, but it’s so dark and still inside she’s not sure it’s open. She leaves him out on the boardwalk while she goes up to the rain-spotted window to peer inside.
He looks back out to the gray ocean, past the end of the pier carrying Convention Hall. Beyond the edge of the pier is a breakwater of slab-sided granite boulders to keep the waves from pounding and eating away at the pilings. Smoke can see the waves exploding against the far side of the breakwater. Inside the breakwater, the dark water rises and lowers and swirls as the waves sweep around the ends of the stone wall. He wonders how deep the water swirling around in there is, on his side of the wall.
“Where’re you going?” She’s by his side again, wondering why he’s moved from where she’d left him, crossing the boardwalk to the railing to look at the ocean. It’s the first time he’s aware he’s moved since she left him.
The Howard Johnson’s is open and she leads him inside.
He doesn’t know why it’s so dark in there. Something wrong with the lights maybe, he thinks, they look feeble. She leads him to a booth along the curved bank of windows. The aqua-colored vinyl bench covers are cracked, and there’s a small piece of the corner of the table chipped off, just enough to expose the pressboard inside the Formica covering. He looks around and sees that few of the tables have place settings, and that a lot of the vinyl covers are cracked and patched with black tape. There’s a waitress, just the one, an old woman, sitting at the counter watching a small portable TV, and across from her, behind the counter, a bored-looking guy in stained kitchen whites Smoke guesses is the cook.
The old lady waitress has a sad, basset-cheeked face, and she’s wearing a bulky, over-sized sweater over a pink sweat suit. The sweater is unraveling along one of the shoulder seams. She beckons to the guy behind the counter to give her two glasses of water, then she carries them to their table, and somehow those sad old lines in her face move around into a nice smile.
“Cold out, huh?” she says as she sets the water glasses down. “You two must be icicles. Something hot?”
Althea orders a coffee for him, a hot chocolate for herself.
The waitress waddles off and they sit quietly and wait. Althea doesn’t press. She’s used to the quiet from him. Sometimes they’d go a whole day slipping around each other in the small apartment with maybe not a dozen words going between them, not because he was in a mood or there was trouble or anything, but because that’s how he is.
He can tell she sees something else is going on today, that there’s trouble, but she still doesn’t press. She reaches over and takes one of his hands between hers and that’s her way of saying she’s there whenever he’s ready.
The waitress comes back with her smile and the coffee and the hot chocolate. She asks if they want anything to eat, maybe some soup on a day like this would be nice, but they shake their heads.
The waitress starts to leave when Smoke asks, “They don’t make you wear the uniforms anymore?” He remembers the Howard Johnson’s waitresses used to wear uniforms of aqua with orange piping.
The waitress smiles. “You remember that? You don’t look old enough to remember that.” She shakes her head the way people do over a nice memory. “I wasn’t even here in those days, but I remember. Actually, we’re not even a Howard Johnson’s anymore. Somebody bought us -- . Was it just this place? Or the whole chain? I dunno, I don’t follow business stuff. Hey, Sy!” She’s calling the bored guy at the counter watching TV. “Sy, who was it bought this place?”
“This place. Remember? Didn’t somebody buy the whole chain? Burger King, wasn’t it?”
“Damn, I don’t know. I think maybe the company owns Burger King. Something like that. Ruby knows. Ask Ruby when she comes in.”
“He doesn’t know,” the waitress says and rolls her eyes and waves her hand at the bored cook like she’s shooing him away. She points to the cup of hot chocolate. “Is that hot enough for you, hon? The coffee should be fine, but the hot water thing doesn’t always work right.”
“It’s fine,” Althea says.
The waitress turns back to Smoke. “Remember when they used to be all up and down the Parkway? The Howard Johnson’s?”
She’s squeezing his hand tightly, now, happy to have him back.
“They had the motels,” the waitress says. “Inns, they called them, right? They all had the orange roofs?”
Smoke nods. “Do you still have the upstairs?”
“You remember the upstairs?”
“We don’t use it. We keep it closed.”
“Could we sit up there for a bit?”
“It’s kind of messy up there.”
“Just be careful.”
She shows them up, flicks on some lights but they’re dim, like the ones downstairs. She takes them to a booth looking out over the beach and wipes a thick coat of dust off the table and seats with a rag. “If you need anything, just shout,” she says and toddles back downstairs.
Smoke takes Althea’s hand and holds it against his face, then the tears come, and he cries and cries and cries.
Smoke had long ago learned the value of being invisible by seeing what happened to people who weren’t invisible. Like his Pop who managed to get himself hated by two families by marrying a woman who happened to be white. That was no way to be invisible. He’d look at the young bloods in the neighborhood, trying to prove they had a pair by mouthing off to cops when the cops told them to move their black asses along and stop hanging on the corner. What’d it get them? Depending on how big a prick the cop wanted to be, maybe a hassle at least, maybe a rap upside the head with a nightstick. Better to be invisible. Always better to be invisible.
Smoke worked hard at being invisible. Mouth shut, eyes locked on what he was doing, staying out of everybody’s way. When he tended bar at The Roma, all “How we doin’ today?” from a customer got back from him was a nod and not much more than, “What’re you havin’?” He didn’t give the regulars even that much, just had their usual drink sitting on the bar in front of them before their ass settled on a stool. Somebody at the bar got a little chatty, he’d make a motion with his hand to excuse himself because somebody on the other side of the bar needed him and he’d stay gone until it was time for a refill.
He didn’t see the boxes of swag stacked with the stock in the cellar, and he didn’t hear the conversations at the bar between B.B.’s crew because invisible men have no eyes or ears and no mouth to talk about what they didn’t see and didn’t hear.
That’s why nobody at the bar knew he was living with Althea. That bothered her at first. She didn’t say it, but he could see it, and he knew it bothered her even more that if he was working the bar when she was on stage he could act like he didn’t know her, didn’t see that was her getting dollar bills shoved in her G-string, that it was her shaking her ass in faces and offering crotch shots to boost her G-string take from dollar bills to five dollar bills. Sometimes he thought she pushed it just to get him to say something, do something.
In the beginning, when it bothered her, she told him, “You act like I’m not even there.”
He didn’t know how to explain it to her, but she had it backwards; he acted like he wasn’t there. Invisible.
Somehow she got used to it, he was never sure how, not even sure why. But for him, he was happy when they were home from the bar, in their walk-up apartment, snug up against each other on the sofa with the bad springs in front of the TV, close in the quiet. At home, they could be invisible together and he liked that.
So when B.B. gave him a half-whistled “Fsht!” from his office doorway and finger-waved him to come over, Smoke got a little twitchy. That meant, at least for the moment, he was less invisible.
B.B. almost never called Smoke into his office. Once a week to get his schedule, once a week for his paycheck, around Christmas for his bonus check and a bottle of Cutty which he didn’t drink but didn’t say anything about because that would make him more visible. Other than that, maybe two, three times a year B.B. would have to call him in because of a customer beef, but it always went the same way:
“I got a guy pitchin’ a bitch, says you cut him off last night,” B.B. would say. “I awready know this guy’s an asshole ‘cause I heard him through my door all fuckin’ night. I just wanna hear your side.”
Smoke would give it up short and sweet: the guy was already tanked, and Smoke had been worried that if he kept serving him, the guy was going to be trouble, liability-type trouble, hassling the girls, maybe throwing a punch, already being enough of a pain in the ass to make other customers leave, maybe even draw a cop.
B.B. would nod, say something like, “That’s what I figured. Ok, don’t worry ‘bout it,” and that’d be the end of it, and Smoke could go back to being invisible.
This wasn’t like that, Smoke could tell the second he went through the door and saw Cat Monano sitting at the card table idly fiddling with a deck. Smoke felt it; Cat wasn’t sitting there in his leather frock coat and flat-rimmed vaquero hat just to kill time.
B.B. sat back behind his desk, pushed his half-moon glasses up on his forehead and made a flick of his finger to have Smoke close the door behind him. When B.B. pointed him to one of the tatty stuffed chairs scavenged from curbside, Smoke knew this wasn’t because of a complaint but was some whole new kind of trouble, the kind of trouble which went with not being invisible anymore.
Smoke sat on the edge of the squashed seat cushion, leaning forward, elbows on knees.
“Relax,” B.B. said, rocking a little back and forth, his thumbs hooked into his vest pockets.
Smoke nodded; I’m relaxed. But he didn’t relax.
B.B. nibbled at the fringe of his mustache for a bit, like he was weighing whether to go ahead or not. Then, “You’re a good guy, Smokie,” B.B. said and Smoke felt his asshole clench. “You been with me since I got this place. You never ask no questions. Boxes go downstairs, stuff goes out the back door, you just push the booze.”
“He is a good guy, I’m tellin’ ya,” Cat Monano said, still fiddling with his cards.
Smoke nodded a thanks, but every compliment was making him clench even tighter.
“You keep yourself clean,” B.B. said. “I know that’s how you like it. That’s why I never ask you to do somethin’ I know isn’t your thing. You just wipe the bar ‘n’ pour, ‘n’ you’re good with that, am I right?”
Smoke did something between a nod and a shrug.
B.B. sat way back in his chair, an old wooden desk chair, the kind you didn’t see much of anymore, and there wasn’t a move B.B. could make didn’t set some part of it squeaking like a caught mouse.
“You gotta oil ’at t’in’ some day,” Cat Monano said.
“Someday,” B.B. said. He laced his fingers over his belly. “You ever want anything else?” he asked Smoke.
Smoke did a shrug and movement of his head signaling he wasn’t sure what B.B. was asking, although he had a bad feeling he knew what B.B. was asking.
“You know; you ever wanna step up?”
“Evabody wants to step up,” Cat Monano said.
“Not everybody,” B.B. said. “Some stuff isn’t for everybody. I’m just askin’ a question.” To Smoke: “Just askin’ a question.”
Smoke cleared his throat. “Never thought ‘bout it.”
B.B. leaned forward, the chair squeaking again. He put a hand to his ear: “I didn’t quite, uh...”
Smoke cleared his throat again. “Said I never thought ‘bout it much.”
B.B. nodded. “I’m askin’ ‘cause I need help with somethin’. I don’t butt in, my people, I don’t know what your situation is, but if you wanted to make a few bucks...”
“A friend a mine, I’m givin’ his kid a TV, kid goes to some college out in Pennsie, I need somebody to drive it out to him.”
“’N’ then after that, there’s a guy takin’ the ride with you, he needs a ride upstate New York, that’s all. Just drive him up there, drive him back. He’s gotta do somethin’ for a friend a mine. It’s a long ride, you know, first to Pennsylvania, then alla way upstate, so I figure two of you, take turns driving.”
Cat Monano waved at Smoke.
“I give you money for gas ‘n’ food ‘n’ whatever,” B.B. went on, “’n’ five hunnerd for your trouble, ‘n’ you still get paid your full hours here.”
“Not bad, huh?” Cat Monano said.
Smoke cleared his throat again. “He don’t drive himself?”
B.B. had to lean forward again.
“How come he don’t drive himself?” Smoked asked a little louder, then started wondering immediately if it’d been better to keep his mouth shut.
But B.B. leaned back in his chair, smiled to let him know he’d ruled this was a reasonable question. “Tell ya the truth, you’re not just there to be this guy’s chauffeur. Guy’s a little...shaky, ya know?”
Smoke nodded but he didn’t know.
“He drives himself, chances are he’s not gonna drive himself where he’s suppose’ to go. He’s kinda like, um...” B.B. looked to Cat Monano for help.
“Like a probation.,” Cat said.
“Yeah,” B.B. nodded, “he’s like on probation.”
“I know all ‘bout probation,” Cat sighed.
“So we’re gonna help the guy out by makin’ sure he gets where he’s gotta go, ‘n’ that’s why you two are drivin’ him.” Then some kind of shrug and a hand wave signaling, You got it now?
Smoke got some of it but was trying hard not to get any of it. He nodded.
And B.B. nodded: good. “This has gotta happen, like, tomorrow, you leave for Pennsie tomorrow, you gotta be upstate by Saturday afternoon. So, I need to know you’re in or out, ‘n’ I need to know now otherwise I gotta find somebody else.”
B.B. wasn’t asking, Smoke knew. You could put a hundred question marks at the end of it, but it was never a question. Whatever Smoke said – yes or no – he knew everything would be different, his whole fucking world would be different the minute he opened his mouth. Either way, he wouldn’t be invisible anymore, and it was just a matter of what kind of shit did he want to step into: the one where he was now going to know a lot of things he never wanted to know, or the one where B.B. would always remember he’d asked him for something and Smoke had said no. The only good answer, the best answer, was to get up, walk out of the office, out of the bar, and keep on walking until... And that was the problem: until what?
Smoke’s shoulders went up and down. “Yeah, sure.”
B.B. smiled. “Good. You come by, say...” He turned to Cat. “Say what? Nine? Ten?”
“Nine. You got a lotta miles to cover.”
“Nine,” Cat Monano sighed.
B.B. turned back to Smoke. “Nine. Car’ll be here, I’ll tell you where you’re goin’, the other guy’ll be here.”
Smoke nodded, stood. “That it?”
Smoke went back out to the bar. He still had a couple of hours left on his shift, but when his shift was over damned if he could remember anything about it.
They met at The Roma around nine the next morning, then swung by a Dunkin’ Donuts which meant they weren’t on the road until half past, which worked out fine since that meant they’d missed the morning rush. That gave them four nearly-empty lanes on Route 80; practically a jet flight west. It didn’t take long for the cities and towns huddled shoulder to shoulder around the Newark pocket to fall behind and then they were out where it was trees and hills and farms where harvested fields were littered with the dry stalks of summer’s corn. Sometimes, set far back from the highway, Smoke could see farm buildings looking just like he thought farms were supposed to look: a tidy little white house, and, set apart, a barn, a silo, maybe a horse paddock off to one side, maybe some bored looking cows out in a pasture, asses to the wind.
It was another country to Smoke. Except for those runs down the shore he’d made with Pop, he’d spent most of his life in that urban clot in the east part of the state, a blob of city running unbroken from north of the George Washington Bridge to Port Jervis. It was November and a harsh November at that, so there weren’t many leaves left on the trees out here, but there were still a few dapples of red and yellow and orange among the skeletal branches, popping bright on this clear glowy day, and he could picture – feeling a bit sad he’d missed it – what it would’ve been like out here a few weeks earlier when the foliage would’ve been in full blush. Probably like the beginning of that TV show Walt Disney used to have on Sunday nights when he was a kid, the one opening up with Tinker Bell splashing bright, bold colors all over the screen with her magic wand.
“It’s pretty out here.”
“It’s fuckin’ gorgeous,” Cat Monano huffed, and that was when Smoke realized he’d said what he’d said out loud. “It’s fuckin’ beautiful! Fuckin’ a-mazing! Oh, look; a tree! Oh, look; another tree! Oh, look, another fuckin’ tree!”
Next time, keep your mouth shut, Smoke told himself, keep this shit to yourself. Invisible.
“It is nice,” the guy in the back seat said. “I used to take my kid out here in October to go pumpkin picking. You know; for Halloween.”
“Is a lon’ way to go for a punkin,” Cat Monano said. “Whyntcha jus’ get one at Shop Rite or son’t’in’? A & P? They got ‘em awready all painted up, you don’ have to do all ’at cuttin’ wit’ a knife ‘n’ all ’at stuff. I ‘member my papi doin’ ’at oncet, hackin’ away at a fuckin’ t’in’, ‘n’ after it was fuck this, le’s go to Shop Rite. I didn’ give a shit, we was four floors up, who the fuck gonna see it inna winda anyways?”
Smoke looked in the mirror. The guy was looking out the window, and he looked like he was feeling the way Smoke had felt after the business about the trees.
“This is Larry,” is how B.B. had introduced him at The Roma, and that’s all he’d said. Larry’d just nodded.
He didn’t look like much; a small, balding, middle-aged guy lost in a cheap overcoat. Smoke had seen a lot of his kind in the bar. They’d sit and nurse liquor – never beer, always hard stuff -- because they didn’t like the job they were coming from or the home they were going to, then they’d take that last gulp of whatever was in their glass, there’d always be a sigh after that, then they’d drag themselves off their barstools acting like gravity had suddenly multiplied, and shuffle out the door.
But Larry didn’t work for an insurance company or a bank or sell real estate or work at any other kind of office business. He was somebody who worked for somebody B.B. knew. Whatever bet those other sad-faced bastards parked at the bar had made on their lives and lost would be pocket change next to whatever this guy had put on the table.
B.B. had handed Smoke some jotted directions and an Exxon road map and the keys to a boat of a Cadillac Sedan DeVille. “When you get where you’re goin’, you leave the car, you’ll come back in another one.” B.B. said it very casually, Smoke nodded just as casually, but there was nothing casual about the knot in his stomach.
The Caddy was a couple of years old, in pretty good shape on the outside, but inside the car was well-lived-in; drink stains on the cloth upholstery, crumbs and cigarette butts on the floor, a rosary tangled around the rearview mirror. Smoke wondered if the car was hot but told himself B.B. wouldn’t put them in wheels for a run all the way to upstate New York that weren’t safe.
Cat was all lit up about the Caddy. “Yi yi yi, we goin’ in style!” He had climbed into the shotgun slot up front, squirmed his skinny little ass around on the soft seat. “Jeez, is nicer ‘n’ my fuckin’ livin’ room in here!”
It took Smoke a while to get the hang of the big car, it was like helming a battleship, sloppy, but once they hit Route 80 and he didn’t have to worry about other cars, he could settle back in his seat and let her cruise, the DeVille as soft under his ass as cotton. Even with the speedometer showing 70, the engine purred without effort, easy.
Past the farms, the highway narrowed to two lanes each way, cutting through the Kittatinnies, sharp rock faces of broken gray shale showing on either side of the highway where it was too steep for the now unbroken forest to take hold. They started paralleling the Delaware River, wide and blue, rippling here and there with rapids, the November wind tickling up whitecaps out midstream. Smoke had only before seen the oozing factory-lined gray bands of the Passaic, the Hackensack – the waterways Jersey had spent decades killing by using them as open sewers.
“Oye, watch where ya goin’ there, Smokie!” Cat snapped and Smoke shook himself out of his sightseeing.
“Pull off here a second,” Larry said, “I gotta take a leak.”
Smoke saw an exit ramp, one that curled around under the road to picnic spots along the river. He looked to Cat who shrugged. Neither of them was sure who had the boss’s rank in the car, but Larry was the guy getting driven around, so...
Smoke guided the Caddy down the ramp, over to the river, pulled up in an empty lot by a public bathroom. Larry got out and headed for the bathroom.
“Stretch my legs,” Smoke said.
“I ain’ goin’ nowhere,” Cat said. “Looks mighty fuckin’ cold out there. Leave the car runnin’, I wan’ the heat.”
And it was mighty fucking cold, but Smoke liked it. The air was sweet with the smell of pine. He walked down close to the water and could see upriver to the Water Gap. The Kittatinny Ridge looked like a wall keeping Jersey separated from the rest of the world, and the only way out was the gap letting the river through.
“Ever been out here?” It was Larry.
Smoke shook his head.
“Different, isn’t it?”
“I mean, in a good way.”
“In a good way,” Smoke said.
He heard the flick of a cigarette lighter, smelled the smoldering tobacco, Larry let out a long breath, as much a sigh as letting out the smoke.
Smoke took a quick sideways look at Larry, hadn’t noticed before how red the guy’s eyes were, like he was crying all the time. Larry was looking down at the river, into the river, and for a second Smoke thought maybe he was going to walk himself into the water and keep walking until it closed over his head.
“Ahhh, shit...” Larry said after a bit, flicked his cigarette out over the water where the wind took it. “We better, um...” Then he turned and headed back to the car.
Smoke took another look at the river, at the steep, tree-trimmed cliffs on the other side, wondered if he’d ever be able to come back here, thought about standing there with Althea, maybe earlier in the fall when Tinker Bell would’ve done her magic on both banks up and down the river.
He heard the crackle of dry leaves off to one side, wondered if it was Larry again, turned. He didn’t see it right away, the buff hide blending into the dried-out ground cover and the background of dead leaves. But then he picked up a dash of white on the chest about ten yards away, then the large dark eyes and black spot of the nose: a deer, a white tail, antlers spreading out from the top of its head like the bare branches of the trees all around them.
Smoke didn’t move, the deer didn’t move. Smoke didn’t know anything about deer, but he knew not all animals’ eyes worked like people eyes and he wondered if the deer could even see him.
“Yo, Smoke!” Cat Monano called from the car, “whaddaya doin’ in there, takin’ a shit? Le’s go!”
The deer looked up to the car, then bounced away through the trees, its white puff of tail the last thing Smoke saw before it was gone.
“Ahhh, shit...” Smoke said and headed back to the car. He didn’t tell the other guys about seeing the deer; that he kept for himself.
They passed a sign for “Pocono Exits” and Cat, for some reason, glommed on to the word, kept murmuring over and over, “Ponocono...Ponocono...Ponocono...” And then, “Hey, wasn’t ’at the kid, Ponocono, inna cartoons, always tellin’ lies, had the t’in’ wit’ the nose?”
Smoke heard a sigh from the back seat, looked to the rearview mirror and saw Larry with his eyes closed, shaking his head.
“That was Pinocchio,” Smoke said.
“So this ain’t him?”
“I didn’t t’in’ so. It just sounded, I’m wonderin’, ‘Why would they -- ’”
“Different. Not him.”
“Ohhhhh,” Cat said, nodding. Then, after a bit, “Ponocono...Ponocono...Ponocono...”
“This is it?” Cat said. “I thought, ya know, Penn fuckin’ State! There’d be a li’l, ya know, more to it.”
“This is a satellite campus,” Larry said.
Cat Monano’s head bobbed and shook in something indicating he didn’t know from satellite campuses. Smoke didn’t know from satellite campuses either. The only hard fact Smoke knew about college was he wasn’t ever going to one.
The only college campuses he’d ever seen up close were Essex County, NJIT, and Rutgers-Newark, because they were all crammed together on University Heights near downtown Newark, and they didn’t look like much. He’d seen colleges in movies: students strolling on walks cutting across grassy quads as neat as a golf course, old buildings of red brick and stone more like churches than schools, maybe with ivy vines creeping up their walls adding a bit more class.
Shoehorned into the center of the city, the Newark schools didn’t look anything like that, hemmed in on one side by the Essex County lock-up, tenements on another, and along the bottom of the heights a downtown that had been sliding since the ’67 riots. All three schools were a mix of new buildings not looking much different from the blocky, bland new courthouse, and old ones where they’d taken over an old factory, an old mansion, an old grade school, gutted them, cut them up into classrooms or offices, and threw signs on them: This Hall, That Hall. Point was, you couldn’t tell where Newark ended and the schools started.
But this campus didn’t look like Newark, and it didn’t look like the movies. Smoke had them on a road curling around forested slopes taking them up to the campus, crowded on a hilltop looking down on Hazelton and across the Coynyngham Valley.
“Jesus,” Cat Monano said. “What the fuck you t’in’ people do all day inna place like that?” He meant the little island of buildings out in the valley below them, a mile or so off; what Smoke guessed were stores on the few blocks that were probably downtown Coyningham or Hazelton, he couldn’t tell from the signs. “There ain’ nothin’ there! I’ll betcha, all these white breads, there ain’ one fuckin’ decent slice a pizza down there! I’ll betcha!”
Smoke followed signs taking them around the crest and the modern-looking cluster of blocky buildings making up the heart of the campus, to a visitor’s lot squeezed along a cliff edge next to a building marked “Administration.” The Admin building looked more like what Smoke thought colleges were supposed to look like; old but classy old, with fieldstone walls, arched windows, a slate roof...more like a rich guy’s mansion – which, long before there had been a Penn State Hazelton, it had been – than an office building.
“You guys wait here,” Larry said. “I’m gonna find our boy.” He climbed out and headed for the oak-framed entry door.
Smoke had parked the Caddy facing out from the overlook of the visitor’s lot, toward the valley. Smoke couldn’t remember ever being able to see so clear so far, not since him and Pop used to take those Ferris wheel rides floating them over Asbury Park. As far as he could see: not a single smoke-stacked factory, no high rises or traffic-choked cloverleafs and overpasses, just little Hazelton, or maybe it was Coyningham, he wasn’t sure, in a sea of forested hills and farms that seemed to roll on forever.
“You ever see so much nothin’?” Cat Monano said looking out over the valley. “Betcha it snows, these fuckers’re stuck up here.”
Smoke tried to imagine what the valley would look like graced with snow and thought it would look like a Christmas card with pillows of snow on top of roofs, little windows glowing yellow, tiny figures of red and yellow and blue in the distance that were supposed to be kids in their winter coats skating on a frozen pond. Stuck on top of that hill in winter didn’t seem like such a bad thing to Smoke.
Then Larry was back. “Ok, I got him. He’ll be waiting for us in his dorm. I got directions.” He had Smoke pop the trunk.
“Hey, you don’ need me for this, righ’?” Cat Monano said. “I can watch the car, keep the engine runnin’ so it don’ get cold.”
“Good idea,” Larry said though Smoke could tell Larry was somewhere between being pissed at Cat and being relieved not to have him around.
The boxed TV weighed a ton; it was a monster, a 27” Trinitron. Larry got under one end of the box, Smoke under the other, they heaved it up and started lugging it across campus. Cold as it was on top of that hill – they could hear the wind whistling, actually whistling through the bare tree branches – they were both sweating by the time they got to the row of dorms Smoke thought looked a hell of a lot like the Essex County lock-up.
They fumbled the box through one of the dorm’s glass doors. There was a pimply kid with a mullet at the front desk who told them they had to wait while he called up to Joe Moss, Jr.’s room. Smoke and Larry parked the box on one of the cheap sofas in the small lobby.
Smoke started feeling very un-invisible. The kids going in and out of the dorm, that he saw through the lobby windows walking by outside, they didn’t look like the kids he’d seen at the Newark schools: no leather frock coats like Cat Monano, no Members Only jackets, no saggy jeans, no $100 psychedelic purple sweat suits, no gold chains or clunky rings. These kids dressed to stay warm, not to wear a flag. He was glad Cat had stayed in the car; he could imagine the stream of crap that would’ve come out of his mouth about these kids, and he wouldn’t’ve worried about whether or not they heard him, either.
Smoke noticed something else: all these kids were white.
He found himself moving toward a corner of the lobby, wishing it was deeper, had shadows, a place he could stand where these kids could walk by and wouldn’t see him.
“It’s about time!”
Working the bar at The Roma, Smoke had gotten pretty good at sizing people up by the time he’d taken their first order, so it only took those three peeved words for Smoke to rate Joe Moss, Jr. a dick and a half. He was a reedy kid, short and looking like a bunch of pipe cleaners knotted together, and he didn’t fit in on campus any more than Smoke felt Smoke did: Italian woven loafers, tapered khakis, a V-neck sweater over a bare (hairless) chest with the sleeves fashionably pushed up past twiggy forearms, black onyx pinky ring, a way too conspicuous golden bull’s horn on a neck chain. If he hadn’t been Joe Moss, Sr.’s kid, Smoke wouldn’t’ve been surprised to hear these white kids had been beating Joe Moss, Jr.’s ass once a day every day.
“It’s like waiting for the plumber,” Joe Junior said, “I’m burning up my day waiting for you clowns, didn’t know when you were going to show up -- ”
“We drove straight here,” Larry said.
Joe Junior waved that off, made a face like Yeah, yeah, bullshit somebody else but not me. “C’mon, let’s get this thing upstairs.”
“They have to sign in,” the mullet-head at the desk said, pushing a clipboard on his desk in their direction.
Joe Junior waved at them to sign in. Larry held up a hand to stop Smoke from moving.
Larry nodded Joe Junior aside. “We can’t sign anything,” he said quietly.
“Jesus, guy, sign anybody’s fucking name!” Joe Junior said apparently not giving a shit if the mullet-head heard him. “Sign Smith and Jones, what the fuck, huh?”
Larry shook his head. Still quietly but more firmly: “We can’t sign anything. Understand?”
Joe Junior took this as being talked down to – which it was – which got him pissy-faced. “Fuck it, I’ll sign you guys in. Make the kid happy, throw him a twenty.”
Larry gave the mullet-head a ten, made a show of it so Joe Junior could see it wasn’t a twenty. The mullet-head was happy with the ten; Smoke figured if he knew anything about who Joe Moss, Jr. was, he was probably happy he wasn’t going to wind up face down in a ditch.
Joe Junior didn’t offer to help them carry the box or hold the elevator door for them, only kept nagging them against hitting it against anything and maybe breaking his TV. That’s pretty much all Joe Junior did was bitch, bitch, bitch. He bitched about the way they bumped their way through the door to his room, he bitched about them getting bits of Styrofoam all over the room as they wrestled the TV out of its packing, he bitched that the TV was too fucking big for his little room and there was no place to put it and how come there wasn’t a stand with it, and then he bitched there was no antenna included because out here in the boonies he’d get shit on this thing without one since the fucking dorms didn’t have any fucking cable because the place was run by a bunch of fucking rubes...and so on. And then he bitched at them as they were leaving to take the box and packing with them and the kid downstairs would tell them where to throw it, and shut the door when you leave, and the last thing they heard him say was something about where did his dad find monkeys like this, how could they turn just dropping off a TV into a major fucking project.
Outside in the hall, after Joe Junior’s door had closed behind them, Larry – his arms, like Smoke’s, filled with cardboard and broken Styrofoam packing braces -- stared at Joe Junior’s door a long time. Smoke could see Larry’s chest rising and falling hard, and it wasn’t just from the exertion of dealing with the kid’s TV. There was a point where Larry was wavering on his feet and Smoke thought he just might go back in the room...but then he went still, said, “Ah, shit...,” under his breath and nodded at Smoke to follow him.
Back in the lobby, Larry dumped his cardboard and Styrofoam on one of the lobby sofas and nodded at Smoke to do the same. When the mullet-head started to beef, Larry told him not to worry, Joe Junior would be down in a few minutes to clean it up, then Smoke followed him out the door.
The wind was still up outside, and they both pulled themselves deep inside their jackets, hands jammed in pockets as they hustled back to the car.
“What a fucking waste of money,” Larry said, “Sending that little stunat’ prick here...” He shook his head. “All respect to Joe Senior, but this is money down the toilet. The old man retires or something happens to him, you think this fuckhead’s going to stick out his degree? He’ll be angling to get his ass in the old man’s chair. One, two years and you watch; somebody’ll put one in his ear.” They were close to the visitor’s lot. Larry stopped, Smoke stopped with him.
They could see out past the lot, out into the valley. Larry’s eyes swung from the open country below them back to the cluster of campus buildings behind him. “Jesus, if I had the money to send my kid to a place like this...”
“Your kid in college?”
Larry shook his head. “Years away. But I won’t know about it until his mother sends me the tuition bill.” Then he smiled at Smoke, a kind of odd, bent smile that said, If it’s ok with you, I don’t want to say any more about it.
Smoke nodded, and they went back to the Caddy.
Smoke hadn’t even gotten his door closed before Cat Monano started up: “You see these kids, Smokie? These fuckin’ rube farmers dress like a bunch a fuckin’ rag-pickers!”
The sky had taken on the soft glow of red velvet by candlelight and looking at it through the lattice of barren tree branches, Smoke remembered his mom trying to spruce up their apartment with lace doilies that really weren’t lace. He used to laugh saying what was the point since the doilies were full of holes and being a kid, he’d just shrugged it off when she’d said, “They make things pretty.” Now looking at the sky going from red to purple behind the lacey tangle of trees alongside the highway, Smoke – and he knew, with a small bit of pain inside, that he was coming to it years too late – could see, yeah, they made things pretty.
He shifted in his seat, trying to work some stiffness out of his back. “You ever gonna take the wheel?” he asked Cat.
Cat was futzing with the radio. The only signals he could get clear were some snatches of C & W. “What’s wit’ this shit? Who listens to this?”
“You feel like drivin’?” Smoke said.
“I t’ough’ only hillbillies listen to this kinda crap. You’d t’in’ we’re down wit’ the hillbillies for Chrissakes.”
“Whaddaya think?” Smoke said. “Maybe your turn?”
“Next time we get gas,” Cat said, still fiddling with the radio.
Next time we get gas. They had topped off the tank not 15 minutes before and probably wouldn’t need gas again before they pulled off the road for the night.
Cat gave up on the radio. “Gonna wind up hummin’ to myself like a fuckin’ ree-tard. Anybody gettin’ hungry? T’in’ maybe we should get son’tin’ to eat?”
Larry had been quiet since they’d left Hazelton. Smoke looked to the mirror; as the sky grew darker, Larry was disappearing into the shadows of the back seat. The occasional flash of headlights coming the other way showed only pieces of him, the rest lost back there, like he was disintegrating bit by bit. “You find a McD’s, we’ll get something to go.”
“Aw, man, can’ we sit sonplace?” Cat whined. “I feel like I been in this fuckin’ box a million years.”
There was a flare of light in the backseat; Larry flicking his lighter to get a look at his watch. Then a rustle of paper as he checked the map. Then dark again. “To-go. I want to get in another hour before we knock off for the day.” Another flare of the lighter, then the pulsing red tip of a cigarette floating in the dark of the back seat.
A peeved sigh from Cat, as much a protest as he was going to make to a Joe Moss, Sr. man. Not quite under his breath: “Fuuuuuck.”
It was a long wait for a McDonald’s. They had gotten off the New York Thruway a little beyond Lake George, and Larry had been using the map to navigate them along smaller and smaller roads, moving them deeper into the state, heading west, places where they sometimes went miles before passing through a hundred yards – if that -- of something passing for a town, before they were back winding their way through woodland and fields, all sinking into the black pool of the moonless night.
“Who the fuck lives up here?” Cat sighed at one point.
Smoke wondered the same thing. Whoever they were and whatever they did, they were people who didn’t worry about people like Smoke and Cat Monano and Larry, probably didn’t even know people like them existed.
They finally got their food, Smoke ate while he drove, and then after a while, when it was so dark the only thing he could see was whatever was in the wedge of headlight in front of them, Larry finally said, “Look for a place. Not a chain. Need a place still takes cash.”
“But I don’ want no shithole neither,” Cat Monano said, then, remembering who he was talking to, “you don’ mind.”
“My preference, too,” Larry said, and Smoke got the feeling Larry was enjoying that maybe Cat was a little nervous about pissing him off.
They found a place – an office and a couple of cottages – just outside of Black River. Larry went in, paid, came back out with keys for two of the cottages and waved at Smoke to pull the Caddy up close to them.
Smoke climbed out of the car and the air – cold and sharp, jolting, but like a bucket of what he thought clean mountain creek water would be like – woke him hard from the hours in the car. He popped the trunk. Larry had a small duffel, Smoke had shoved extra underwear and socks and a shirt and a toothbrush in a paper bag. Cat didn’t even have that. “’S’only one nigh’, righ’?”
Larry handed Smoke a key and pointed them to one of the cottages. “You two.”
Smoke handed the key to Cat. “I want some air.”
Smoke had never seen a night so dark, didn’t know that kind of bottomless blackness was possible. Beyond the splotches of light thrown by the office and their cabins...nothing. They could’ve been floating in space. He looked up and the sky was filled with stars. He hadn’t realized how much of the night sky back home the city washed out with its own light, how filled with stars the sky really was, and that made him feel all the more they were detached, floating in a void. Staring skyward he began to waver on his feet, feel a little dizzy.
“City boy, huh?” It was Larry, standing in the doorway of his cottage, lighting up another cigarette. He held the pack out to Smoke, Smoke nodded it away. “Smart.” Larry crunched across the gravel and stood with Smoke, looked up, blew a stream of smoke toward the stars. “When I was a kid, I used to know the constellations. Well, I knew them from books. I could never find the suckers when I looked for them, though, I mean in the real sky. In the book, they connected them with lines so you could see the pictures. You know; the Big Dipper, Orion. I could never find them without the lines. Maybe it was because where we lived, there weren’t enough stars.”
They stood quietly for a second, then he heard Larry shiver, flick his cigarette away. “You feel like a drink? Manager says there’s a place a little ways down the road, just before Black River. I’ll buy. Why don’t you go get...” And he nodded at the cottage where Cat had gone in.
There wasn’t much to the cottage. Two single beds, a small bathroom, a TV on the dresser, but it was clean if a little musty-smelling. Cat was walking around the room, looking in corners, behind the beds, the one dresser.
“I heard ’bout these places out in the boonies,” Cat said. “Nobody uses a room for mont’s, they get fuckin’ animals livin’ in ‘em, like raccoons ‘n’ shit, chickmunks -- ”
“ -- fuckin’ big-ass spiders.”
“Maybe there’s a bear in the toilet,” Smoke said.
“G’ahead, laugh, fuckin’ spider comes down on your face tonigh’, I don’ wanna hear shit from you.”
“C’mon,” Smoke said. “Man wants to buy us a drink.”
“Your friend likes to make his presence known,” Larry said.
“He’s not really a friend,” Smoke said.
“I’m glad to hear that since he’s kind of an asshole.”
Larry and Smoke were talking about Cat Monano who was in an alcove off the main barroom where there was a pool table, and who sounded like he’d fallen on his ass giggling for the second time.
Cat had gotten himself into a game of Rotation with two of the locals, not only betting on the game but betting on shots Minnesota Fats would’ve had trouble nailing. He’d also been banging back whiskey shots pretty steadily, and the more shots he banged back, the crazier the bets got. He also got louder, more annoying, and then there was the business of having such a good time – shared by no one else including the two locals despite their regular pocketing of Cat’s money – and giggling like an idiot, that he’d lost his balance and landed on his ass twice now.
Smoke had been hoping the other locals would forget they’d come in with Cat. He’d already been feeling conspicuous just from pulling in the dirt lot. The place had been built to look like a log cabin, and their Caddy hardly blended in with the pick-ups, rust buckets, mud-splattered Blazers and Broncos nuzzled around the bar.
Larry had said it wasn’t far from Black River. Smoke wondered what “not far” meant in this country, because he saw no glow of lights down the road. Then he remembered Hazelton, considered how little light that town probably would’ve thrown off, and figured Black River could’ve been right around the next bend and they’d never know.
Inside the bar, he didn’t feel any more blended in then the Caddy was out in the lot: shot-and-a-beer types in plaid and Army surplus jackets, work twills over long underwear, muddy work boots. There were a few women there, with raspy barroom laughs looking as willing to punch Cat’s lights out as some of the guys. Smoke’s was the only black face in the bar.
“You a betting man?” Larry asked.
Smoke shook his head.
“Because I was gonna bet how long it is before your friend does something gets him punched in the nose.”
“Sucker bet. And he’s not my friend.”
Smoke was nursing a beer. Larry had lined up four whiskey shots in front of him with a beer back. He downed the last shot, beckoned the bartender to refill them all, left money on the table.
“You didn’t look much like a pair,” Larry said, “You and...” and he nodded in Cat’s direction. “How long you been with B.B.?”
“Been workin’ the bar since he got the place.”
“This doesn’t look like working the bar.”
“He asked me.”
“He asked you. And you said yes.”
“I didn’t know how to say no.”
Larry nodded, and Smoke got the feeling he understood. Larry tossed down one of the shots, took a sip of his beer. “It starts with you not being able to say no. After that, you can only say yes. The really bad day is the day they start thinking you’re a little, you know... undependable. So they tell you to do something, but it’s really a test. You do it, they know you’re ok, you’re still with the firm. You don’t...You can’t... There’s no retirement, ya know? You decide you want out and they think they can’t trust you?” Larry shook his head.
He stood, making a movement of his hand for Smoke not to go anywhere, and walked – a tad unsteadily – to the jukebox along the wall. He looked over at the bartender, made a face asking if it was ok, the bartender made a face that he could give less of a shit. Larry ran his finger up and down the selections, then he smiled in that sad, lopsided way of his, shoved some coins in the machine, punched some buttons, and came back to the table. The jukebox started giving out Frank Sinatra and “It Was a Very Good Year.”
Oh-oh, thought Smoke. He thought of the Sad Sacks back at The Roma, and when they started punching in the oldies, that was a red flag they were going down a black, sour hole.
Larry threw back another shot. “You married?”
Smoke shook his head.
Smoke’s head squirmed around. He didn’t like people poking through his invisibility, but Larry took the squirming as a yes.
“Some don’t care,” Larry said. “Some like it. The money. The swag. They don’t care the mink’s got its label cut out. Some even get off on it, that you’re, you know...” Larry lit himself a cigarette, toyed with his next full shot glass, spinning it around and around in its spot. “Some don’t. Cops come by one too many times... They’re thinking this is how it’s going to be now? Around the kids?” Larry shook his head, sighed out a stream of smoke. “Can’t blame ‘em,” and he sent the shot down his throat. “You want some advice?”
“After this, when you get back in the car, don’t go home. Drive north. Drive right into fucking Canada. Drive to the fucking North Pole, live with the Eskimos, change your name, send for your girl in a couple months, start over. Get on a boat to some fucking island. Go...somewhere. Just don’t go home.” Then he tossed his last shot, drained his beer, put his head back and listened to Frank Sinatra sing about how he looked at his life as a wine from fine old kegs. Larry smiled at Smoke, pointed to himself and said, “Vinegar.”
Smoke’s eyes flicked open, and when he saw how yellow the sunlight was leaking around the blinds over the cottage’s one window, he shot up in bed. As they had been walking to their cottages the night before, after they’d come back from the bar, he’d asked Larry what time he wanted to start out in the morning. Larry’s head swished around in an I-don’t-give-a-shit move, but when he saw Smoke was still waiting for an answer, he said, “I’ll come get you.”
Still, based on the previous day, Smoke had figured Larry would want to be on the road early. Going by the sun, this wasn’t early. Smoke looked at his watch where he’d left it on the night table, squinted to bring it into focus: a little after nine-thirty.
Cat Monano didn’t move. He was under the blankets, snoring like a dozing bull, curled up in a tight little ball in one corner of the bed hugging a pillow. From what Smoke could see, the only things Cat’d taken off last night before climbing into bed were his shoes.
Smoke pulled on his clothes, didn’t bother with his jacket, and stepped outside, leaving the door open – fuck Cat Monano if the cold woke him up. He knocked on the door of Larry’s cottage, and when there was no answer, he knocked harder. Not expecting much, he tried the door and was surprised to find it unlocked.
He didn’t want to open it. He really, really didn’t. He thought about going back to his own cottage and making Cat Monano get his ass out of bed and have him go through the door. But what difference would that make?
He was shivering in the morning cold now. There was frost on the gravel, on the Caddy, lacy strings of rime on the cottage window, and the sun was now high enough that it was all lighting up like melted glass.
A part of Smoke knew it was all beautiful, the rime and icy gravel and the way the frost-limned trees across the road were taking on halos of light as the sun slipped higher.
But he didn’t feel the beauty. He felt sick. Because Larry had said he’d come for them and he hadn’t, and now Larry’s cottage door wasn’t locked.
Smoke turned the knob and pushed the door in.
Larry was lying on his bed, still in his clothes, even still in his coat. The TV was on pulling in fuzzy coverage of a roller derby match. Even in the dim light of the cottage, Smoke could see the cold, pale stillness of Larry’s face and didn’t need to know any more. He saw the pill bottle on the night table, forced himself to walk over, keeping as much distance between him and Larry as possible, even standing far off when he reached over to pick up the bottle. It said Seconal on the prescription label, and it was empty.
Smoke set the bottle back down, ran back out into the parking lot. He thought he might puke; he felt clammy, his heart was pounding, his stomach stirred but didn’t heave.
He went to wake up Cat Monano.
“Fuuuuuck...” Cat said, standing over Larry. He looked at Smoke in the cottage doorway like he was asking, Am I seeing what I’m seeing?
“Maybe it was an accident,” Smoke said. “You know, he had too much to drink, lost count of the pills -- ”
“He axadentally took a whole fuckin’ bottle a downs? You kiddin’ me? ‘Sides, what the fuck difference it makes?”
“What do we do?” Smoke asked.
“We get the fuck outta here is what we do.”
“What about..?” Smoke pointed at Larry.
“Whaddaya wanna do? Put him inna trunk? We can’ be here when a cops come, tu sabe? ‘Who was ’at guy? What’re you two doin’ here wit’ him?’ We can’ be here, amigo.”
Cat started going through Larry’s coat and jacket inside pockets.
“What the hell’re you doing?” Smoke asked.
Cat came out with an envelope. Smoke had seen Larry dip into the envelope to pay for their food and gas, the motel and the drinks last night. “This is the expense money. This goes to us. We gotta get home, righ’?” Then Cat went back into Larry’s pockets until he came out with his wallet. He pulled out a wad of cash.
“That’s not our expense money,” Smoke said.
“He don’ need it,” Cat said, putting the wallet pack in Larry’s pocket. “What? You t’in’ the cops or ambalance guys is gonna give it to his family? Shit, do better to flush it down a toilet; same t’in’. Here.” Cat cut the wad roughly in half and held the slightly smaller portion out to Smoke.
Smoke shook his head no.
Cat shook his head. “Estupida.”
“He’s got some nice shoes. Why don’t you take those, too?”
“Neither one a us is a saint, amigo. We’re bot’ here, righ’? Lock the door, get your shit ‘n’ le’s go. We gotta find a phone.”
They found a gas station on the far side of Black River. Cat gave Smoke a handful of bills from the envelope and told him to gas up the car while he used a phone booth sitting at the edge of the station apron by the road.
“What’s with your friend?” the attendant said as Smoke was paying him. He pointed over to where Cat was bent over outside the phone booth, puking into the withered grass.
“Rough night,” Smoke said, then climbed into the car and swung it around, pulling up by the booth.
Cat slid in. “Jesus, how much did I drink las’ night?”
Smoke thought, That’s what’s making you sick?
“I called B.B.,” Cat said. “He wa’n’ happy.”
That makes it unanimous, Smoke thought.
“He tol’ me to wait, he gonna call back. He gotta talk to some people.” Cat started playing with the radio.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Smoke said after a few minutes. “You’re worried about the fucking radio? You’re worried about your fucking hangover?”
Cat sat back, leaning against his door, first acting like he’d been slapped, then his face got very still. Thoughtful. That rattled Smoke because he’d never seen Cat Monano look like there was ever much going on upstairs besides pussy, booze, bad bets, and stealing. “What I’m worried ‘bout, amigo, is what happens nex’. To us.”
The phone rang and Cat jumped out of the car to scoop up the phone. Smoke saw him nodding for a while, then Cat seemed to be making a fuss for a bit, then he grew still, looked like he was sinking into himself. He looked up at Smoke, shaking his head -- not happy -- and waved a finger at him to come to the phone. “’S B.B.,” he said handing the receiver over, then climbed back in the car.
Smoke slid the phone booth door closed behind him. “Yeah,” he said into the receiver.
“Smokie? What the fuck happened? You guys were suppose’ to keep an eye onna guy.”
“We didn’t know, well, you know. We didn’t figure... I dunno. He...I dunno. We talked a little. He wasn’t happy.”
“No shit. Fuck it, it don’t matter. Listen... I feel bad ‘bout this, Smoke.”
Like two days ago in B.B.’s office; Smoke felt his asshole tighten.
“I didn’t mean for you to be in this position.”
“I was thinkin’ you just ferry the guy up there, some easy money, a nice ride.”
“Here’s the problem,” B.B. said. “A commitment was made.”
“You guys were suppose’ to get Larry someplace so he could do somethin’.”
“But there’s no more Larry.”
“Yeah, but like I said, a commitment was made.”
“The guy’s dead, B.B.”
“You were suppose’ to get him there. You didn’t. Look, Smokie, I’m not blamin’ you, I get it, who figgered the guy was gonna off himself? But the commitment was you’d get him where he had to go so he could do this thing. Ok, he’s obviously not gonna make his date. But this thing’s gotta be done. You get what I’m sayin’?”
“B.B. – “
“I’m tellin’ you how they’re lookin’ at it. They’re lookin’ at it you were suppose’ to get him there, you didn’t, so now it’s on you. Look, Smoke, this isn’t the way I wanted it. But there’s a commitment, unnerstand?”
“B.B.... I, uh...”
“I know, not your thing, I get that. Here’s the problem: shit happens and you’re there. You don’t wanna do this, you wanna just disappear, I get it, I don’t blame you. Here’s the problem: Althea’s still gonna be here.”
How the hell did B.B. know about him and Althea? Nobody knew about him and Althea. But then it was B.B. B.B. always knew things.
“You’re saying – “
“I’m not sayin’ nothin’, Smoke, but you take off, Althea’s here, maybe they get so pissed off you didn’t come through... You know what I’m sayin’?”
“That’s not right, B.B.”
“Who the hell you think we’re talkin’ ‘bout? Bankers Trust? I tried talkin’ to them, Smokie, but, like I said, they figure a commitment was made.”
“Yeah, I got that, a commitment.” Smoke knew it was freezing in the phone booth but he was covered in a sheen of sweat. He looked over at the Caddy and could see Cat messing with the radio again. Asshole. “What about Cat?”
“I told him the same thing. It’s on both a you. It doesn’t get done, you guys just keep runnin’ is all I gotta say. But I’m talkin’ to you, Smoke, ‘cause you’re the grown-up there. Ok?”
“Follow the map. The people Larry was suppose’ to meet, they’ll know it’s gonna be you guys ‘stead a Larry. They’ll be ready for you, tell you what you need to know when you get there, they’ll have everything ready on their end. You still got the map? It’s marked on the map. You’re gonna be late but they said they got it figgered out. But you gotta hustle out there fast as you can.”
It was quiet in the booth for a bit. The sweat on Smoke started growing cold and he started to shiver.
“She’ll be fine you do this. Listen, Smokie, I know this is more than what you signed on for, so when you get back, I’ll see you right in your envelope, capisc’?”
Smoke slammed the receiver into its cradle. “Ah, shit...”
Cat Monano was useless, not that Smoke was all that surprised. Cat couldn’t read a map for shit, and then Smoke had to pull over twice so Cat could keep upchucking booze from the night before, then Cat’d loll around in his seat smelling of vomit and booze sweat complaining about how he felt like he was dying, how they had to stop some place to get him some Bromo or at least some aspirin for his pounding head, then after his last heave onto the road shoulder, he started complaining that he was dry and empty and they needed to find a place to eat.
Besides Cat’s barfing stops, Smoke had had to keep pulling on to the shoulder every so often to check the map Cat couldn’t read. He looked over at Cat, pale and sweaty, cranking up the heat because he was shivering with dehydration. Then Cat started playing with the radio again.
“Seriously?” Smoke said. “I mean...seriously?”
But they couldn’t stop for food or aspirin or anything else because B.B. had told them to hustle, and Smoke didn’t even like stopping for Cat to puke or even to read the map because of the time it cost them. Besides, they hadn’t passed much worth stopping at: thick woods, not like back in Jersey which still had some leaves on them, but stripped, dead-looking, occasionally broken up by little barely towns. Maybe because it was Saturday and it was cold and there was a wind with a knife edge to it he could feel when he cracked a window to vent Cat’s vomity, booze sweat odor, but people were staying inside. For whatever reason, the few streets – sometimes the one street – that made up these places were empty, and Smoke felt like they were driving through dead forests and ghost towns.
Then they were heading south just behind low bluffs, along a coast. It said Lake Ontario on the map, but what Smoke could see through gaps in the trees he thought looked more like an ocean, the way it rolled and white capped under the November wind all the way to the horizon. He could see ore boats far out on the lake heading for the St. Lawrence, their long hulls laden and low in the water, almost invisible in the distance, their forward superstructures all that he could pick out, little white islands floating across the blue and whipped-white water of the lake, pushed along by a second island topped with a funnel trailing barely visible black tendrils. He thought how nice it would be if today wasn’t today, and he could’ve pulled over, walked past the trees to get a clear view of the big water, watch the ore boats slide by, and what it would be like if Althea could be there with him because he knew she’d never seen anything like this, a lake like an ocean, the tree-crested bluffs.
But today was today.
Cat wanted to stop as they passed through Oswego, the only town of any size they’d seen in miles, but Smoke reminded him about B.B.’s warning that they were already late. Cat didn’t argue but sat slumped in a sulk, muttered something about hoping he’d puke again, in the car this time so Smoke would have to sit with it.
There was a turnoff marked on the map just before the road turned toward Chimney Bluffs State Park. It was marked in pencil, not printed on the map. Smoke stopped at the turnoff.
It was a small, narrow, gravel road; Smoke thought it looked more like an unpaved driveway. He looked at the map, again, looked at the drive.
“Lemme see,” Cat Monano said and took the map which, considering Cat couldn’t tell north from south, was a pointless exercise. “You t’in’ this is it?”
“It says it is.”
“I hope whoever did this wa’n’ guessin’,” Cat said. “Get lost out here, fuckin’ wolves getcha.”
It was a short drive through a patch of thick forest, then the trees pulled back like a stage curtain, revealing the wide, endless, wind-tousled face of the lake, and to their left, across a little inlet, Smoke could see the line of gray spires of the Chimney Bluffs, sickly fingers reaching up from the stony beach.
“That’s sont’in’ fuckin’ weird, ain’t it?” Cat said, meaning the Chimneys. “They don’ even look like natural.”
The open space was a parking area and there were maybe a dozen cars there, not like the Black River crowd, but other Caddies, Lincolns, a Mercedes, all nice cars, pricey cars, and Smoke wondered what the hell they were doing out here. Perched at the edge of the bluffs was, well, Smoke wasn’t sure: a big house or a small lodge or motel. Adirondack style – a lot of exposed wood, peaked roof, massive floor-to-ceiling windows facing the lake looking out over a deck cantilevered over the bluffs.
There were two men standing in the doorway of the house or lodge or whatever it was, both in suits, one short, the other a tall, thin man with a dark, serious face that made Smoke think of a funeral home director. The funeral home guy pointed them to where he wanted Smoke to park the Caddy, then finger-waved them to come over.
But they sat in the car for a while after Smoke parked, even after he killed the engine.
From where they were parked, they could see out to the lake. Another ore boat was gliding by in the distance.
“You ever been onna big boat?” Cat Monano asked.
Smoke shook his head.
Cat looked over at the map on the seat between them, fiddled with it. “You know wha’s onna other side a that lake? That’s Canada over there somewheres.”
Whatever Cat was thinking, dreaming, fantasizing, Smoke figured it was probably what was flitting around in his own head, too, and it was only ever going to be that: a brief flash of a dream, a fantasy about being on one of those big boats heading for Canada, up the St. Lawrence, anywhere but here. Because this was today and it wasn’t a dream.
A rap on the window glass made them both jump. It was the funeral guy, impatient and obviously wondering what the hell they were still doing in the car.
“Well...” Cat sighed.
“Well...” Smoke sighed.
They both climbed out.
At the door to the house (or whatever), the short guy looked at Cat, pale, sweaty, shaking. “What the fuck disease you got?”
“You should see me on a bad day,” Cat said.
The short guy looked at the funeral guy, a question on his face and pointing at Cat and Smoke.
“They’re what we get,” the funeral guy said. “They said it’d be ok.” The funeral guy looked at Smoke and Cat. “It’s going to be ok, right?”
“Sure,” Cat said and nodded.
The short guy held the front door open and the funeral guy led them inside, the short guy following.
It was a big, airy, high-ceilinged room, bright with the sun coming through tall windows, and Smoke still couldn’t tell what the place was; the room could’ve been a living room or a lobby, but whatever it was, there was no one else there.
“Give him your jackets,” the funeral guy told them, meaning the short guy. “Put these on.” He handed them white table servers’ jackets.
“I come alla way up here to bus tables?” Cat said.
Nobody seemed to think it was funny.
The funeral guy nodded at the short guy who disappeared down a hall off the big room.
Smoke heard voices from somewhere deep in the house, low talking, an occasional laugh, the clink-clank of silverware on dishes.
“You were supposed to be here when they went in. Now I guess you’ll go in with the dessert.”
The short guy was back. He had a short-barreled pistol in each hand, revolvers, something small, Smoke guessed twenty-twos. The short guy held them out, grips first. Smoke could see the grips and triggers were wrapped in some kind of dark tape. Smoke looked at Cat, Cat looked at Smoke, and they shared the same sigh, the same look that said, Well...
Smoke had never held a gun before. The twenty-two didn’t look as real as the cap guns he’d had as a kid, didn’t even feel as heavy. Yet it dragged at his arm, pulling it down along his side.
“Anybody in patikaler?” Cat asked, very sarcastic, “or you wan’ us to jus’ go bananas?”
“You got a mouth, don’t you?” the short guy said, but the funeral guy shut him up with a look.
“When you walk in, the table will be sideways to you,” the funeral guy said. “He’ll be right across from where you come in, opposite side of the table right in the middle. Older guy, mustache, great head of gray hair.”
“He always had great hair,” the short guy said. “Old as he is, guy’s got hair like a lion.” He ran a hand through his own thinning strands. “I always been jealous.”
“You come back out this way,” the funeral guy said. “Your car won’t be here. There’ll be a different car for each of you.”
“Separate?” Cat asked.
“You’ll have a while before anybody’s looking, but they’ll be looking for a pair. You leave in separate cars, go wherever you’re going in separate directions. They’ll look for you to cross the border, so go west or south and go that way a good long while before you head for home.”
The funeral guy looked down another hall, one that seemed to cut through to the lake side of the house. There was another guy in a suit standing by a closed door, looking like he was listening at the door for something. Then he held the door open and four guys dressed in servers’ jackets filed out carrying trays of dirty dishes. The servers disappeared through a door off the hall, and Smoke heard the loud clatter of trays being cleared. The guy down the hall by the door looked at them, the funeral guy looked at them, the short guy said, “You’re up.”
Smoke wanted to puke, but even if he did he knew it wouldn’t get that cold knot out of his stomach, that it would still be there if he heaved from now until Doomsday. He looked over at Cat. Cat’s eyes were blinking a mile a minute, his hungover pale face was even whiter, sweatier, and Smoke wondered if Cat might not fall over.
Smoke looked back down the hall where the suited guy holding the door was waving at them to hurry up.
Then Smoke found himself moving, didn’t feel his legs, his feet, but felt himself moving down the hall, it was surprisingly dark near the end, by the door, he hadn’t noticed that, wasn’t that odd that he hadn’t noticed it, then he was through the door and there was another big, bright room, sun flooding through tall, church-like windows looking out at the lake, bright enough it almost hurt his eyes.
There were maybe 20 people around a long table, maybe more, men, women, kids, little girls in pink, flouncy dresses, gray-templed men in suits with diamond stick pins in their ties and middle-aged bellies pushing at their vests, well-groomed women with pearl earrings, sparklers on their fingers.
And like the funeral guy had said, once Smoke came through the door, there he was, a large, pot-bellied man with a thick head of gray hair swept straight back matching a full, gray mustache. He was smiling, he was happy, he’d been laughing up a storm when Smoke had come through the door.
“Ah,” the gray-haired man said, his voice raspy from laughing, he was still trying to catch a breath, “Ah,” he said when Smoke came through the door, “what’ve we got for dessert?”
Smoke didn’t know if the gray-haired man had seen the gun at his side, or maybe it was the look on Smoke’s face, but the big smile died, as suddenly as if someone had hit a switch. The gray-haired man didn’t move, he didn’t look scared. He just grew very still, Smoke thought the look on his face was like, Ok, let’s get this done.
But Smoke didn’t move. He flicked his eyes to each side but he didn’t see Cat.
The gray-haired man sighed impatiently. Smoke didn’t feel the other people in the room, it felt like there was only he and the gray-haired man inside a quiet bubble, and the gray-haired man wanted him to hurry up.
“Fuck,” Smoke said. He thought it was only in his head but he said it so hard the “f” hurt his lower lip.
Then the gun was up, Smoke’s vision blurred, he could barely see the man past the end of the barrel, he pulled the trigger, kept pulling the trigger, was still pulling the trigger on the empty gun when he felt a hand gently on his shoulder pulling him back toward the door.
He was in the hall, wasn’t really sure, a hand was guiding him, the door to the dining room must’ve closed behind him because he heard screams, mostly the women and kids, but they were muffled, distant, miles away. Someone was pealing the server’s jacket off him, taking the gun out of his hand, pushing his own jacket back at him.
Smoke started to shake off the daze. He looked around for Cat. “Where’s, um...”
“He never made it in,” the funeral guy said, walking him hurriedly toward the front door. “He went down and started puking. We’re going to have to clean that up, too.”
“Whatever he’s got, I hope it’s not contagious,” the short guy said.
“He already took off,” the funeral guy said and led him through the door. There was a Pontiac sedan waiting at the door, engine already running. “I don’t know which way your partner’s going, but remember, south or west.” He opened the driver’s door for Smoke. “Here. This is yours, isn’t it?” Wrapped around his fingers was the rosary from the Cadillac. Smoke shook his head. “When you get back,” the funeral guy said, “tell them thank you from us.”
Smoke nodded, slipped behind the wheel, the funeral guy shut the door and Smoke headed back down the drive. He drove slowly at first, then found his foot pressing down on the gas and the car started slipping on the gravel. When he hit the main road he was going so fast that he fishtailed when he whipped back onto pavement.
He got about a hundred yards before he pulled over to stagger into the trees and throw up.
Smoke followed the shore. No reason. The funeral guy had said go west, go south, but Smoke didn’t know which way was west, which way was south, and the map had disappeared with the DeVille. He needed a direction; the shoreline gave him one. Past Chimney Bluffs, around Sodus Bay, across the Lake Shore Marshes, then back up to the lake, the endless lake, for some reason finding some...not comfort. There was no comfort, not anymore, but he liked seeing the lake there, the water.
He didn’t know how long he drove, didn’t know what time it was, didn’t even bother to look at his watch. But dark seemed to come quickly, even though he felt it couldn’t be that late. He’d heard it got darker faster in the north, maybe this was that. And with the coming darkness, with a speed that shocked him, he suddenly, completely felt...drained. Fighting to keep his eyes open, to focus on the road.
It was late, he told himself, later than he thought, and it had been a long day, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten...but he knew that wasn’t it.
He could still hear the gun, how loud it had sounded for a small gun, could only now remember the slight echo it had given off in the large room, remember how he couldn’t even see the gray-haired man after the first shot because of the smoke, because of his eyes flinching against the muzzle flash.
This feeling wasn’t about food, it wasn’t about the drive, it wasn’t about any long fucking day. He knew that.
It was about the handful of seconds – and looking back, he knew that’s all it was – it was about that tiny bite of time in that room with a toy-sized gun and the man with the lion’s mane of gray hair.
Maybe two-three seconds. Maybe not even?
That’s all, Smoke said to himself, maybe not even two seconds and you are totally fucked forever.
It wasn’t quite night, but he was fading, knew he couldn’t stay on the road. He was driving along an empty stretch of shoreline, he could see lights of houses a few miles ahead, nothing behind him. He pulled on to the shoulder. There was winter-withered undergrowth and a thin band of trees between him and the water. He saw a gap, nothing more than a wide walking path, really, and he eased the car off the road, turned onto the path, bush branches bending and squeaking along the sides of the car as he bulled through the tight way, then he came out the other side at the head of a narrow band of stony beach. He pulled the car to one side, away from the path, so it would be hidden from the road, killed the engine.
As it grew darker, the sheen on the water disappeared and there was nothing out there in the moonless night but a black void with no border between water and sky. Occasionally, he’d see, like the brilliant pinpoint stars that filled the sky, tiny constellations of lights floating out on the blackness, glittering clusters he knew were ships. They came up out of the dark to his left, the west, although he didn’t know that was west, floated across the black void and disappeared back into it as they headed east.
I’d love to know how to do that, Smoke said. Become invisible, again.
It was well into the night when the cold woke him. The car had lost its heat, his jacket hadn’t been enough to keep him warm where he’d stretched out on the rear seat. He climbed into the driver’s seat, started the engine, let it run to get some warmth up in the car again. He climbed out of the car to pee, and the cold November wind off the lake immediately set him shivering. This time, there was nothing bracing or sweet about the wind, just an ugly cold that cut deep into every joint and bone, and a hard-edge to make his head hurt, his eyes water, he could feel the hairs in his nose tingle as they crystallized.
And then he shook off enough of his bad sleep and the cold to see the lights.
He’d heard of the aurora borealis but thought that was something only Eskimos ever saw. He stared slack-jawed into the sky at the shimmering walls of green and purple and blue light, like a wavering parade of a million colored flashlights, and below it, in what had been an empty blackness, the lights found a second home on the surface of the lake, broken up into a million million colored fragments – like bits of melted colored glass -- as the wind tickled up waves.
It seemed wrong to him – almost a sin – to pee under such a sight, but Smoke did, feeling bad about it, then climbed back in his car, figuring it was time to find his way back. He just wasn’t sure where to go back to.
What was sure was there’d be no more fantasizing about standing by wide clean rivers with Althea looking at Tinker Bell-colored foliage, and starry skies that went up forever, and watching boat lights float across the night. He took a last look up at the lights in the sky and it sunk in that he was an alien here, and it was time to go back where he belonged.
The old waitress with the basset hound cheeks had been very nice. Smoke was sure he’d heard her on the stairs at one point, knew she must have heard him sobbing, but she hadn’t come up until the upstairs had grown quiet. Then, after a bit when he knew she was waiting to be sure things had calmed down, she came up with another cup of coffee for him and a hot chocolate for Althea, saying quietly and with a small, sympathetic smile, “I thought you two might need something. Take your time. That one doesn’t go on the check,” and then she just as quietly disappeared back downstairs.
“She probably thinks we’re having couples issues,” Althea says. “She’s sweet.”
“So,” Althea says. She carefully scoops away at the dollop of whipped cream floating in the middle of her cup with her spoon, turning it into a little spire, then licks her spoon clean. She reminds him of a little kid. It doesn’t matter what she does on the stage of The Roma at night, but when she does these little kid things he feels close to her. “So.”
“What were you gonna do?”
“We should leave,” she says.
“Finish your hot chocolate first.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Smokie – “
“Leave? To where?” He doesn’t mean to snap at her. He looks out the window. It looks like they don’t clean them much, the windows, they’re spotted and streaked from old rains, so badly it’s like he’s looking out at the gray ocean through a fog. He tilts his head, a kind of, I’m sorry.
She isn’t mad. “Anywhere,” she says.
“With what? You got some huge stash I don’t know about?” He isn’t arguing. It’s a sad statement of fact.
“I have some – “
“You know we can work anywhere. It’s not like we’re specialists.”
He remembers how the world looked standing on the banks of the Delaware near the Gap, and looking out at the Coynyngham Valley, and the great star-filled dome of the sky outside of Black River, and the wavering walls of light over Lake Ontario.
“Not anywhere,” he says. “Just some place like we left. Same shit, different place. What’d be the difference?”
“You’d be away from them, Smokie.”
He reaches across the table and sets his hand on hers. “Doesn’t matter where I go, I’m not leaving this behind.”
“Chances are he was somebody like them.”
Smoke smiles. “You think that makes a difference?”
He wants another look at the ocean. Something in him tells him maybe it’s a last look, maybe just because he doesn’t want to see it anymore, maybe because it reminds him too much of what used to be. He sits on a bench by the boardwalk rail, sinks into his jacket, jams his hands deep in his pockets, but still the cold sinks down deep inside him. He’s shivering so bad it’s almost hard to see straight.
Convention Hall is just there to his left. The aqua color of the engraved seahorses and serpents over the main entrance has faded, he sees scaffolding inside the bordering colonnade, some of the stone carvings around the cornices are chipped. It’s not abandoned, like the Casino, but there’s still something old and decayed about the place, like one of those faded ruins you read about in National Geographic, one of those old temples they find out in a jungle somewhere, grand but derelict. Looking out at the chill, gray Atlantic, he remembers Lake Ontario the night of the aurora, the water alive and glittering with colored light, and he thinks, Jesus, even the fucking ocean here is fading.
“I don’t know why you want to stay,” she says from where she’s standing behind him. Her voice wavers, she’s shivering, too. “You did -- ...” He knows she’s trying to find a good way to say it except there isn’t one. “You did what you...had to do. They didn’t give you a choice, but you did it. Point is, you don’t owe them anything. They don’t have any hold on you.”
He looks into the rough breakers that look dirty under the slate sky, remembers standing by the Delaware with Larry, that feeling he had that Larry might walk into the river and keep walking until it closed over him. He looks at the gray and white surf and feels what he was sure Larry had felt back then; to walk out into the water and keep walking. He thinks, You don’t get any more invisible than that.
He can’t take the cold anymore, he can’t stand the sight of the ocean and dying Asbury Park anymore. He stands with a sigh, slips his arm inside hers. “Where’s your car? You drive. I feel like I’ve been driving my whole life.”
“Home,” he says.
They walk down the boardwalk, both with their heads bowed against the cold wind. Then her head picks up and she stops. There’s a small, square building, barely a booth, sitting in an empty, sandy lot by itself, fronting on the boardwalk. Smoke doesn’t think it’s even as big as the DeVille he’d driven into New York. On the side wall is a painting of a big, blue eye, and over it, in blue letters that run the length of the wall: MADAM MARIE. Around the eye are some cartoony-looking shooting stars, and, next to the eye, in red letters:
Smoke remembers Madam Marie’s from when he was a kid. He remembers Pop telling him Madam Marie’s had been there when he was a kid.
Althea smiles and nods at the little building.
“What?” Smoke asks.
“Just for laughs.”
But Smoke isn’t laughing and he isn’t smiling. “I don’t want to know.” Not even as a joke, he thinks.
And her smile quickly dies.
He sees it in her, her looking for some other thing to say, to somehow change the direction of where this is going, the way his head is working. He feels for her because he knows what she doesn’t; there isn’t that other thing to say.
But she tries: “Smokie... You did this...this one thing. One time. Once. And they made you do it. But you’re not like them, this isn’t who you are.”
“It is now.”