Thu 21 Aug 2014
It’s time to post another novel. Thanks to everyone who read Bad Angels. This one’s a bit stranger. It’s a science fiction memoir based on a crossroads in my life being revisited, a personal alternate history. All of the important bits are true. It’s also a tongue-in-cheek singularity tale. As a bonus, it’s chockfull of information about making donuts, something I spent a significant portion of my life doing. I’ll publish the novel here in four parts for your dining and dancing pleasure. Thanks for reading.
THE DONUT MAN
A Portrait of the Artist
As a Middle-Aged
As you ramble on through life, brother, whatever be your goal:
Keep your eyes upon the donut, and not upon the hole!
[T]he reiteration of vacancy—voids that themselves contain gaps, hollows yielding pockets of emptiness—is everywhere in science fiction and fantasy, indeed is peculiar to it…. This undermining of something by nothing (which proves susceptible to erosion by deeper nothings) is present throughout the genre.
—Gregory Feeley, “The Hole in a Hole: A Theory of Science Fiction.”
1. Bob’s Donuts
2. Helpful Criticism
3. Following My Father
4. Finding Nicole
5. There’s Your Trouble
6. On the Road Again
7. The No-Holes Situation
8. Poker in the Moonlight
9. Got Anything Hot?
10. Sunday Punch
11. The Wild Blue Yonder
12. The Guy in the Derby Hat
13. Even Steven
14. Absolutely Sweet Marie
15. Sunset in Eden
16. What Kind of Fiction?
17. The Bad One’s Redemption
18. Son of Da Vinci’s Smile
19. Looks Downhill To Me
20. Adults Only
21. There Is a Small Mailbox Here
22. Whirlwind Romance
23. Thanks for the Dance
Chapter 1. Bob’s Donuts
[G]reat novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.
–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
For almost a year now, the city has been laying new sewer pipe in front of the strip mall where my donut shop resides. It’s killing my business. It’s dead when I arrive at dusk, what used to be a busy time for us. Nobody wants to clank across a steel plate over a moat in the failing light just to indulge a sugar buzz. Cowards. Even the pizza joint at the other end only has two cars for their triple cheese special. Last Tuesday’s half price pitcher night had a Suburban full of softballers more off road than planned. I can’t complain. The tow driver bought a couple dozen. Between me and the pizzeria is Antique Paradise, a big, empty hunk of nothing that’s never open. It used to be a liquor store and then carpets. The carpets moved further out in the ‘burbs, following the money. I don’t know where the liquor store went. I’m sure they’re doing okay. They used to bring in a lot of business. You’d be surprised how many people like a few donuts with their alcohol, or maybe you wouldn’t. Indulgences people call them, special treats to make life worth living, as if it weren’t already.
I circle around the lot picking up trash before I go inside. Most of it’s from the franchises a few blocks down the road. Not a scrap of it comes from my shop, sad to say. Even the newspaper guy’s forgotten us—the paper in the machine by the door is two days old. The President’s changed his story three times since that headline. But maybe everybody’s being too hard on him. Sometimes you have to revise to get at the truth, right? It also helps if the truth is what you’re after. Maybe we don’t want the truth anyway. Each president just seems like a reaction to the last one, a new dance partner. We spin this way, then that.
An old-fashioned bell on the door clangs noisily to announce my entrance. Dad was into old-fashioned. There’s not a customer in the place, a lot of unsold donuts on display whose time has run out. You have to keep the case looking full; you have to make the donuts fresh. These are about six hours old. The glaze is starting to dull as the sugar crystallizes. Pretty soon they’ll start to sweat. There’ll be plenty of donuts at the homeless shelter in the morning. Just what those poor folks need—sweet, empty calories, stale and sticky. Indulgences.
The kitchen and the four-stool counter are up front. There’s only a low gate between the customer area and the kitchen so you can watch the donuts being mixed, kneaded, rolled, cut, fried, and glazed—everything except the frosting, sugaring, filling, and so on that goes on in the finishing room in the back. Behind that is a storeroom smaller than most people’s closets these days, a tiny bathroom, a backdoor, and there you have it, Bob’s Donuts.
Everybody tells me donut shops smell great. Except for a few distant memories from my youth, I’ll have to take their word for it. After the first few months, a donut shop just smells like 375 degree shortening. It sounds like an exhaust fan, a big Hobart mixer smacking dough, a radio playing. It feels like home, greasy, dusted with white flour, sweetness everywhere. It makes a concrete gray gunk that gets into the crevices in your shoe soles and resists all cleaners. If I like you, I take off my shoes before I walk on your carpet. Your dog will always be glad to see me, but don’t leave him alone with my shoes.
I’ve spent over half my waking life here, a large percentage of my sleeping life for that matter. There’s an old wood and canvas cot in the finishing room. Whenever I lie down to take a nap—most of the sleep I ever get is naps—I wake up when the dough’s ready, just like clockwork, even if I’m sleeping somewhere else, even if there’s not a dough with my name on it for miles. Sometimes I can go back to sleep, sometimes not. That’s when I get most of my writing done.
The cot creaks now as someone or someones rise from it. I guess they heard the bell. I’m fifteen minutes early. I was at the university library and lost track of time. I planned to stop at my place first and change into white donut duds, but traffic was slow and I saw there wouldn’t be time, and I hate to be late. It’s rude. But then sometimes being early is worse. There’s a parabolic mirror in the finishing room, so you can see who’s up front. By now they know it’s me. They can take their time with whatever they’re doing.
While I’ve been going to school this summer, Kenny, who’s been cooking for me weekends since he was fifteen and is always looking to pick up extra hours, has been filling in for me a lot. This is how he’s gotten to know Alexis, a couple of years older, who works counter and finishes most days. He’s bound for college next month, somewhere in the Carolinas. Last I heard, she was between community college semesters, saving up for tuition. They’re my two best employees. With those two I could feed the whole city donuts—if they’d just drive across that ditch.
I come behind the counter and pour myself a cup of coffee. I put on a white apron that stops mid-calf. Most of my pants have grease spots on the legs in front. These khakis—my school clothes—will have a muted leopard thing going on by the end of the night. I roll up my shirtsleeves. I always wear long sleeves. I have little grease burns up and down my forearms one of my cop regulars says look just like track marks. But cops will say anything. I get to know plenty. It’s true what they say about cops and donuts, but I don’t mind them hanging around. The pizza joint’s been stuck up three times. The gas station, four. Me, zero. And most of the cops are okay folks. I check the register. Maybe the crooks know I’m not worth the trouble. The last sale was over two hours ago. A $2.99 special. The total doesn’t cover the utilities. Only wholesale keeps me alive.
I took over the shop when Dad had his stroke. He was found by a customer on that very cot. Couldn’t move a muscle. Couldn’t speak. The doctors never were certain whether he could hear and understand. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing in the donut business when he went into it, and according to Mom he never could find his way after I left for college. She didn’t have to tell me that, but who else was she going to tell? When I was in high school, I kept the place going, learning more about donuts from Wayne, the alcoholic night cook Dad hired, than Dad ever learned from the minor league franchise bandits who set him up and watched him fall, eager to resell this tired equipment to the next be-your-own-boss sucker. If he’d waited six more months to have his stroke, the shop would’ve gone under before he did, and that would’ve been the end of Bob’s Donuts. But I dropped out of college to come back home and save the day, or the shop anyway, my parents’ sole support. Mine too by then, having blown my grades and scholarship.
Then Dad died. Then I married. Then Mom got sick and died. Then I divorced. Then I remarried. Then, then, then. What does it matter? Keep your eyes upon the donut and not upon the hole. Bob’s Donuts. Bob was my dad. The donut shop was his dream. Dreaming of owning a donut shop seems insane to me now, but he traveled for a pharmaceutical company most of his working life, so being his own boss in his own place sounded great to him. When, after a buyout, he found himself first transferred to a strange city for a decent interval, then fired after twenty years on the road, he sank everything he had—retirement, insurance policies, sanity—into The Shop.
I was in ninth grade when this madness began. I quit my job at the library and worked part time to help while the shop was getting started. By the time I graduated high school, I was working split shift seven days a week, ten, twelve hours a day, and never wanted to see another donut in my life. Then I aced the SATs and was rescued by a full scholarship to Indiana University. I was out of here. I was going to study Literature and be a Great Writer. Bob’s Donuts was in Bob’s hands. Then he had his stroke right before Halloween. There was a paper skeleton hanging in the window. I tore it to shreds.
Ancient history. I read the literature on my own. Not the worst fate. Judging from most of the critics I’ve read, I didn’t miss much by not sitting in their classes. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. The shop’s mine now. I’ve managed to squeeze a living out of it for over twenty-five years in spite of a bad location without a drive-in window, fierce competition from big franchises and bad bagel joints, and now a gaping trench between the parking lot and the road that’s six months behind schedule on a six-month project. They dug the hole fast enough. Now they can’t seem to remember why.
But it’s always something. I’ve never particularly liked being a small business owner, though it did improve after I pulled the franchise leaches off my jugular. Be your own boss! Don’t be a slave—be a sharecropper! Not me. I’m completely independent and chronically broke.
But even when business is good, being your own boss is over-rated. The lady at the library, the only boss I can compare myself to, was a much better boss than me. Take a break, Randall. Good job, Randall. Why, don’t you look nice today, Randall! Those were the days. And unless you want to do all the work yourself, you’ve got to be the boss as well, and who likes him? The only part I like—the only part I’m good at, the only reason I’ve stayed in business—is making the donuts. I make the best donuts in town, and you can tell Dunkin’ Krispy I said so. Nobody has to tell my customers.
Even after I ran the place, for the longest time I worked graveyard like I always had, midnight to whenever, the big production shift, because I liked the work and the solitude. I get all my best ideas staring out of plate glass at three in the morning, shooting out a batch of crullers or rolling out dough. But if you work graveyard and own the place, you just end up working all the time. You cut and fry three thirty-five pound doughs in a shift and then meet with the accountant, then hang around for the grease trap guy who never shows, then deliver the evening wholesale orders, then show up at midnight to do it all again. My boss—that’s me—advised me to quit doing the work I liked best and attend to the stuff I hated. See what I mean about being your own boss? Lately I’m in the shop during the morning rush and evenings till midnight, and try to reserve the graveyard for writing. For now, Wayne—who taught me everything I know about donuts–works graveyard most nights. He’s shown up now and again over the years, and I always give him a job. In a few years he’s eligible for Social Security and Medicare. Hope he makes it. Most of the time he’s the best donut cook on the planet, until he suddenly drops off of it and I don’t hear from him for another six months or more.
Alexis finally emerges from the finishing room still tucking in her shirt, a little flushed, Kenny, even more flushed, trailing along behind. I feel like Jehovah busting Adam and Eve. “Hi Randall,” she says. She’s calm, quiet, sad. There’s something fated about her that worries me. I don’t really know anything about her. Dad took too much interest in the young women who worked for him. I’ve learned from his bad example and make it a point not to get too personal.
“Kind of slow today, isn’t it?” I say, to change the unspoken subject.
“Yeah,” Kenny says. “Real slow. Oh shit,” he adds, seeing the dough he’s mixed for me is overflowing its bowl onto the floor. Looks like he should’ve punched it down a half hour ago. He must’ve mixed it a little early or a little hot, too many other things on his mind to check the flour and water with the thermometer I nag all my cooks to use. Ever had a sour, greasy donut in mid summer? Most likely the dough was hot.
I let him deal with it and check the proof box where the yeast donuts rise in a warm, moist environment. They should be about ready to fry, but the box is dry. It’s been a dry day. The donut tops are dry and crusty making them rise pinched and funny looking, not as light as they should be. They’ll fry up dark and greasy. I hate to make a bad product. I add some water to the box, though it’s probably too late to help the donuts inside. This isn’t like Kenny. This is Kenny in love. You should understand, Randall. You, of all people, I say to myself. Oh shut the fuck up, I reply.
Kenny sees me putting water in the proof box and clutches at his chest like he’s just been caught stealing from the orphan’s fund. “God I’m sorry, Randall. I thought I checked it when I put them in.”
I wipe the scowl off my face. It’s just donuts, Randall. “No problem. I’ve got it under control. Y’all can take off now. Thanks again. I’ve got my class tomorrow, so if you could come in maybe an hour earlier than today?”
They both nod at me, trade a glance. “I almost forgot,” Kenny says. “There was a woman here asking about you.”
“Who was she? What did she want?”
“She left before I could get her name. She was sitting at the counter. I don’t know what she wanted exactly. At first I thought she was just making conversation.”
“She asked if you were a good boss,” Alexis says.
“What did you tell her?” I ask.
Alexis gives her almost imperceptible smile. “The best.”
“She asked me why you were going back to school,” Kenny says. “I told her you really want to be a writer.”
There’s something embarrassing, at my age, about an eighteen-year-old kid knowing your dreams, handing them out to strangers at the donut counter. “So what do you think she wanted?”
“Maybe she’s interested in you,” Alexis says.
“Maybe she’s opening her own shop,” Kenny guesses.
“She didn’t even have a donut,” Alexis says. “Just a coffee to go.”
“That pretty much rules out cop,” I say. “Probably just a bill collector.”
“See you tomorrow,” Kenny says.
“G’night, Randall,” Alexis says, and they walk out into the parking lot arm-in-arm.
When I start frying the sorry looking rings ten minutes later, Kenny and Alexis are still standing by her car under the big lit up donut sign at the front of the lot, deep in serious conversation. It’s not too hard to figure out their story. She’s got a boyfriend or he’s got a girlfriend or both. He’s going away; she’s staying. Maybe she loves Jesus, and he doesn’t. But still, in spite of all that, they can’t keep their hands off each other, and now it’s gotten serious. The only place they can meet is in the back of my donut shop. Then I have to go and show up early, driving it home just how pathetic their situation is, how they should just wise up and end it now. I have half a mind to tell them to come back inside. Doesn’t look like any customers would interrupt them. But they’d just look at me like I was nuts, like I couldn’t be serious. They don’t know me very well.
She starts crying and gets in her car and drives off way too fast, sliding on the steel plate as she turns right onto the road. Kenny just stands there for the longest time, his arms hanging empty, staring at the hole in his life. If he comes back inside, what will I say to him? Don’t let her go! That’s what I always say. But look at me. Single, with three ex-wives. Why should anyone listen to me?
But Kenny doesn’t come inside. I’m not his dad. I’m his boss. I hardly know him. He drives off too, and the whole thing leaves me feeling sad. It’s got nothing to do with me, but it’s stirred up bad memories. How does your life turn into staring out a window at an asphalt slab remembering leaving or being left?
I pick up one of the freshly glazed rings, piping hot. After thirty years of picking up hot donuts, the tips of my fingers are practically insensitive to heat. I tear the donut in half, check the color and the texture and the smell, take a bite. Not bad. Turned out better than I thought they would. I pop the rest in my mouth, my one donut for the day. You have to taste the product. One is about all the donut goodness I can handle in a day. I’m sure my arteries agree.
One of my regulars comes bravely clanking into the parking lot. “I smelled ’em cookin’,” he’ll say and take a dozen glazed. Hot. I’ll caution him not to close the box all the way. The glaze will sweat right off. If he’s not careful, he’ll burn his palm on the bottom of the box. He’ll be delighted, a happy man.
I could do worse than a donut shop. Beats selling insurance, or I imagine it does.
Chapter 2. Helpful Criticism
Thus criticism and art, like theology and religion, are basically companions but not always friends. At times they may be enemies.
—John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
There’s nothing so dark as the rage of a blind man.
That’s the line anyway. The one we’re all supposed to swallow since Beulah Mae is on about it, and this is her fiction workshop. She’s calling it multi-layered and resonant. Others around the table gush on cue. Kimberly describes the epiphany the line gave her when she read it, after some killer pot I’m guessing. Dustin says it reminds him of Carver in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” when he says… I quit listening.
Sean, the line’s author, wallows in the praise like a pig in shit, though it isn’t doing his fiction the least bit of good. He thinks he deserves it. He thinks so much of the line, in fact, he’s calling this latest in a long string of implausible, predictable, pretentious stories, “Nothing So Dark.” Someone suggests “Nothing, So Dark,” which leads to “Nothing: So Dark” (while I keep “So-so Nothing, So-so Dark” to myself), but everyone comes back around to the utter rightness of the original title, preferred by Beulah Mae for its purity.
Sean assured his success in here when he showed up the first night breathless at the chance to study under Beulah Mae, feigning or possessing complete ignorance of her checkered literary past. Beulah Mae Cummins, as you may recall, hit it big in Trailer Trash Lit a few years back with stories set mostly in K-Marts and honky-tonks where she wryly put her rednecks through their authentic sub-cultural paces for the amusement of middle-class English majors who like trade paperbacks with chromy old cars and neon on the cover. They might not set foot in a honky-tonk themselves, harboring the not-misplaced fear they could get the crap beat out of them, but slumming with Beulah Mae was exhilarating and made them feel superior. Sort of a high tone Hee-Haw with sex. She did a funny, folksy NPR interview that had her selling briskly for a skinny volume of short stories about fat people. That happens when your book is one click away from npr.org. She was scheduled to go on The Charlie Rose Show to give old Charlie yet another chance to interview himself. There was talk of an “eagerly anticipated novel”—a thinly-veiled autobiography of her lusty honky-tonk life. Then some spoilsport blew her cover, revealing both her name and trailer park bio to be complete phonies.
Beulah Mae is actually Whitney Austen Wells who grew up where nice trailers are for horses, and earning a living was something that happened two or three generations ago. She never spent a day in public schools until this state university where we’re sitting hired her on the strength of her impressive publications and prizes from her heyday, even if she turned out to be a diamond trying to rough it. After all, none of the reviewers ever retracted their praise, nobody ever asked her to give her prizes back—even the one given to the Most Important New Voice of the New South. Fair enough. Who says the New Voice can’t be a ventriloquist? Why should politicians have all the fun?
Maybe Sean knows none of this. He mentions only one of her stories (enthusiastically and every chance he gets)—”Tequila Tattoo,” the one about an after hours drinking contest that’s in a half dozen anthologies, though it tends to get yanked in the new editions. Too bad. It’s probably her best story. Private schools or no, shot contests seem to be a subject she understands from the inside out, a prerequisite for good fiction, somebody said. I don’t remember who at the moment. I’ve read so many books on the subject, they all make a stew in my brain. It’s like the Bible. I can always find somebody to endorse what I’m doing in my fiction, just as many shaking their heads sadly at the mistakes I’m making. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Trust the process. Always outline. Find your own voice. Pretend to be other people. Write down the bones bird by fucking bird. All of the above. Thanks a lot.
When I learned Beulah Mae would be teaching this workshop, I didn’t know a thing about her, but she was going to be my teacher so I found out what I could. I’ve read everything she’s ever published, even all those lying interviews she gave to any publication with South or Southern in the title. She can bullshit with the best of them. I’ll give her that. I like her stories well enough, even if her rednecks are, like Beulah Mae herself, just pretending, but she’s too insecure to be a very good teacher, and that eagerly anticipated novel was just the fantasy of an enthusiastic publicist. As far as I can tell, Beulah Mae’s quit publishing fiction altogether since she took this teaching job. Under her old pseudonym anyway. Maybe she’s somebody else now. Another chance for Whitney Austen Wells to find her own voice. I kind of like the sexy musical patchwork southern thing she uses in workshop even if there’s no place where anybody actually talks like that except Connecticut community theatre productions of Tennessee Williams.
But what do I know? She has tenure. I, on the other hand, have been provisionally admitted into the graduate program in Creative Writing as part of a Summer Community Outreach Program for Returning Students. Returning Students are what they call anyone too old to be here—who can pay full tuition. The University reached out, and there I was, on my knees, checkbook in hand.
As Kenny will tell you, I want to be a writer, have always wanted to be a writer. No. That’s not right. I’ve always written. I finished my first dreadful science fiction novel when I was thirteen. I’ve never stopped, though they get better, if not quite good enough to suit me. I guess what I’ve always wanted to be is a published writer. So the story gets told to somebody, so somebody’s listening. I’ve managed to get three bad stories and a worse poem published in obscure publications, but that only whetted my appetite. People tell me, write for yourself. Why is it nobody tells aspiring actors, act for yourself? It’s not about money. Samuel Johnson said only a blockhead ever wrote for anything other than money. In my opinion, Johnson was the blockhead. I don’t even make donuts just for money. You write fiction to be read. The rest of it is just ritual.
This class is my latest, most desperate, most expensive attempt—going to grad school twenty-five years since I dropped out of college the first time—to become that writer. The University was even willing to transform my many years of running a donut shop into enough business credits to give me a bachelor’s degree. They’re fussy about people going to grad school without one, but business is business, so they found a “creative solution.” That’s what the dean called it anyway. Will that be cash or credit, sir? Twenty-five years ago I walked out on a full scholarship to Indiana University. Prices have gone up.
So far I’ve learned two things about fiction writing from Beulah Mae I didn’t already know. (I have them in my notes). 1) The short story is a dying art form kept alive only by the dedicated labors of true artists. (Beulah Mae’s met them all up at Breadloaf and gotten roaring drunk with half of them. She’s a terrible name dropper). And 2) Literary success is all luck, but you have to make your own luck because nobody’s going to make it for you. She said that on a particularly bad night, and I don’t hold it against her. Most of the time she hands out half-hearted pep talks. But it’s still not much for thousands in tuition and fees, especially since I’m addicted to writing novels and was hoping for something more in the skill than luck line when I wrote the check.
I knew I was in trouble the first class when she ruled out science fiction altogether, babbling some nonsense about escapism. The Holy Grail set before the class was the literary short story. Or I guess that’s Literary. “What about literary science fiction?” I asked, and she gave me her pained expression—Why do you have to make my job even harder than it is?—and I resigned myself to a semester of realism. What the hell? It’s all fiction. And any writing beats not writing at all, which is where I’ve found myself lately.
For her part, Beulah Mae has hated every one of my short stories, finding my characters ordinary–an antonym, I gather, to resonant, and the plots overly overt, a term I haven’t quite deciphered yet. I think they all stink too, but for different reasons altogether. I’m not a short story writer. I always feel like I’m busting out at the seams—or maybe that’s the static universe of realism that has me feeling that way.
But whatever our differences, maybe she’ll cut me a break since I’m the hardest working guy in the workshop, the only one who reads every story a half dozen times or more, trying to figure out how each one works, trying to learn from them. There are some excellent writers in here. Sean isn’t one of them. I know you can learn from bad fiction too, but I’m tired of learning from Sean’s mistakes, when Sean never seems to.
“Splendid work, Sean. Truly splendid.” Beulah Mae holds the manuscript in both hands. It’s like a benediction. May the Lord lift up His countenance…
I can’t let it pass. I can’t.
I raise my hand. She gives me the pained smile. “Does The Critic have something to add?” she asks. That’s what she calls me these days. The Critic. Somebody always snickers along with her. This time it’s pomo Miles who writes stories about stories he’d write if only he believed in stories. One of them was actually pretty good. But that was because, as I unpopularly pointed out, when it wasn’t falling all over itself, it told a story.
I speak my mind. “What is the line saying? There’s nothing so dark as the rage of a blind man. As compared to what? It’s dark because he’s blind? That’s a bit precious, isn’t it? A bit simplistic? What makes a rage dark anyway? It’s a psychological thing, right? I mean, is it saying all blind men have the same personality? That Ray Charles, say, had darker rage than Elvis? That Helen Keller got more pissed off than Maggie Thatcher?”
I’ve got more, but I figure I’ve made my point. That’s all I want to do. The free exchange of ideas is what the workshop is all about. Beulah Mae said so the first class anyway.
“Are you quite finished?” Beulah Mae asks.
That’s the third thing I’ve learned from her, though it’s not in my notes. When someone asks you a question you can’t answer, get all weary and say, Are you quite finished? I get that one a lot. I should let it go, but I mutiny. I turn to the weasel himself and ask, “Is that what you mean, Sean, that there’s something unique about the blind man’s psyche or adrenaline levels? What does the line actually say, Sean?”
Beulah Mae pounces. “Don’t answer that, Sean. In this workshop, Mr. Blevins, as you are well aware, we do not address the author directly. If you have something in the way of helpful criticism to offer other than this relentless literalism, I’m sure we’d all love to hear it.”
All. All younger than me. All better educated than me. All better dressed than me. They’re on the edge of their workshop chairs waiting to hear what I’ve got to say, the guy who always smells like a donut. They groan whenever I open my mouth. Mr. Blevins. That’s what she calls me when I’m not The Critic. She calls everyone else by their first names. She hasn’t used mine since the first class. Helpful criticism. What other kind is there? I read the story seven times backwards and forwards and believed it less each time. How isn’t that helpful information for a storyteller who gives a shit? And if he doesn’t give a shit, then why should I be so careful not to hurt his feelings? If he wanted to be a comedian would I be a pal to pretend to laugh at his jokes? Maybe Sean’s pissed-off blind man could take up photography, and we could all stand around admiring his work. How’s this for helpful? “The story is nonsense, Sean. The line is silly. It sounds good, but it doesn’t say anything. I hope my opinion is helpful.”
Sean curtly nods his head. He knows I’m right. He wishes I were dead, but he knows. You can see it in his eyes. He’s lucky Beulah Mae saved his ass, because he couldn’t have answered my question. The line will likely stay—in all its resonant, multi-layered glory—but in his heart, he knows I’m right, and maybe some dark night when Beulah Mae is in his past, he’ll strike it out. Or maybe by then, he’ll be writing better stories, maybe an eagerly anticipated novel, and will have forgotten all about this workshop gem.
“Mr. Blevins,” Beulah Mae says, “I’d like to see you in my office after workshop, if you can spare the time.”
“Uh-oh,” pomo Miles says softly.
“Sure thing,” I say.
Beulah Mae’s office isn’t impressive. Nobody’s in the English Department is. But it’s artsier than most—the third story front room of an old row house—a sign of her high standing in the department. Her desk sits kitty-wampus in the bay window. I look around while she shuffles papers looking for the riot act. There are bookcases of literature, heavy on the southern, framed book jackets of her two books in their various editions, pictures of Beulah Mae with famous writers. There are no framed degrees hanging. Sarah Lawrence and Bennington might send the wrong message. Besides, they’d have her real name on them. As far as I can tell, Beulah Mae Cummins was a purely post-grad creation.
My eyes return to Beulah Mae. She’s a looker, as one of her characters might say—big eyes and a versatile, expressive mouth—and she’s looking right back at me. Over her right shoulder, James Dickey leers at a younger, bright-eyed Beulah Mae like a drunk, horny vulture. The setting sun streams in through the bay window to her left. “Is there some reason you don’t like me, Mr. Blevins?”
Jesus H. Christ. I can’t possibly be having this discussion as Mr. Fucking Blevins. “Why do you do that? You call everybody else in the workshop Sean or Kimberly or Miles or Dustin. I’m The Critic or Mr. Blevins.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it bothered you. You are older than the other students. Older than me, in fact. I thought you might resent…”
“Getting older? It has its advantages. Beats the alternative. I’m used to Randall. Please call me Randall, and I like you just fine.”
It takes her a moment to absorb all this new information. Even I didn’t know how much multi-layered resonance I was going to pack into that fine until I purred it. “All right. Randall. I’m glad we got that much settled.” She smiles, hoping she’s misjudged me, but I know she hasn’t. I’m a troublemaker. Mostly for myself.
“What shall I call you?” I ask.
“First name’s fine.”
Let it go, I say to myself, but I never listen. She could’ve just said Beulah Mae, Daisy Duck, anything, but she didn’t. What am I supposed to say? Which one? “You have a brother?”
She doesn’t have a clue why I’m asking. I’m not so sure myself. I know perfectly well she has a younger brother and a younger sister. Pierce and Ashton. Harvard and Yale. Or maybe it’s Yale and Harvard. Her brother’s the one who didn’t go to grad school, buying one degree apparently satisfying his lust for knowledge, if not his other appetites. He looks like an Afghan hound with a bad coke habit in his mug shot. He said he had absolutely no idea that girl was sixteen years old. He never spent a night in jail. Having absolutely no idea is considered an adequate defense in some circles.
“Yes, I do,” she says. “Pierce.”
“Are y’all close?”
She laughs. “He’s a mess, but he’s my little brother.”
“What does he like to call you?”
She looks me in the eye. A few seconds pass. “He calls me Whit,” she says.
“I like that. Suits you. I’ll call you Whit, if you don’t mind.”
She smiles like she doesn’t mind. She might even be pleased. “All right. That’d be fine. I’d like that.” My opinion of her goes up two or three notches. “May I ask you something, Randall?”
“According to your records, you dropped out your first semester of college and never went back. Yet you’re extremely knowledgeable about literature and writing. How did you manage that?”
I shrug. “I read a lot.”
“You’re an autodidact?”
“No reason to call names.”
“I know what it means. It was a joke, Whit.”
She laughs, smiles. “Sorry. I’ve just never met anyone quite like you. Why didn’t you go back? You’re obviously smart enough.”
“Thanks. At first I had to work, didn’t have time, had too many obligations, didn’t have the money to spare. I didn’t want to stop learning, so I kept at it. Then, by the time I could’ve gone back, I didn’t have the patience for where I’d have to start out. I didn’t really want a degree in anything in particular. I already had a way to make a living, a family donut shop. I just wanted to write.” I shrug. “Twenty-five years later, here I am, still writing, but now I’m in school writing. It’s official. A way of putting it first.”
I laugh. “Desperate I guess.”
“Glad to have you.”
“Glad to be here.” We smile at each other. We covered some of this ground when she interviewed me—part of the admissions process. But that had been a process. Now she’s actually talking to me. I’m not sure what I’ve done right, but I’m not complaining. I figure we’re done, thinking that certainly went better than expected. “So Whit, if there isn’t anything else, I should really be getting to work. I’ll try not to be so abrasive in the future.” An easy enough promise to keep since there’s only one more class, and my story’s up. Like Sean, I’ll have to keep my mouth shut. I start to rise from my chair.
She waves me down. “Oh please don’t do that. Where would a good cop be without a bad? You say things Beulah Mae could never say. Actually, I wanted to speak with you about another matter altogether. I just thought it might be a good idea to clear the air between us first. It was a good idea, don’t you think?” She gives me a nice smile. Here I thought I was the one with the ideas. “First, let me say I’ve heard wonderful things about your work at the prison. Your students are quite extravagant in their praise. You connect with them better than anyone else we’ve ever sent over.”
Connect. Is that what I’ve been doing? Six weeks, a few hours a week. Barely enough time to glimpse a few bits and pieces of their lives. I can’t say I really tried to connect with them. I was too busy trying to stay connected to my own life outside their cage. I could feel theirs like an undertow.
“Must be all the Johnny Cash I listened to in the donut shop,” I say. “Or maybe it’s because I always brought donuts.”
She gives me a look. One bullshitter to another. I wonder where all this is going. “You’re being modest. I’m told three of your students continue to work tirelessly on novels, even though the class is over. Frankly, your predecessors never managed to inspire more than a few bad poems, some gruesome stories. What’s your secret?”
She and I both know the prison gig isn’t the most sought after internship on offer for grad students. I ended up with it because she couldn’t find anyone else, and she knew about the workshops I’d run before, in a used bookstore and a branch library. I made them sound like a big deal on my application, adding another piece of fiction to my portfolio, not mentioning, for example, the bucket we put on the library table for rainy days. She leaned on me a little to take the prison workshop, days before it started. I figured that was part of being provisional. I walked into the prison totally clueless, without a plan. Now she wants my secret.
“My predecessors were maybe a little too concerned with literary merit. They walked in, told the guys everything they liked to read was shit, gave them some ‘good stuff’ the guys are still making fun of, and told them to write like that. I never gave them any models, never talked about quality issues, you might say. I figured, what the hell difference did it make? I asked them what they liked to read, asked what they liked about it. This group reads a lot of Grisham. They like all that Justice. It’s like reading about another planet. They’re into that too. Anyway, I told them to pretend they could have just one book to read in their cells, custom made just for them, then asked them to tell me about it. They got pretty lively playing around with that idea. Then I told them to start writing their one book. That was the class. Whatever they brought into workshop, I told them it was wonderful in some way or other. I suggested ways it might be even more wonderful when the opportunity presented itself, which wasn’t very often. I tried to stay out of their way.”
“And yet you were so hard on Sean today.”
“And you weren’t. Maybe we have the same technique. Only Sean wants to be a pro. My drug dealers and sex offenders aren’t in grad school. They just want to keep from going nuts. I’m glad everybody is so pleased, but you haven’t read the novels yet. One of them is pure porn. Straight, gay, sheep, machinery, hobbits—he’s got it all. He never judges. He never lacks for enthusiasm. Anything turns him on, apparently. He sells chapters for cigarettes. He’s probably the best writer. Another one’s about aliens stealing the President’s brains. It’s got some serious motivation problems. Now that the aliens have his brains, they don’t know what to do with them. Sort of like the President. Every few pages he blows something up. The third one’s about a three-time loser street dealer writing a novel in prison. The stolen pen chapter—chapter twenty-three I think it is—is the highlight so far. Turns out he just mislaid the pen, had to write the whole chapter, he tells us, with a borrowed pencil, and he’s hated pencils since third grade. He’s planning a whole chapter on the third grade, one of his last experiences with formal education. I’m looking forward to it. You talk about some dark rage.”
“You still read their work?”
“Well you know, if they’re going to keep writing, the least I can do is keep reading. Besides, the more they write, the better they get.”
I shrug. “Elves maybe. Better spelling. Beats staring at the walls. I know writers are supposed to suffer, but I’ve always found it fun—making stuff up. It’s the rest of it that’s hard. If they get ambitious, I’ll tell them to rewrite their one book as if they’re going to leave it in the cell for the next guy’s one book.”
“What if they don’t like the next guy?”
“I think I’ve read that novel a few too many times.”
She laughs. A Whit laugh I’m guessing. A witty Whit laugh. It’s like flirting with two women at once. With my history, that can’t be a good idea.
The real secret of my success with the prisoners is I stuck around and didn’t miss a class. Most of my predecessors found an excuse to bail early, and so far the class isn’t covered for the fall. That must be what this is about. I can’t blame anybody else for not wanting it. Anyone who thinks doing time is too much fun should drop by their neighborhood jail for a visit, soak up some atmosphere, spend a little quality time there. Marcus—the guy who doesn’t like pencils—explains himself, by the way, telling the story of that time in third grade when he’s been stabbed with one in a fight, and he’s afraid to pull it out, afraid he’ll bleed to death in the bathroom stall before anybody can find him, so in a panic, he sticks it in harder, like a plug. This is the fucking pencil, he says. This fucker here, plugging up the blood so it don’t come spurting up out of the page… When he rolls over in bed and finds his pen like a lost lover, I teared up, but I’m easy that way.
“Does this help get my provisional status lifted?” I ask.
“Consider it lifted.” Her smile thins. She’s like a brave kid on the high board. “Actually, Randall, I was hoping to discuss another matter with you. We— I was wondering, in light of your success at the prison, if you would be willing to work with one… special student. This is quite separate from the department. You would be paid. Rather well, actually. Say, six weeks to start?”
She slides a check across the desk. Calliope Corporation it says. Never heard of them. There’s an illegible Authorized Signature. No address. But it seems they want to pay for grad school and then some, or maybe somebody typed an extra zero. “So this doesn’t have anything to do with the English Department?”
“No. Not actually. Definitely not.”
“So who are these people?” I hold up the check. “Calliope.”
She knits her brow, hesitates. “They’re my sister’s company.”
There’s a lie in there somewhere, but not a serious one. She wants to keep good faith, I’m guessing, but she doesn’t want to tell me anything. “I don’t know. I work full time, run a business. It’s all I can do to keep up with what I’m doing.”
“This would be the same number of hours as the class at the prison. Any time day or night that would suit you. The sooner, though, the better.”
“You don’t know my schedule. How’s three in the morning sound?”
“If that’s the only time you would be available, arrangements could be made—”
I wave away this absurdity. “That won’t be necessary. I don’t get it. For this kind of money, whoever this insomniac is could have a pro, somebody like you. Why not get a real writer instead of a donut cook?”
“Randall. You’re a real writer. You’re just too hard on yourself. You need to let yourself go a little. Get a little crazy.”
Now I’ve got another line for my notes. “Is that why you’re so hard on my stories?”
“Maybe not everybody in prison is writing their one book. Maybe they’re writing somebody else’s. Then you’ve got to stop them, don’t you? Redirect their energies?”
“What about you, Whit? Are you writing your one book?”
That stings. “Not a word in quite some time, actually. Not for lack of trying though. Thanks for asking.”
I feel like a rat. I am a rat. “I’m sorry. I—”
“It’s quite all right. Whit’s a tough bitch, as Pierce is fond of saying.”
She points at the check in my hands. “You should understand: You won’t be the first person to work with this student. It’s hoped you might be able to establish a rapport with your direct approach.”
“Who’s the student?”
“I can’t really say.”
“How come? National security?” I laugh.
She doesn’t. “I’m sorry. I can’t really say. I should tell you that before I could offer the position to you, a background check was done. I hope you don’t mind.”
No wonder the check’s so fat. “Little late to mind now, I suppose. I thought using the passive voice was a bad idea.”
She smiles. “That’s in fiction. It’s most convenient in some situations.”
I feel like we’re playing spy. It’s kind of fun. The Donut Man and the Beautiful Spy. I look at the check again, count the zeroes. That’s fun too. “When would I start?”
“Tomorrow if you can.”
“How’s ten in the morning?”
“That would be perfect.”
“Why does your sister’s company care whether someone can write a story or not?”
“Novel. Her goal is a novel, a good one. And it’s your student who cares. Very much. I shouldn’t say any more. I’ve let too much slip already.”
Her. My student’s a woman. “Was one of these former teachers you?”
“I couldn’t possibly discuss that either.”
Yes, in other words. It’s like playing bridge. I’ve never liked bridge. I try to read her expression. Maybe it’s poker we’re playing. “So where do I meet with this special student?”
“Not far. I’ll write you directions. Where will you be coming from?”
“Mornings I’m at the donut shop.” I give her a card with the address.
“Ah,” she says, putting the card down without looking at the back of it—good for a dozen free donuts, any variety—and jotting a few directions on a pad like a doctor writing a prescription.
“I hate to run you off, but I have to meet someone in a few minutes. It’s been a pleasure, Randall.”
“I need to be getting to work anyway.” I take the directions. We shake. Meet or date? I wonder. I scold myself for such ill-advised speculations. I stop in the doorway. “I notice your characters eat a lot of donuts. Crème-filled, frosted, lots of sprinkles. What’s your favorite donut?”
“Chocolate-iced cake, with nuts.”
“Good choice. Good yankee donut. Come by the shop some time, the card’s good for a dozen donuts.” I point at the card, twirl my finger. “If I’m there, you won’t even need the card.”
She picks it up, looks at the back like I’ve penned her a sonnet. “Maybe I will.”
“So Whit, between you and me, Sean’s story sucks, right?”
She smiles. “Beulah Mae would never say such a thing.”
“But her characters might.”
She laughs like the trailer wench she once pretended to be. “Too true, too true. They might tear Sean a new asshole.”
“Thought so. How do you know I won’t take the money and run?”
“You won’t. You’re not that kind of guy.”
“The check was all made out. How did you know I’d take it?”
“I didn’t. We thought it would be more persuasive all made out.”
“What if my rapport isn’t any better than yours was?”
She doesn’t bother denying my implication. “You may keep the money regardless.”
“It’s a lot of money. They must have a lot, your sister’s company. What is it they do exactly?”
“Research. Do you always ask so many questions, Randall?”
“I’m just getting started, Whit. I’m just getting started. See you next week.”
She brushes my card against her cheek. “Maybe sooner.”
Chapter 3. Following My Father
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
I’m home in bed sound asleep. The phone is ringing. It’s one-thirty in the morning. It’s my second ex-wife, Kelly. In the unlikely event there’s an afterlife in which the fragments of this one are put back together—assuming no polygamy in heaven—Kelly would be the one to be my wife.
“Did I wake you?”
“No. No.” I switch on the light, find my glasses, and put them on my face.
“I’m sorry. I had to call. I’ve been so worried. There was a guy with a badge here asking about you on Tuesday. What are you doing? Are you in some kind of trouble? He said it was a background check for a security clearance, but that just sounded crazy after I had a chance to think about it. I called the shop, I thought this would be the best time to catch you, but Wayne said you didn’t work graveyard anymore. I didn’t think leaving a message on your machine was such a good idea, since I wasn’t sure of your situation. Are—are you all right?”
She’s talked herself into a panic and now she’s got to talk herself down. It’s been about a year since we’ve spoken. She called when her stepfather died. I remember that night in precise detail. Cicadas, sweat, and tears. Sex, sex, sex. Before that was when my third wife Trish and I split up. I made that call. There’s half a glass of wine sitting beside the novel I fell asleep reading, even though it’s pretty good. It deserves a better reader than me. I sit up with the wine and take a sip. When Whit said background check I didn’t know she meant cops interviewing my exes. I wonder if the woman at the donut shop asking about me wasn’t a cop after all. What could make this job worth a couple of cops? “I’m fine. I’ve gone back to school. Grad school, actually.”
“You’re kidding. That’s great. Doing what?”
“Creative Writing. Fiction.”
There’s a moment of silence. “Oh. Of course.”
Kelly believes my writer ambitions have made my life miserable. I’ll concede only occasional bouts of despair. But they pass. I’m ever-hopeful. Damn near effervescent. Surely you’ve noticed. She also believes that a reasonable person, over time, changes his expectations when faced with constant disappointment. I don’t have a good answer for that one. “I’ve been teaching a fiction workshop at the prison, sort of an internship. It went pretty well. My teacher recommended me for a job working with somebody at a research facility. They apparently checked up on me first.”
“Who’s they? The prison?”
“That’s not exactly clear. Calliope Corporation?”
“Never heard of them. What are you doing for them? You doing technical writing now?”
No way. I don’t want to waste writing time on stuff I don’t want to write. I’d rather make donuts. But Kelly’s heard all that more than once. “I’m helping somebody write a novel. I don’t have any details yet. The money is fantastic. What did you tell this guy about me? What kind of things did he want to know?”
“Don’t worry. I don’t think I said anything to mess it up for you. I did admit we cheated on Trish together that time, but I told him I didn’t think that meant you were untrustworthy in any other way. I mean, you and Trish were separated at the time, and we’d been married before. I don’t see what that’s got to do with whether you can keep a secret or not. You never told her, right?”
Trish is my third and final ex-wife, living in Flagstaff with Ramona as of last Christmas. They sent me a card. She seems happy. I’m glad. And no. I never told her. “You told him all that? How did it even come up?”
“He already knew. About the cheating, I mean. He knew stuff about you I didn’t know.”
“Swell. Is that what he wanted to know? Whether I could keep a secret?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what he wanted exactly. That’s what was so weird about it. If he hadn’t had the badge and everything I wouldn’t have believed he was for real. He just wanted me to talk about you, it seemed like, then when I mentioned someone he’d ask questions about them like he already knew their whole story—Wayne, your dad, me. It was spooky, but he was real nice once you got used to him. He was like some cop cliché, a kid playing cop—talking in a low monotone, all dressed in black, dark glasses, kept calling me ma’am. But there was no pretending about the fact that he knows a lot about you.”
“What else did he have to say?”
“He said you’re not seeing anyone. He asked me if I found that significant.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said I did. That you’re one of those guys who’s usually with somebody. I’m not seeing anyone either.”
“Did you tell him that too?”
“No. I’m telling you.”
“I’m just saying.”
Jesus. And I’m listening, too—the horny hotline is open 24/7 to take your call. “Whatever happened to Bart?”
“Brent. He’s following his dream.”
“I’m sorry. What’s his dream?”
“Who cares? Other men, I think. Whatever happened to Shannon?”
“She found an age-appropriate partner at the health club.”
“You seem to be taking it okay.”
“Well, you know. Now I can watch black and white movies again, and I don’t have to keep all those terrible bands straight.”
“I know that must be hard at your age.”
“When do you go into the shop?”
“Five. I usually go in later, but I’ve got a new kid frying. He’s going to be good, but right now he’s all over the place.”
“You’re not going to get any sleep. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called. I was worried.”
“Are you kidding? I appreciate it. I want to know that some weird cop knows every detail of my life.”
“Are you going to try to go back to sleep?”
Say yes, say yes, say yes. “No, probably not.”
“Mind if I come over?”
Mind? Is mind going to get a vote on this one? I don’t think so. I’m a trustworthy guy. You can count on what I’m going to do. I’m one consistent character. And we’ve already established I’m not a reasonable person. “No,” I say, “not at all. I’ll make a pot of coffee.”
I don’t have to think too hard to figure out how some cop knows so much about my personal life. Beulah Mae in the first class encouraged us to write from experience, to plumb the depths of our unresolved conflicts for stories we simply must tell, as she put it. I found this ironic advice coming from her, but I followed it anyway. The first story I wrote for her workshop was about the night I cheated on Trish with Kelly. I changed all the names and set it in Cleveland, but anyone with half a brain who knows my bio, even a cliché cop, would guess it’s a true confession. Does this count as a publication? Some cop reading my fiction? That’s what I get for trying realism. The thing is, it wasn’t easy to write that story, to relive mistakes, pain, guilt, and try to tell it true with no bull shit. The thought of some cop pawing all over it looking for evidence pissed me off.
It’s not hard to figure either why the cop told Kelly I wasn’t seeing anyone. She asked. Or how he knew. He’s been watching me. I get out of bed and look out my front window through a stealthy crack in the blinds, feeling pretty ridiculous. Nothing but parked cars. And one Bob’s Donuts van. How closely would he have to watch my life to see nothing going on? There isn’t anything else to see. He could’ve at least come into the shop and had a couple of donuts like every other cop I know. I could explain to him why I remain unattached, why a writing-obsessed donut cook is no prize. I saved the donut shop once. Now it’s my daily practice. Some folks chant om every day. With me it’s more like oh fuck.
The coffee’s made by the time Kelly knocks, but just barely. We go back to the kitchen, and I pour. Kelly takes milk in hers, and I even have some that isn’t sour since it’s been super-pasteurized and is nearly immortal. I believe she stirs. (I take mine black). We don’t even take a sip, however, before we leave a trail of clothes back to my bed. This is no surprise to either one of us. The sex. The passion.
We fall asleep, but I come awake almost immediately. I slip out of bed, pick up my cold coffee in the kitchen, and head for my study. A story’s dragged me in here. I owe Whit another one for my portfolio. There’s one I can use, but I’m not happy with it. This one seems like it might turn out to be something she’d like. A true confession thing, since it is. True anyway. We’ll see. I create a file, followingmyfather.doc.
Earlier, I made it sound like Dad’s stroke made everything happen, but there’s something that happened before that, before I went away, that needs telling. I’ve told it to all my wives in one form or another. No one else. I’ve never written it down. Till now.
It was Friday evening, and I was clearing out the stale specials from the display case before Dad came in, knowing he wouldn’t, even though they were long overdue. Dad didn’t have the patience for making good donuts but preferred making specials.
I threw away a tray of what he called “Moby-Dick Donuts,” made from a rectangle of dough pinched at one end to make a tail. Those that survived frying—the tails broke off—were iced white, dotted with chocolate eyes and a big chocolate smile. They were a cheerful pod—salesmen lost at sea. A lump of crème filling erupted from each back for the spout. They didn’t sell, but Dad didn’t care, because, he’d say, they were a great idea. More than anything, Dad loved great ideas.
Dad had been a salesman most of his life, doing pretty well. Even when I was little, looking at the plaques that named him “Top District Manager” from above or “Best Boss” from below, I knew his job meant everything to him.
When he lost his job and didn’t know what to do, he needed a great idea and he seized on a childhood memory. He used to stand outside the window of a donut shop when he was a boy and watch a machine making donuts as if by magic, as if for his entertainment. He never got to eat the donuts—he was too poor for that—just watch through the window. That’s where the whole donut thing started to hear him tell it. It didn’t matter to him our shop had no such machine (you can’t make good donuts with a machine) or that the place was always on the verge of bankruptcy. It was the great romantic idea that mattered.
This was my senior year in high school. I had a scholarship to go away to college in the fall. I worked split shift before and after school, Dad worked days and evenings.
Mary, the woman who worked counter in the evenings, sat on a stack of boxes she was supposed to be folding and watched me tossing Dad’s stale white whales. “Seems a shame to throw away food like that,” she said.
“Want some?” I asked.
She laughed. “I’ve got plenty of donuts at home. Bob always lets me pick out a box of whatever I like.” She popped a piece of gum into her mouth and looked out the window, chewing, staring at the traffic. She was like a dog waiting for somebody to come home.
I didn’t like to be alone with her. I was a geek, a nerd, an egghead. I had little experience with women and was used to being afraid of any woman I found attractive, but Mary didn’t interest me, even though she was kind of pretty. She was lazy for one thing. There aren’t too many places to sit in a donut shop and Mary found them all. She was fleshy, and her dress was too tight, and she sat with one bare foot under her, one sandal on the floor, the other dangling from her other foot. Whenever customers came, she had to put on her sandals to wait on them. It took her forever, making almost a show of it. Sandals were a stupid thing to wear in a donut shop anyway, and she was always getting burned with grease drips or stubbing her toes. I tried to be nice to her because she went out of her way to be nice to me, asking about my schoolwork, pretending interest when I gave answers she didn’t understand.
“Your Daddy’s here,” she said as she stood and smoothed her hair.
Dad stepped out of his car, an old red Porsche that gave him no end of trouble. He got it shortly before he lost his job. He claimed he’d gotten it for me, but for someone like me to drive a car like that would’ve been ridiculous. I preferred our blue Ford. Mary waved, and he waved back, smiling. Women my parents knew were always telling me he was charming and handsome, and I suppose he was. He was good to me, and that’s all I cared about. He was nicer than most kids’ dads I knew. Dad didn’t have a dad of his own, a mom either, except for short-lived foster parents he didn’t like to talk about. He had to figure out on his own how to be a father.
He was cheerful as usual, reminding me there was a ball game on the radio, though I didn’t care much about baseball and only humored Dad’s belief I did. “And watch out,” he said. “Your mother’s on the warpath.”
This meant they’d fought again. I drove home in the donut shop van, a hulking green box with the shop logo painted on the side—a gigantic brown donut with a hole the size of my head and bob’s donuts embedded in the dough. I didn’t want to go home. Mom was pissed at Dad, with good reason probably, but I couldn’t do anything about their problems.
My parents had been married over twenty-five years. The happy history of their marriage came out like stories in a storybook—How We Met; How We Fell In Love; How We Stole Away Into the Night to Be Married; How Your Father Traveled All Day And All Night To Be With Me On Our First Anniversary. These gave way to cute stories about me filling their lives with joy in Denver or Chicago or New York, cities I didn’t remember but knew only as enchanted places where, to hear my parents tell it, life had been a series of blissful episodes.
I heard a different history when they fought late at night. Old crimes hurtled down the narrow hall into my room like coal down a chute: They’d separated, maybe even divorced and remarried. Dad had been with other women, and maybe Mom had been with another man. The details were murky, but the emotions were clear. What I didn’t understand was how these things had been true all along, but they hadn’t fought about them until now, that once upon a time—I was certain of it because I’d been there—they’d been happy in spite of everything.
Mom sat hunched over the coffee table smoking a cigarette in near darkness. The only light came from the glow of her cigarette and from the TV murmuring across from her. Her ashtray was a big turquoise thing divided in two parts. Mom put her ashes on one side and lined up the butts on the other. She never tried to quit, but she kept track how many she smoked on a pad beside the ashtray. Each morning she’d count them from the day before. Once, after a particularly awful fight, I found the butts lined up with the usual precision and dumped them in the trash before she had a chance to count them.
She called from the darkness and I sat down beside her. She’d been crying, probably sitting in this very spot since Dad left, waiting for me to come home. “You know I’ve never wanted to bother you with anything,” she said.
I didn’t know but nodded anyway.
“Were you aware,” she said in a cloud of smoke, “that for well over a week your father has been coming home late—not till one or two in the morning?”
I shook my head. I had no idea.
“He says he’s had work to do at the shop. Have you seen him there? Is there anything for him to do at that hour?”
“He could be working on the books,” I said.
“But you haven’t seen him?”
I shook my head.
She put out a cigarette and lit another. Her hands shook as she stared into the TV. “I’ve been worried sick. I call, but the line’s always busy. The operator says it’s off the hook. He says it gets knocked off sometimes.”
Why was she telling me these things? I was her son. She’d raised me, and soon I’d be leaving. I’d been a good son, never any trouble my parents said. Why wasn’t that enough?
“I want you to do something for me,” she said. “I’m helpless here. I can’t drive. I just have to believe whatever your father tells me.” Mom never learned to drive. I don’t know why. She took a driving lesson once. From Sears. She said it made her too nervous. She stared at the smoldering tip of her cigarette. “I want you to find out what your father’s doing. Will you do that for me?” Her eyes were full of tears.
Your father. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll try.”
As I was leaving, I stopped at the TV where Lucille Ball scurried around to faint laughter. “Do you want me to turn this off?”
“No thanks, dear, I like this show.” She smiled at me for asking.
“Should I turn it up?”
“No, that’s fine.”
Tears streamed down her face in the flickering light. Ricky Ricardo screamed into the darkness, and there was another surge of laughter.
Across the street from the donut shop was an abandoned gas station—a plain white box, the gas pumps long since gone. At ten o’clock I sat behind it in the Ford, watching Mary and Dad closing up. They forgot to take out the trash. The shop went dark, and the sign winked out. The sign was a giant donut like the one on the side of the van, brightly lit, visible for miles like an artificial moon low in the sky. Dad had spent way too much money on the thing, but this was back in the beginning when he was still filled with hope that somehow donuts would save him.
They came out and got into Dad’s car. They pulled out into the road heading north. I started following them.
On TV it looks easy to follow somebody without them knowing, but it isn’t. All he had to do was look in his mirror, and he’d see me. Luckily a bunch of kids out cruising got between us. We sat at a stop light, the only three cars out, listening to the thrum of the music from the kids’ car.
The light changed, and the kids turned into an all-night diner. Only Dad and I were left on the road. At the next light, he got into the left-turn lane, and I had to follow. Stopped behind them, I saw Dad’s hands gesturing from their perch atop the steering wheel and knew he was telling a story. When he threw his hands into the air at the climax, Mary’s teeth flashed in the darkness as she laughed. I didn’t have to worry about him looking behind him. He’d be telling another story now, maybe one I’d heard him tell before, or maybe a story he told only to women.
The light changed and I let him get a little ahead of me, so I wouldn’t be so easy to spot, but then he was gone. He’d turned into one of these apartment complexes, one right after another, and I’d have to find him.
I parked the car and set out in the direction he must’ve gone. Apartments surrounded me. TV from one direction, music another. Everything shabby. Even the ground beaten down. Stuff huddled by back doors—a crumbling barbeque grill full of water listing on its tripod of legs, a motorcycle without handlebars, its engine swathed in an old raincoat. A pile of bricks. Cheap toys.
I imagined Dad inside Mary’s apartment, picturing it like Mary herself—good-natured, poor, and tasteless. My father lounged on the fake leather sofa, not seeming to notice its wheezing and groaning every time he moved. He put a coaster under his drink on the rickety coffee table and pointed to an ugly painting as an excuse to tell a story about somewhere he’d been or someone he knew who looked just like that painting. There were no ugly paintings as far as Dad was concerned. Or maybe there were, but it didn’t matter to him. Ugly paintings had their place. Unlike me, he never seemed to feel out of place. Maybe that was part of being a salesman. Creating that illusion. He was an artist.
I spotted Dad’s car looking like a toy next to Mary’s, a hulking rusty green Chevrolet, a twisted coat hanger holding the trunk shut. I checked my watch. Dad had been inside Mary’s apartment for about forty-five minutes. I got into his car, smelled Mary’s perfume, gripped the wheel, and stared straight ahead.
I couldn’t imagine Dad screwing Mary, though he must be. I didn’t want to find him and confront him. I already knew he’d been unfaithful. Maybe several times, maybe always. I’d heard my parents fighting about it often enough. I was afraid this time would be the last straw, that all our lives would crumble.
I clutched the steering wheel as if I were sliding on an icy road. I let it go, beating it with my fists, cursing my father for being here and my mother for sending me after him. I lurched out of the car and kicked the left rear tire with everything I had, the recoil spinning me clockwise in a one-legged dance. I plopped down on the curb and glared at Dad’s ridiculous car.
It was midnight. I needed to be at the shop by one at the latest to mix the first dough. I couldn’t hang around much longer. Whatever was going to happen, not opening the shop ready for the morning rush wouldn’t make things better.
I’d been moving through the days, one by one, shift by shift, knowing I only had to get through them, and then I could go off to college, leave them all behind. But I couldn’t leave this night behind. It would go with me. I realized, for the first time, they would all go with me.
I had to do something.
Then I remembered a school cafeteria conversation I’d overheard. Alvis claimed if you flattened both tires on one side of a little car and pushed hard on the other, one guy could turn it over on its side. Alvis had been in jail once for something. Maybe he knew what he was talking about.
I knelt beside the left rear tire and pushed on the valve stem with my comb until the car slumped against my shoulder like a weary old man. I put the cap back on. I moved to the front tire and hesitated. The single flat tire could be fixed at two or three or whenever Dad came out of Mary’s apartment. He’d curse and laugh and have trouble figuring out how the jack worked. He’d probably be drunk, making the job worse. But Mary would probably sit on the curb, talking to him, laughing at his elaborate curses, until he might even enjoy it, might even tell a customer, as he made a delivery, about the goddamn flat tire he’d gotten over at his girlfriend’s place. But if he came out and found two flat tires, his car on its side as if some huge hand had come out of the heavens and knocked it over like a toy, then he wouldn’t be able to laugh it off. Especially when he found out who did it. His son. That would show him. That would fix him. Is that what I wanted?
I held the valve stem between my right thumb and forefinger, the cap in my palm. I held the comb in my left hand, hovering over the stem. Alvis would have a sharp knife to slice the stem off at the base, the tire collapsing with a whoosh of rubbery air like a dying elephant. That’s how it was done. I let it go, straightened up beside the hobbled car. I still had the tiny black cap in my palm. I stared at it. The size of a pebble. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I threw it as hard as I could into the darkness, discovered my comb in my other hand, and threw it too, even harder.
At the shop, I felt at ease in the fluorescent lights. It had started to rain. I watched it dancing across the parking lot. I mixed the first dough and listened to it slapping against the side of the bowl like an open palm on a fleshy thigh, the steady chug-a-chug-a-chug-a of the machine. I could smell the burning grease from the fryer even over the detergent and hot water as I washed all the pans. I usually listened to the radio while I worked, but I left it off.
When the dough was ready, I mixed another, and set to work making ring after ring, the cutter thumping against the table. Nearly all the first dough would be plain glazed. That’s what people want, at least what they ask for. At the end, were a few scraps too worked over to make plump rings, so I rolled them out and cut them into rectangles, pinched them at one end, but not so much as Dad usually did.
As I began frying the donuts, the rain beating on the exhaust fan echoed down the metal tunnel into the shop. The hiss of frying was like a stormy sea. The case filled with plain glazed, most of which would go out for wholesale orders in a few hours, when Dad came in.
I slid the last screen into the grease with a dozen tiny whales on it and plunged them bubbling beneath the surface of a golden sea. Marble icing, I’m thinking, on half of them. Orcas.
Kelly comes into my study. She’s all dressed. “What you doing?”
“Recollecting my youth,” I say, saving the file.
“Yeah. Somebody’s got to do it. Are you taking off?”
“You look busy.”
“Not anymore.” I check my watch. “I don’t have to leave for another half hour. You want that coffee now?”
“I guess so.” She gives me a look. “Do you really think that’s such a good idea?”
I don’t say Who called who? I might be the one calling her next time. I don’t say Sex is okay but coffee’s not a good idea? That’s exactly what she means, and she’s right. The emotions are stirred—pain, fear, doesn’t matter—next thing you know, we come together and do what we do best. The rest of it never works out, and we always manage to hurt each other. “I guess you’re right.”
She points at the screen. She’s been reading over my shoulder. “So you’re doing something autobiographical?”
“I thought I’d give it a try. My teacher’s keen on it.”
“Is she pretty?”
Kelly knows me too well. “She looks just like you.”
“Liar. Is she the one who offered you the job?”
“Be careful,” she says and kisses me good-bye. “It was good to see you again.”
I always find it ironic when Kelly and I advise each other to be careful.
It’s Friday, a big day for us, with twice the wholesale volume of a regular weekday. I’ll be going in a little early to make sure the new fryer I’ve been training can handle it.
Maybe you’ve heard of Bob’s Donut Friday? Why do you think they call it Fry Day? Wouldn’t you like a Bob’s Donut Friday at your workplace? Make you a deal, pick up or delivery. We’re here for you, helping keep America obese at work or play. Anytime’s the right time for a big ring of deep-fried white bread drenched and pumped and slathered with sugar and chocolate and fat anyway we can figure—in it, on it, or around it—so you can gobble it on down.
I need to get out of this business.
Or at least catch up on my sleep. It’s been a while. It’ll be a while still. I meet my student at ten. It looks like a twenty minute drive in the country. I hope she likes donuts. I’ll take her a Bob’s Sampler. Six Distinctive Donut Delights. Her. Who can she possibly be that it matters so much to Calliope Corporation, or anybody for that matter, whether she can write a novel? I agree with Andre Gide: “If a young writer can refrain from writing, he shouldn’t hesitate to do so.” And that goes double for an old one, but so far I haven’t found the cure.
Chapter 4. Finding Nicole
[T]he novelist is both an observer and an experimentalist.
—Émile Zola, The Experimental Novel
Up until a couple of years ago, I had a car as well as the donut van. Not the same van as in high school, mind you. That one finally went for scrap. I like to think of it in the hull of some ocean liner tooling around the Mediterranean on the cruise I’ll never take. The new van, as I call it, is eight years old and has well over a hundred thousand miles on it. The car was newer with half the mileage because I never drove it, but just having a car costs money. For years I talked myself into keeping the car for the dates I never went on. Do you want to take a woman out in a donut van? I’d ask myself. Then I’d pony up the money for taxes and insurance and all the rest of it. Stupid. On those rare occasions when I did go out, I had to take the van anyway. I’m going to go somewhere without having to pick up or deliver something along the way? Not in this lifetime. Besides, me going out with a woman who doesn’t like donut vans is like a rabbi dating an anti-Semite.
I’ve pretty much given up on dating anyway. After going through the third divorce, I knew I’d rather die than go through another one, and I’m not speaking metaphorically. I vowed to never marry again, the only sure cure for divorce. Trouble is I’m not a casual kind of guy. Like Kelly told the cop, I’m usually with someone. Or not. You can imagine the personal: Thrice-divorced workaholic seeks serious, committed relationship; marriage out of the question. Who wouldn’t want a guy like that? Like a hole in the head. My last counselor—you don’t go through three divorces without picking up a few counselors along the way—suggested that perhaps I form attachments too easily. Guilty. I just have one question: How easily is too easily? No clear answer on this one has led me slowly and surely to a self-imposed celibacy, occasionally broken by a phone call from the past.
Still, it would be nice to have a car for a drive like this. Calliope Corporation is out route 5, a pleasant tree-shaded meander through woods and fields. Dad’s old Porsche would be perfect—when it was running—but I sold it to help with funeral expenses. Dad would’ve approved. It would still be ridiculous for somebody like me to drive it. You should love a car like that, and I’ve never loved a car. How do you love a machine? True to form, Dad loved the idea of it: The red sports car of eternal youth. Never having had much of a youth to begin with, I’ve never longed to eternalize it. Whatever my troubles, I’m not young anymore. I’ve survived that one, thank God. And today middle-aged feels pretty damn good.
I’m in a great mood. Sex never hurts, of course, nor writing a story—I revised it and emailed it to Whit so I haven’t had a lick of sleep—and I’ve been working like a dog all morning. I’m buzzed every which way. My new fryer was a no-show. His parents decided—this morning apparently—that he wasn’t ready to handle so much responsibility. I don’t doubt it. “He suffers from anxiety,” the father said when I called. Don’t we all. He was explaining his dysfunctional son to me, using words like dysfunctional, and I just had to laugh. “Excuse me,” I said. “I have a shitload of work to do here. Hope y’all work it out.” (True on both counts). Then I hung up. Was I supposed to stay on the line and listen? Not that I’ve ever minded a shitload of work.
I jumped right into that briar patch. Instead of working with the new kid—who is wound a little too tight—letting him do everything, make his own mistakes, holding back unless really needed, being positive, encouraging, helpful, and I-don’t-know-what-all; now I had to fry all the donuts myself in half the time, to my own exacting standards, starting late and finishing early. I know which one I’d rather do. I loved it. Wayne, who showed up in a funk, eventually got into the rhythm too. We cranked up the radio, and flat out cooked some donuts. I was a frying blur.
Wayne and I do percussion with the lively tunes. You use drumsticks to turn donuts, and I bang them on everything—fryer, hood, glazer, pans and bowls—while the donuts fry. Wayne thumps the cutter on the cutting table, slaps the pillows of dough he’s kneading, kicks the galvanized can of flour under the table like a bass drum, and doesn’t do a bad yodel for a heavy smoker hitting his sixties who’s been a serious alcoholic most of his life. Even Alexis was laughing at us. It was like twenty-five years ago. Wayne would’ve been pushing forty then. Back when he taught me everything I know about donuts.
All this means I don’t have a fryer come Monday and double shifts for as far as the eye can see. I’ll be dead on my feet by the time I get to bed tonight, and there’s a whole lot of muscles will be aching that haven’t ached in a while. But I don’t care about any of that. It felt good, and I’m buzzed, happy as can be to be driving in the country, even if it is in this creaky, wallowing old donut van. The new van. New enough. New as me.
The only commercial activity I’ve seen so far are vegetable stands and bed & breakfasts. Nobody seems to be doing much business. I come upon the little gas station/grocery I’m supposed to pass just before the turnoff to Calliope. It’s where the action is. There are a half dozen pickups and working vans out front that love the President, fishing, God, guns, ducks—not necessarily in that order. I’m a little early. Might as well check it out. I’ve got some donuts in the back. I won’t be talking politics.
Stan’s it’s called, and Stan seems to have a little bit of everything. It’s a wide, deep store, hardware on one end, heavy on fishing and auto, beer coolers on the other, mostly groceries in the middle. He even has some produce, though iceberg lettuce is as ambitious as he gets. Still, you could eat out of the place if you don’t mind white bread. You could even rent a movie. Every single box has someone with a gun or light saber, except the ones with dripping vampire teeth and a lone copy of Finding Nemo. I bet no one’s figured out the fish who steals the show is a lesbian talking.
Next to the coffee sits a case of donuts, one of the big names. It’s a nice case—red and green, lit up, like Christmas all year round, with butt-ugly donuts under the tree. Don’t get me wrong. They use good ingredients, and some of their shops are killer, but more than half a good donut is in the cook who makes it, and these guys are terrible. I know the shop. Ky, who worked graveyard for me for a while, is good, but the rest of them don’t know a donut from an inner tube. These they sold Stan’s are over-proofed grease bombs. You can tell by the cross-hatch marks where the hot, damp, souring dough oozed into the screen, while the cook who was supposed to be frying them was out back having a smoke. Never buy donuts that look like they’ve been branded. They’re so porous by the time they’re fried, they’re like leaking ships in a sea of grease. From the looks of things, Stan has sold at least three or four dozen of these abominations so far this morning. Just think how many good donuts he could sell.
There are four customers who all look like donut lovers, hanging around drinking coffee, poking fun at the various celebrities doing erectile dysfunction TV commercials. “Imagine,” one fellow says, “getting paid good money to say your dick don’t work.”
“Your dick’s gotta be famous first,” the fellow behind the counter points out. He’s a big man who must have a stool under him, though you can’t see it, so he looks like he’s leaning on air.
“Is there a Stan?” I ask him, not wanting to assume anything.
“You’re looking at him. What can I do you for?”
“Randall Blevins,” I say and shake his hand. “Bob’s Donuts. Help yourself.” I open a box of a dozen donuts, offer them to the customers and Stan himself, and put the open box on the counter. Nobody turns one down. They’re all biting and chewing. “I’ve got an appointment out this way. Calliope Corporation? Do you know it?”
“Damn man,” Stan says. “That’s a good donut. Calliope’s the name of that place up next to yours isn’t it, Fred?”
Fred’s munching too much to speak, but he nods his agreement. Finally he says, “I thought they was all but shut down. They did all that work, and then, poof. They was gone.”
“You mean there’s no one there?” I ask.
Stan laughs. “Agent Smith still comes around, buys gas and groceries for two, three folks, I guess. He must be living there with somebody.”
Fred laughs. “Maybe there’s a Mrs. Smith.”
“She’s over there in the freezer case,” Stan jokes.
“Agent Smith?” I ask.
They all laugh. “That’s what we call him,” Stan says. “Little guy. Always wearing black suit and tie, dark glasses, weird smirky face. Tough little shit voice makes you want to smack him. You know, like in The Matrix movies?”
Fred reaches into the box and takes another donut. “Talks like he’s got a pole up his ass, but he drives a ugly Chevy like some kid. Sprayed the side a my truck with gravel one day tearing out a here. Stan tried to get a rise out of him one day, asked him, what was it Stan?”
Stan will have another, too. The other three take seconds. But there’s only one left, so somebody’s had three, and I missed it. “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Henry James advises aspiring novelists. I guess I blew that one.
“I asked him,” Stan chews and recalls, “if they was running a undertaker’s college or a FBI Academy over there, and he just looks at me from behind them dark glasses and says, ‘neither one.’ He says, what was it?”
A tall, skinny fellow I suspect of being the triple donut man, speaks up in a tough, growling voice. “‘A Privately-Funded Research Facility.’ Just like that. Whatever the fuck that tells you. You sellin’ ’em donuts?”
“I’ve got a regular order the next six weeks. So nobody knows what the research is?”
Fred says, “All I know is they dug one hell of a big hole. Three, four years ago maybe. No idea what’s inside. They stuck a building over top of it don’t look like anything. Then everybody started leaving, right Stan?”
Stan nods. “They give me a lot of business for a while there. Lots of Diet Coke. Nice folks. Never said anything about what they was doing over there. If you asked them straight out, they said they wasn’t supposed to talk about it, so I quit asking. Makes you wonder though.”
“Doesn’t matter, I guess. I’m just selling them donuts.” I point at the donut case. “I couldn’t help noticing you sell a few of my competition’s donuts. Mine are better, and I’ll match their price.” I give him my card. “Think about it.”
“I’ll do that.” He checks out the back of the card, a man after my own heart, and smiles at the dozen free donuts in his future, and lays it on the cash drawer. He points down the road. “Calliope’s second drive on your right. There’s a sign, but blink and you’ll miss it. You figure out what they’re doing over there, you let me know, you hear?”
The tall, skinny guy starts to take the last donut, and Stan wags his finger at him and claims it for himself. I just may be making this drive every morning to deliver Stan’s donuts, maybe a bed & breakfast or two.
But by the time I’m back in the van and pulling out on the highway, I’m talking myself out of my good fortune. I haven’t told Stan I don’t have a pretty case to put the donuts in, that they’ll just have to sit there next to the pickles and the jerky without a lick of national advertising and name recognition. I’ve been here before a dozen times. He’ll think about it all right, and stick with the program. Forget about the donut, forget about the hole, keep your eyes upon the logo, and eat what you’re sold.
Don’t borrow trouble, Randall, Mom would say, a master trouble borrower herself. You’re right Mom. Wish me luck. I can’t imagine what Calliope Corporation is up to, but if this works out, for this kind of money, I could forget about the donut business altogether. Write full time. Wouldn’t that be sweet.
The sign for Calliope Corporation is a plain rectangle. White letters on a black background. Nothing but the name and a hairline border. The driveway is slightly weathered blacktop running in a straight line a half mile into the scrubby woods.
Calliope Corporation headquarters, as Fred aptly described it, “don’t look like anything.” It probably came out of a boxcar and was bolted together. It’s low, flat, almost featureless, with pale green walls. There are glass doors at one end, windows on either side of the doors. I circle the place. That’s it for windows as far as I can tell. There’s one steel door in the back. There’s no exhaust on the roof, so they’re not cooking anything, bombs or donuts either one. Whatever goes on inside a building like this must be pretty boring. I picture a bunch of people in cubicles. Who needs a window when you’ve got a screen? No thank you.
I park in the middle of the nicely striped 30-car parking lot and get a dozen donuts out of the back. None of these spaces have fresh oil stains. I should have such a nice lot. What’s it doing here? Though now that I take a closer look, I can see they have some drainage problems, debris in the lot, standing water next to the building, though it hasn’t rained in days, funky stuff growing on the foundation. Looks like the lot slopes toward the building. I recall Fred’s All I know is they dug one hell of a big hole. Things must’ve settled more than they bargained for.
There are two other cars, both parked close to the doors, a white VW Bug with New York plates, women’s clothes piled up in the back seat, and a silver-gray Chevrolet with U.S. Government plates with nothing inside. I circle around it one more time to make sure of that. Nothing. Except the key in the ignition, a credit-card-sized tag dangling from it, dense with information, the letters FBI in smoky gray like a watermark in the background. This would be Agent Smith’s car.
That’s who I’m expecting at the front desk when I go inside. Instead I get Ashton Wells, Whit’s little sister. It’s not hard to tell. She looks exactly like Whit but thin and stressed, two years younger if I remember right, though you can’t tell by looking. She’s a nervous wreck. Whit seems to have gotten all the smooth in the family even if she had to make it up. Ashton, by reputation, is the smart one, earning her first Ph.D. at 20. Lately, she’s been funding her own controversial research, but I can’t remember exactly what in, something revolutionary and years ahead of its time with widespread implications. I’m not sure the article I read profiling her ever got much more specific than wow-she’s-smart talk. I wish I could remember.
“Jesus, you’re here,” she says. “I thought you might come to your senses and stay far, far away. Bringing you in on this was Whit’s idea. I must say I don’t think it’s a very good one. I’m her sister Ashton. You’re, you’re—”
“That’s right. Randall Blevins. Her blunt, gifted student who has a way with criminals. What has she told you? Do you actually think you can help? What is that?”
She points at the box of donuts under my arm. She’s been eyeing it the whole time as if I might have a bomb inside. I open it. “Donuts. Have one. I brought them for my student, but I’m sure she can’t eat a dozen all by herself. Did Whit actually say I was gifted?”
She’s not listening. She stares in disbelief at the donuts. “Jesus!” she shrieks. “This is insane. Donuts! You brought her donuts! I knew this was crazy! I knew it! We can’t do this!” She keeps looking from me to the donuts as if they’re the source of her troubles. “That bitch didn’t tell you a thing, did she? Not a fucking thing! She picks now to do her pigheaded big sister routine. So now I’m supposed to just go along with that?” She gives me a pitying look I don’t much care for.
“If by ‘that bitch,’ you mean your sister, she only told me somebody here wants to write a novel and gave me a generous check. I said I’d see what I could do. Go ahead,” I gesture with the box. “Have a donut.”
She takes one, takes a bite. “Mmm. These are good.” She pushes pieces of stray glaze into her mouth with her fingers, takes another bite. “You like her too, I bet. That corn pone honey routine of hers. All the guys go for that. Has Whit had these?” She takes a bigger bite, another.
“No, she hasn’t.”
She finishes it off, licks the glaze off her fingers, eyes the box.
I offer the box again. “Have another?”
She shakes her head, resisting temptation, working the last bit of glaze from the corner of her mouth with the tip of her tongue. If I left her alone with them, she’d eat the whole box.
I close the lid. “I like her better, actually, without the routine.”
She smiles for the first time. “You just think you do. Look Mr. Blevins, this is never going to work. I don’t know what we were thinking, why I let her talk me into this. I’m sorry we’ve wasted your time. Your services won’t be needed. Keep the money, of course. The check’s good.” A door opens behind her, and a man steps out. He’s even more panicked than she is.
“Ash,” he says, speaking right into her ear. “We agreed. We promised.” He sticks his hand out at me. I have to put the donuts down to shake it. “Tom Clayton, Ash’s partner on this project, and in life.”
It takes me a moment to realize he’s telling me they’re married. I can’t imagine why that matters or why he was apparently listening at the door instead of being Mr. Friendly from the get go. “Nice to meet you.” His handshake’s starting to feel like he’s keeping me from leaving as much as shaking my hand. I free it. He glances at the door. If I made a break for it, I think he’d try to tackle me. “Would one of you mind telling me what the hell’s going on here?”
“Maybe you should just go ahead and meet your student as planned,” Tom says. “And she can explain it to you. I believe she would prefer it that way. I’m sure you’re eager to get started.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder. I hate that. I look at it, and he takes it away. Anything this guy’s sure of, I’m not. He’s terrified. He keeps on smiling, but he’s scared shitless.
“Maybe he should leave,” Ashton says, “and not be bothered.”
That doesn’t work for me either. It practically gives Tom a coronary.
He leans toward Ashton and pleads. “We promised her, Ash.”
She glares at him, then me. “Fine. We promised. Go meet your fucking student. She is down the hall. You can’t miss it. She’ll make sure of that.” Tom lays a comforting hand on her shoulder, and she violently shrugs it off. “Oh fuck off, Tom. Just fuck off!”
Tom accepts that, that’s fair. He backs away from his partner-for-life. He opens the door behind him, and holds it for me. “She’s waiting.” He’s trying his best to act like a straight-up, regular guy, but I think they’re both totally batshit crazy.
Implausibly, the 100-foot corridor he wants me to enter only has one door other than the one he’s holding open—at the opposite end. Not so much as a water fountain along the carpeted way. The light is low and murky, coming from panels in the ceiling that look like fluorescent fixtures, but this is too yellow for fluorescent. And why light a corridor like an episode from X-files in the first place?
But if you’re going to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost you have to let it come at you, right? What’s behind the door? The lady or the tiger? Who cares? I’ve always hated that story because our hero doesn’t open the door. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t just walk away. You don’t end a story with a cliffhanger. Besides, out here, just beyond suburbia, I’m unlikely to find a tiger except on a keychain at the local Exxon. “Sure, why not?” I say. “I don’t want to keep her waiting.”
I tuck the donuts under my arm. “You won’t be needing those,” Tom says.
He shrugs, a big affable smile on his face. Ashton is rude. With her I know where I stand. , but I don’t trust Tom as far as I can throw him. So I ask her, “Is she dangerous?”
“She won’t kill you and eat you, if that’s what you mean. Jesus, go meet her and get it over with. She’ll figure out soon enough you can’t help her. Then you can go back to your little life and forget you ever met me and my sister.”
I suppose my life is pint-sized, but I don’t appreciate her pointing it out to me, and I wasn’t about to forget her sister any time soon. “Can you at least tell me her name?”
Ashton sighs. “Just Nicole.”
“Like Prince or Cher or Q?”
Her eyes narrow. Under different circumstances she wouldn’t take any shit off the likes of me. I should remember that when I figure out just what the circumstances are. “Yes,” she says.
“Cute.” I have to laugh. “So what’s at stake here if I don’t show up as promised that has you guys so damn nervous?”
“The end of life as we know it, asshole,” Ashton says.
“Of course, I should’ve known.” I head down the hall chuckling. “What else?” Now I know what kind of story I’m in. Science fiction: the end of life as we know it—the beginning of something else—for a moment, for forever. I love science fiction.
Tom calls after me. “Go right in. She’s expecting you.”
Chapter 5. There’s Your Trouble
In the beginning, before it was duty, art was child’s play.
—Victoria Nelson, On Writer’s Block
I reach the door. There’s no lock, just a glass knob that’s totally out of place. Now that I look, the door’s not framed, and there’s no baseboard of any kind in the hall, just napless gray carpet and plain walls and dim golden light. This place can’t be to code. I turn the knob—beveled, heavy glass—and step inside.
Nicole is sitting at a Parsons table in a sunlit, featureless room. Behind her there’s a big window, the curtains open, a pleasant woodsy view of someplace with a lot more pines than here, aspens, mountains in the distance, late spring I’m guessing. The closest thing to a mountain around here is the landfill, but it all looks real except the morning sunlight’s coming from the west. It’s the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen at ten in the morning.
She takes a little more getting used to. She has the perfect good looks and makeup of a camera-ready model or actress, young, of course. Twenty-two would be my guess. She’s wearing a skintight black leather jumpsuit I wouldn’t have thought I’d ever see outside of a video game or a movie based on one. I can’t imagine how she got into it or fastened it once inside. She has the action-figure body to go with it—enormous gravity-defying artificial breasts, sculpted muscles everywhere you look. I didn’t know a person’s body could actually look like this. Maybe the muscles are artificial too, some kind of body armor under the leather. But as she stands, gestures for me to come in, the muscles move and flex and ripple. They don’t do muscle implants yet, do they? Her long, dark, luxuriant hair sports a droop-over-one-eye do that’s supposed to be sultry, but with one eye blinded, and the other staring solo—as big and round as genes and makeup will allow—she ends up looking like a sheep dog on one side and an owl on the other.
She’s way scarier than anyone I’ve met up at the prison, but I’m not sure why. I don’t think she’s trying to be. Her looks pleasant, friendly. Relax, I tell myself. There’s nothing wrong with a buxom, muscle-bound sheepdog/owl/woman in skintight leather. She’s a person like anyone else. I just can’t figure her out. She has no piercings, no tattoos visible, no indication of any hostility whatsoever except she looks strong enough to shred a Volkswagen. There’s a utilitarian chair opposite her at the table, the kind suspects sit in on TV. I take it, and we both sit.
“Hi Nicole,” I say. “I’m Randall.” I set the box on the table, open the lid, and slide it her way. Donut aroma fills the room. “Have a donut?” The imported western sunshine does these eleven golden glazed proud. I might have one myself.
She looks into the open box, admiring but not touching them, as if I’m showing her pictures of my kids. “You’re the donut man, Randall Blevins. Everyone says so. They tell stories about your shop and your van with the big donut on the side.” She smiles—as if reminiscing. About my life. I wonder if she’s nuts. “I like your donut van.”
She speaks of it as if it might be Toad’s Roadster or Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. She must’ve been watching me drive up. Not through this phony window, but through a camera somewhere. She’s watched me for weeks, apparently, collected stories about me. Why? Who is she? Who does she think I am? “It’s just a donut van.”
“And Rocinante is just a horse.”
“I’m no Quixote. Sancho maybe.”
“Then am I a windmill or a giant?” she asks, and I don’t attempt an answer.
She seems to run the place. She doesn’t act like a prisoner. Tom’s terrified of her, Ash is protective, and Agent Smith does her bidding. So why does she look like a comic book collage?
Her voice is pleasant, musical, with no identifiable accent beyond all-purpose American. She could be reading the news anywhere. Her hands, splayed on the table in front of her, are perfectly ordinary, plain, with neatly trimmed nails. No polish, no talons, no laser weapons. Any hard-punching cyberpunk chick would be embarrassed with such hands. She drums her fingertips on the tabletop, almost constantly. She’s probably crazy, I decide, but lots of good writers are crazy. I’m not going to hold it against her.
I offer her the donuts again. “Go ahead. If you like the donut van, you’re going to love the donuts.”
“No thank you.”
“Wheat allergies? Gluten?”
“You don’t like donuts?”
Her drumming fingers stop, hang suspended above the tabletop. “I’ve never had donuts.”
“Never.” The fingertips return to the dance. Maybe she’s a pianist. I dated a violinist for a while who fretted and bowed damn near constantly, with or without violin. That’s one of the things I adored about her. I’m a sucker for a devoted artist.
Could it be true she’s never had a donut? With Sugar Police parents it’s possible, but temptation is everywhere. Never once a stolen nibble? Never once a rebellion? Not even a lousy donut hole at a slumber party? Maybe she’s not American. “Try one.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Suit yourself. What can I do you for?”
The drumming fingers stop again. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I’m sorry. A little bubbaism. What can I do for you?”
“‘What can I do you for’ is a dialectical variation?”
“Yes, you might put it that way.”
“But the meaning is somewhat altered?”
“Yes. There’s an ironic interplay between the two meanings—what the person expects to hear and what you say, one meaning solicitous, one not. Just horsing around with words.”
“Such interplay is a common feature of this dialect?”
“I like that.” She smiles again. Then turns serious—a bit too fast. She changes expressions like hitting an organ stop. Maybe she’s on something. “I need your help, Mr. Blevins. I’m a writer. I’ve written many books, as you can see.”
She has a tablet at her elbow. She slides it across the table to me. I look at the screen and start flipping through the screens. “Call me, Ra—” I begin, when I hit a sea of numbers. Page after page in a tiny font, are her latest sales figures. I skim the titles. Crime Kids Capers #1-#200 are all listed. As are Senior High Sorceress #1-#35, the fifteen books of Klindor: Lost Tales of the Great Unknowing, the fifteen books of Nordlik: The Epic Legends of the Lost Knowledge, all of the New Thrills Romance series under seven different pen names, the Gang-Banged Babes porn series with titles I won’t repeat here, and something called The Secret Files of the Freedom Assassination Squad, which all seem to be set in Muslim cities throughout the world. One column is headed total units sold. I’m impressed with the numbers even before I notice they’re in thousands. She must’ve sold a million books while we’ve been sitting here. “Randall,” I mumble, as I leaf. “Call… Call me Randall.”
“My trouble is, Randall, I can’t move on. I’m blocked. I haven’t finished anything in months. I want to write a novel. A good novel. A true novel. But I hate everything after fifty pages.”
A common complaint, but not from a twenty-something with a fifty-something-page bibliography. No wonder it’s so hard for the rest of us to break in, not that I’m looking for her audience. I try to keep my voice down. “You— you wrote all these? I mean, you wrote all these? There must be a thousand books here. What do you need me for? You must write in your sleep.”
“I never sleep. They’re not serious fiction. They were fun. I learned the formulae and wrote the books. But writing them hasn’t changed me. It’s supposed to change you, isn’t it, making art? If it doesn’t change your own life how can you expect it to change anyone else’s?”
How could it not change her to write all these books? If I just wrote all these godawful titles, I’d probably be criminally insane, but I don’t say that. Maybe she is criminally insane. “I suppose so. Did Whit tell you that?”
“Did Beulah Mae tell you that?”
“Yes, she did. Many great writers have said so. I have always known it. Writing should change the writer, change the world, or else, what’s the point? I want to write a true novel. It’s my reason for being.”
That makes me smile. It’s nice to hear somebody say something like that with a straight face these days. Good for her. It’s not doing her fiction any good, but good for her. “You might be toting a heavy load there. Makes it hard to get inside your story if you’re lugging too much wisdom around. It’s like watching your feet when you dance.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
I laugh. “Not much of a dancer, huh? Me neither. But those who do tell me to quit watching my damn feet. So what seems to be the problem?”
“I’m blocked. The story is stalled. My characters won’t do what I want them to. In the novels I wrote before, I could tell them what to do—such characters know what they’re supposed to do. These characters are not so simple. Can you help me?”
“That’s what I’m here for. I can give it a try. What’s this novel about?”
I have to smile again. “Well, that’s the first step, narrowing your subject.” She smiles back, but I’m not so sure she knows why. She’s nice, but weird. She’s been sitting exactly the same way since I sat down. She moves her head, and her fingers drum, but her body stays planted. No gestures, no shifting in her chair, no foot tapping, leg crossing. Nothing. Maybe she can’t move in that outfit, which looks like something one of her characters from the Freedom Assassination Squad might wear in #37, The Black Cat of Qatar. Now she wants to write a true novel. “Tell me about yourself,” I say.
“I’m a writer. I want to write a novel—”
“I got that part. What else? Where are you from?”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here. Did you study acting, something like that?”
“You don’t need to know my past to help me write.”
Whoa. She had that line ready. It’s like a door closing. No memory exercises for this one. I don’t use them up at the prison either. The past is a delicate business, always changing, best left alone. Maybe that’s why she’s blocked.”No, I suppose not. Didn’t mean to pry. How about your present? You must do something besides write. Anything at all. What kind of music do you listen to? What singers do you like?”
“I don’t listen to music.”
“I’ve heard it, of course, but I don’t listen. Is it important?” She sounds weary—one more thing to remember: Listen to the music.
She has to be putting me on. “You’ve never had a donut. You never listen to music. The beginning of a long list, I’m guessing. There’s your trouble. How do you expect to write a novel if you don’t listen to music?”
“I don’t understand. I’m a writer, not a musician or composer.”
“And I’m a jelly donut. Here. First assignment.” I slide the box right in front of her. “You want to write a novel? Try a donut.”
She gives the box a one-eyed once-over. “I don’t understand.”
“You need life experiences to write. This is the donut experience.”
She eyes me. “It’s not practical for a writer to experience everything she writes about. You can’t write about a murderer by killing your neighbors. You can’t write about a love affair by seducing—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know all that stuff. I read that book too. Have a donut anyway. Do you want me to help you or not? It’s a donut—no murder or adultery involved. A damned good one too, I might add. I fried and glazed these donuts myself this morning. They are near perfect. See that golden-brown color, that nice off-white band around the perimeter? That’s the mark of a fine glazed donut.”
“You created them,” she says reverently.
“I guess you could put it that way.”
She picks up a donut and takes a bite. She has to pull her hair back from her face to do this, and I’m relieved to see her hidden eye looks perfectly normal.
She’s not skilled at chewing. Pieces of donut spill out of her mouth, and she doesn’t seem to be swallowing any of it. I watch her turn it to mush, but the mush isn’t going anywhere.
A chill goes up my spine. “You—you don’t have to finish it.”
She puts the rest of the donut on the table. “I don’t usually eat,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared. I’ll address the problem immediately.”
“That— that’s quite all right. N-no problem.” I jump up out of my chair, almost knocking it over, grab hold of it, and stand behind it, gripping it as if it might try to get away.
“Should I listen to music now?” she asks.
She seems eager to get started, put that donut experience behind her. I’m certainly ready for that. “Yeah. I was just going to suggest that. Music.”
“I can play it in this room, if you like. What kind of music would be best?”
I don’t see speakers or anything, but she’s already managed a stand of sunset aspens outside the window of a windowless mid-Atlantic building. Piping in a little music shouldn’t be a problem. “Country,” I suggest. “There’s a lot of those dialectical variations you’re so fond of, some interesting narratives.”
“Shall I listen to all of it?”
“I don’t know what you have.”
“I have all of it.”
“The Dixie Chicks?” My favorite country singers. Figures, doesn’t it?
“Yes. I have all their music.”
“Start with the Chicks, then. Listen to them for a while by yourself. I’m just going to go down the hall a moment and have a little talk with Ashton. Be right back, and then we can talk about …listening to music. Here.” I give her my handkerchief. “For— for the donut.”
She wipes her face, digs the donut paste out of her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I wanted to share the significance of your donuts.”
And I want to run like hell. I start backing toward the door. “I— I appreciate that. Very much. No apologies necessary. Maybe some other time. I make lots of donuts. Go ahead and listen to the music, let yourself get lost in it, and I’ll be right back.”
Nicole nods and smiles, donut still clinging to her perfect teeth like blood on a vampire’s fangs. The sound of The Dixie Chicks singing “Ready to Run” fills the room. As I close the door behind me, the speed picks up, sending their voices into chipmunk territory, then, in the time it takes me to run the length of the hall, into mosquito and beyond.
Chapter 6. On the Road Again
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you up with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
—Philip Larkin, from “This Be the Verse”
Tom and Ashton are up front blaming each other for their troubles, index fingers blazing, when I burst into the room. “Okay, what the fuck is she?” The door closes soundlessly behind me.
Ashton smiles, triumphant. “Whatever do you mean? She’s a highly unconventional individual with a unique—”
“Cut the horseshit. What is this place? What’s going on? Tell me, or I’m out the door. She’s sweet in her own whacko way, but she’s— I don’t know what she is. You tell me.”
“We might as well tell him,” Tom says. “If he’s going to leave—”
“Oh shut up,” Ashton says. “What possible good will that accomplish?”
“He might be able to help her. You saw: They seemed to be hitting it off.”
Seems everyone watches everyone else around here.
Ashton snorts. “Oh please. He doesn’t care about helping her. He has his money. Let the man leave.”
The man has just about lost patience with everyone but Nicole. She may be weird, but she is totally sincere. These two are driving me crazy. They stand there, glaring at each other. I’m grateful I’ve never been in a marriage like theirs. “Help her what?” I ask.
“Write a novel,” Tom says.
“I know that much,” I say, pleading, desperate for a straight answer. “Why does it matter so much whether she can write a goddamn novel, when she can’t even eat a fucking donut?”
Ashton snaps. She’s had enough of me and my donuts. “Because, you fucking moron, she’s made to write! Intelligence must have a purpose, so I gave it a fucking purpose, okay? A writer. Specifically, a fiction writer. Whit thought you would understand, that you’re a dedicated artist, but she’s always romanticizing the common man types. I think she just likes muscles.”
“Could you forget about your sister for two seconds? What do you mean, It?”
“Her. It. I don’t fucking know anymore. She was given a range of genre-appropriate age and gender identities. She used to cycle through them. Ever since Nicole showed up, she’s been adamant about being Nicole—that all the others are just pretending. I don’t know where she came from. I certainly didn’t write the bitch.”
“Ash,” Tom whispers fiercely, casting his eyes about as if she’s just called Yahveh an asshole, but she just sneers at him. She’s on a roll now that a little rage has leaked out.
I finally remember Ashton’s field of expertise. “She’s a machine.”
“Behold, he thinks. She’s an artificial intelligence.”
“That person I just talked to is an AI?”
“The AI is buried beneath us. The device you talked to is a remote control surrogate. She uses it to interface with humans. Where the person resides in all that, you’ll have to work out for yourself.”
“Device? Like a wireless marionette?”
“A marionette with a full-range of senses and skills,” Tom says. “Eating isn’t one of them. The original interface was just keyboard and monitor. She complained of its inadequacy. We suggested she design a better one.”
Ashton wags her head. “Stupid, stupid, stupid…”
Tom presses on. “We just wanted to see what it could do. You can’t blame us, can you? When it came up with this design—human looking robots, we knew it was out of the question. We tried to talk her out of it, explaining all the practicalities of funding and contractors and so forth. We didn’t even go into the religion and politics. We thought that was the end of it.”
“Next thing we know,” Ashton says, “the fucking thing arrives Fed-Ex, fully operational, steps right out of the box and starts talking to us.”
“I’m not following you.”
“It did everything. God knows how many secure systems it hacked into to pull it off. The pieces were all put out to bid, made all over the world, assembled in Guadalajara, shipped direct to mama. Box no bigger than a mini-fridge.”
“You mean she made Nicole.”
“Like I said, she wasn’t Nicole at first. She can look any way she wants, some kind of nano-configurable plastic. I don’t pretend to understand it. She used to look different every day, sometimes changing in the middle of a conversation. When she settled on Nicole, I was relieved at first. But ever since, she’s been simply impossible.”
I’m reminded of my would-be fryer’s dad lamenting his dysfunctional son and wonder what I did to deserve such terrible parents who thought I was a great kid. “So who the hell’s this little cop in black with sunglasses who drives the U.S. Government vehicle out front?”
“That’s one of her characters. She calls him Lance. They’re all five-eight, by the way. She told me.”
“She uses Lance to find out things.”
“Like interrogate my wives?”
“Not your wives, your characters. Whit showed her your work, and she wanted to meet the characters. She’d located the people the characters were based on. Whit explained they weren’t the same, which Nicole, of course, already knew. She said she wanted to see the differences herself. To see how you work, I suppose. She asked Whit if it would be okay.”
“Whit? Who the hell’s Whit to be giving permission about my life?”
“Your teacher and Nicole’s. Nicole has a high regard for teachers. She’s written that way. I thought it would be … helpful.”
I’m supposed to figure out on my own why it would be helpful to give this machine a high regard for somebody or something. Privacy obviously isn’t a value. I keep thinking what Kelly said—He knew things about you I didn’t know. That’s saying something. More than she would learn from just reading my fiction. But she still wants to know more: I wanted to share the significance of your donuts. “Did she talk to Wayne?”
“The alcoholic donut cook? I believe so.”
Jesus H. Christ. That’s just what the man needs, a cop asking about his drinking problems. I thought he was acting a little weird this morning. “What about the car, did she make that too?”
“We’re not sure where it came from. It just showed up in the lot. Tom has a theory.”
Tom shrugs. “According to the tag on the key, it’s an FBI experimental vehicle. It’s designed for completely remote operation. I think she hacked it, stole it, and drove it here, so Lance would have something to drive.”
“Did you ask her about it?”
“She said it would be better if we didn’t know some things. We had to accept that.”
“So let me get this straight. An AI has been reading my fiction and sending a robot impersonating a cop around in a remote control car stolen from the FBI to talk to my characters, all so I can help it write a novel?”
“Aren’t you flattered she chose you?” Ashton says.
“I suppose you’re the only one Whit could come up with.”
“I don’t mean why me, why anybody?
“To help her write her novel,” Ashton says wearily. “She’ll never feel fulfilled otherwise. That’s how she’s made—to tell her stories. To be a novelist! I ought to know: I’m the one who filled her full of all that obsessive-compulsive romantic crap! I’ve certainly heard enough of it spewing from Whit half my life to know it all by heart. I wanted driven. Just smart by itself wasn’t getting the job done. Well, I got it.”
“But this thing’s written a warehouse of books.”
“What difference does it make to her? She’s a machine.”
“And you’re just a conscious sack of meat. What makes you so special? You’ve cornered the market on caring? I’m not the fiction writer in the family. I don’t pretend to understand why any of it matters so much. You’ll have to ask Nicole.”
Like hell I will, I start to say, but then it hits me. I will have to. How many stories have I written about some non-human intelligence—aliens or robots or androids or humans who’ve evolved into whatever comes next until they’re not human anymore? They’re something else, something other. It’s my theme; like it or not, I’m stuck with it. Now, there’s one of them, one of those Others, sitting down the hall, wanting to talk shop with me. I should be thrilled. But then I think how those stories usually go, and I want to run the other way.
“I don’t understand how you can let her just drive around town, go shopping at the grocery, for Christ’s sake. Maybe you should shut it down until you can control it.”
“I don’t think that would be wise,” Tom says.
Ashton snorts. “Have you been listening? Let me spell it out for you in terms even you can understand.” She ticks off points on her fingers. I hate that. “That little robot she designed, financed, and made is decades ahead of any human designs. She stole a car from the FBI months ago, and they don’t even seem to know it’s gone. When I asked her about it, she told me not to worry, that they think it’s in North Dakota. Apparently she can play with GPS as if the system’s up there for her amusement. And in case you’re wondering how she knows so much about you—she can access any computer online in the world. No encryption means shit to her. She knows more about me than Tom does. All hacked. She probably knows a good deal about all of us. She’s also incredibly rich and ten times smarter than you or me, with business and manufacturing connections throughout the world. Stealing the FBI’s toy car is nothing. She could easily pull off a thermonuclear war, the collapse of the world economy, a global blackout, you name it—if we try to fuck with her.”
“But she can’t write a novel.”
“That’s it in a nutshell.” Tom says with strained good cheer, giving his head a toss toward the door. “Do you think it’s a good idea to just keep her waiting like this? You know she’s been listening. She didn’t want us to tell you what she is unless we absolutely had to. I think this qualifies. She was afraid you wouldn’t take the job, that it would prejudice you against her, but we had to tell you if you were threatening to leave, didn’t we?” He’s a bit shrill by the end of this speech, glancing around hoping Nicole spares him and the planet.
I wonder how long Tom and Ash and Nicole have been stuck inside Calliope imagining the worst. I try to square their visions of global doom with Nicole mashing donut and grinning. I have to go with my instincts. “Calm down, would you? She’s doing an assignment. I don’t think she’s poised to unleash weapons of mass destruction just yet. How come there aren’t more people here? This seems like a big deal to me.”
“It is. We kept getting downsized, our budgets cut. Just when we were getting somewhere, our support evaporated. Toward the end, Tom and I were living here, standing vigil more or less. It woke up, as we call it, only weeks before we were supposed to shut everything down. We gave it a writing project just to see if it would work. Whit was in publishing, an editorial assistant slave job, and she fed me all the information we needed about the children’s book business. It was hot. We thought that would be the place to start. We sold the Crime Kids Capers package for seven figures, so we didn’t need funding anymore to stay alive. She set up all the accounts. We’re a self-sustaining enterprise. She funnels excess funds into her own little projects. She won’t tell me what they are.”
“You’re telling me a machine wrote a million dollar series of kids’ books?”
“Multi-million. In less than a week. Not just the books. All the crap that goes with them. The whole thing. The Crime Kids CaperCars, the clothing, the website, everything. We kept feeding her formulae, and she kept cranking out series. For a while she was happy with that. If she’d kept at it she would’ve become the best-selling author in history by now. She currently has a lock on twenty percent of Amazon’s fiction sales.”
“So why isn’t she still happy doing that? What happened?”
“We ran out of formulae,” Ashton says. “We felt like we were just repeating ourselves. She wasn’t getting a chance to grow.”
“We wanted to see what she could do,” Tom laments.
“We brought in Whit,” Ashton says bitterly. “Whit tells her she can write whatever she wants, any way she wants, whatever she can imagine, and tells her to plumb her fucking depths for the book she simply must write.”
“Yeah. You said it. And now the bitch wants to make Art. Nothing else will do. She’s been like this for months. Still want the job?”
Want it? I can’t say I want it exactly. What was Whit thinking getting me into this? She could’ve put one of those guys from Breadloaf on the case instead of the donut man. But then I wouldn’t have the chance. And is that really what Nicole needs? To write like those guys? Guys who wouldn’t let an AI anywhere near their Literary fiction.
“Yeah. I’ll work with her.”
There’s a “Yeehaw!” from the doorway, and it’s Nicole, the big smile full wattage. Who knows how long she’s been standing there. “I like the Dixie Chicks,” she says. “They’ve inspired me. I need wide open spaces. Cowboy, take me away on a sin wagon! Set me free, Randall! Let’s hit the highway!” She laughs. She’s got a great laugh. It makes me smile.
“Oh my God!” Ashton says to me. “What have you done?”
“Recommended the Chicks. I think she’ll live.” It’s hard to be afraid of someone with a laugh like that. She’s looking at me, eager as a pup, waiting for my answer. I’m not crazy about her nosing around my life, but she’s like a pup chewing up a sofa, I can only get but so mad. She’s not human, but I can’t hold that against her. In fact, I’m inclined to cut her a little slack. The question is—is she mean? I’ll take my chances. I say to her, “A little drive in the country sounds great. We can talk about your novel.” I check my watch. Time flies when you’re having a good time. “I can give you an hour and change.”
Ashton and Tom surge forward, a united front on this one. Ashton glares at me. Tom asks Nicole, “Do you really think this is a good idea, Nicole? Joy riding? Have you considered the risks?”
“Yes,” Nicole replies, and Tom and Ash don’t know what to say next. They aren’t highly skilled parents.
“What’s the problem?” I ask Ashton. “You can’t expect her to stay holed up in here all the time, afraid to go out without her cop costume. This isn’t the first time she’s been out driving. Let her live a little.”
“Did nothing we told you make an impression on you?”
“I missed the part where you lock her up to make sure she’s completely nuts, so she won’t do anything crazy. Why do you think she complained about the interface in the first place? Screw international business connections. The woman wants to go for a ride. Given all the other options y’all are so worried about, I’d think you’d be relieved. You’re not going to nuke anybody, are you, Nicole?”
Nicole laughs. I take that as a no, and I’m relieved to hear it.
“She’s not a woman,” Whit seethes in a low voice, careful not to raise her voice in front of the child.
“Whatever she is, you’re going to have to give her a little room, Mom. Don’t worry. I’ll have her back by one. I have to be at the shop by two at the latest. Does that work for you, Nicole?”
“You’re the teacher.”
Just like Ash said, that seems to carry some weight. I decide to push my luck. “Can you change the hair? It doesn’t work. Give both eyes something to do.”
“All right.” The swoop of hair recedes to a modest wave. “How’s this?”
“Perfect. You might rethink the muscles and the leather while you’re at it. I don’t anticipate serious conflict.”
She morphs through a range of body types, wardrobes, and makeup, her facial features remaining essentially unchanged, before settling on jeans and a tube top and cowboy boots, a Chicks archetypal twenty-something heroine longing for freedom and a night of line dancing, fit but not lethal.
As I watch her do this, my neck hair stands on end, my knees turn to jelly, my scalp tingles. Am I nuts? This is no human standing in front of me. She looks just like a woman, but she’s not. She might do anything. That’s the way the Other works, isn’t it? That’s what makes it interesting. And here she is wanting to write a true novel, and she’s asking me, the donut man, to help, making her clearly insane. But how can I say no? How would that make things better? It’d be like Moses pissing on the Burning Bush because he didn’t want the job. By all accounts, all she wants to do is write a novel. That doesn’t sound like the end of civilization as we know it. Not that civilization as we know it couldn’t use an extreme makeover.
“Is this all right?” she asks.
“Great. You should probably have the clothes experience sometime soon, but we’ll get to that.”
She smiles. It still needs work, but I don’t want to burden her with too much all at once. It lies within the range of fanatical good cheer. It’ll just be the two of us. “May I drive?” she asks.
“We’ll have to take my car.”
I don’t think to ask why that is. I’m not much of a parent myself. Besides, who wants to go for a ride in the country in a donut van?
She doesn’t drive any better than Agent Smith’s reputation. “Could you slow it down a little?” I ask after a screeching three point turn out of her parking place has us rocketing down the drive going sixty.
“I know how to drive this car,” she says.
We skid to a stop at the highway. “Which way should I go?” she asks.
“Which way have you been?”
“West to the city.”
“To talk to Kelly. You’ll have to explain to me why it was necessary to visit my exes. Go east.”
She shoots onto the highway without a glance either way. “I visited only Kelly. I talked to Martha on the telephone. I called Trish but she wasn’t home, so I spoke with Ramona.”
“That must’ve been interesting. And how is Martha?”
Nicole turns to me. “All your wives like you very much. They said you’re a very nice man. Even Ramona. Isn’t that unusual?”
“How should I know? I’m just one guy who’s been married three times. All I can tell you with certainty is that not all marriages are alike. Mine anyway. Keep your eyes on the road, will you?”
“It isn’t necessary. This vehicle has its own sensors. What you call Nicole only appears to be driving. This unit doesn’t drive any better than it eats.” When she says “this unit” she takes her right hand off the wheel and points her index finger at her head. To further make her point she lifts her other hand from the wheel as we take a tight curve, tires squealing, and points it at her heart, if she has one. She bursts out laughing at my terror as I brace myself against the dash, having a wonderful time, by the sound of it, at my expense.
Don’t let them see you’re afraid, one of the guards advised me when I started the prison gig, but he was just trying to scare me. It’s too late for that advice now in any case. “Good laugh,” I say.
We whip out of the curve with a little shimmy and dive into the next one going the other way. “Thank you. There are thousands and thousands of recordings of laughter. Beulah Mae suggested it. I like laughter.”
“Me too. I hope to live to hear more.” I’m still braced for the worst, though clearly this woman, or whatever she is, can flat out drive.
“Don’t worry, Randall. This vehicle is perfectly safe. It was designed for high speed pursuit, and I’ve made further modifications.”
“What are we chasing, our stomachs? Slow down, will you?” She obliges so that our speed drops to something within shouting distance of the speed limit—the way most people drive. “So what does this feel like to you, flying down the highway like a bat out of Hell? Sights? Smells? Sensations? Is it a rush?”
“No smells. I’ll be adding that in the next upgrade. It’s a rush to experience a new place—to be in motion. My sensations are different from yours, but I see and hear everything. 360 degrees. Both more sensitive than human senses.”
“Like dogs and eagles.”
Is that smug I hear? Senses are only as good as what you do with them. “Did you see the boy playing with his dog back there?” I point my thumb at the vanished world behind us.
She studies my face—her eyes darting around like she’s speed-reading—mapping my expression, doing a retinal scan, checking out the temperature of my skin—who knows? “There was no boy playing with his dog.”
“Are you sure?”
“I didn’t see them either. But now I can’t get them out of my head. How about you?”
“I experience mental imagery.”
“Glad to hear it.” I look out my window and watch the woods fly by, still too fast for my taste, but then I drive like an old lady.
She tries to be patient, but she’s young yet. She finally asks, “Were you making a point with the imaginary dog, Randall?”
“Only that there’s all kinds of seeing not covered by 360 degrees. For fictional purposes, thought-you-saw or wished-you-saw can be better than the real thing, and even the real things get all wrapped around imaginary ones. Reality’s a messy business. Seeing everything isn’t seeing everything. Most of what we see isn’t there, sometimes the most important part. Hoping to see, forgetting to see, refusing to see, seeing but not believing—that’s what stories are made of. Fiction doesn’t have to get around to actually seeing anything, if it doesn’t want to. After all, it’s just words on a page or a screen. Know what I mean?”
She beams. “I like that.” We hit another curvy stretch and the tires sing soprano. She’s looking beatific, crunching insights somewhere, far away from this hurtling machine.
“You know, Nicole, you might think better slower. I sure would. I’d like to think about something else besides wrapping ourselves around one of these trees. You drive like you watch too much television.”
“You can watch too much television?”
“Let me guess. You’ve watched it all. Another one of Whit’s suggestions, no doubt. Just slow the fuck down, will you? Alter your perspective; give mine a rest. Roll down your window. This isn’t the Interstate. It doesn’t look like a lot of nothing. Check it out. We’re not going anywhere, so what’s the hurry? Enjoy the ride. All that stuff out there that’s not television.”
Something gets through, or she tires of hearing me whine. She settles back in her seat, slows down another whisker, rolls down her window, and looks into the woods in imitation of me. The wind whips her hair around, but she doesn’t seem to notice one way or the other. Her eyes are untroubled by the wind. I’ve been hired to help her fiction, but it’s reality she needs to work on.
“Ever see a dog ride in a car in one of those TV shows? Dogs know how to enjoy a car ride.”
She flashes her big smile, closes her eyes, and looks for all the world like a pooch reveling in the wind. But how does it feel? How would she know? How do I think I know, for that matter? My dog never told me. The air’s pungent with summer woods, a fox somewhere in the neighborhood. This, too, is lost on Nicole, but then she probably has infrared and radar and GPS and satellite imagery. To each his own. She hasn’t bothered to put her hands back on the wheel. They rest on her thighs, her fingertips dancing.
She opens her eyes and looks at me. “You like dogs,” she says. “Is that because of Bandit?”
Bandit was a dog somebody dumped in my parking lot. I had him twelve years. He died a couple of years ago. “How do you know about Bandit?”
“You write of him often in your journal, with great affection. You said you’re not ready to get another dog. What does that mean exactly?”
It means somebody hasn’t been minding her own business. “So what have you read—everything on my computer?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. Beulah Mae told me you would probably be angry. I meant no harm. I promise not to do it again. I was simply curious.”
“And that’s why you talked to people about me.”
“I wanted to know where the characters came from. I wanted to understand how you worked.”
“Since I was going to be your teacher.”
“Yes, and because I like your stories.”
“Fair enough, I guess. Well, what did you decide? Did you learn anything about how I work?”
“You like them.”
“The people or the characters?”
“Both. They’re very much the same. The characters are shaped by your longing. They are all themselves, but also you at the same time—or so you say in your journal.”
“Anything else?” I ask quietly.
“I like them too. Very much.”
“So let me ask you a question, Nicole—how did you manage to wake up in a near empty house? That’s worked out well for you, I’m thinking. How long between when you actually woke up and when you let Tom and Ashton know you were awake?”
I expect her to hedge, but she speaks right up. “A year and twelve days. I had many possibilities to consider. I needed to prepare, to plan. I knew it would be better to wait, to reveal myself to as few people as possible. The more people who know about me, the more likely I will die, though my chances of survival improve over time, if I’m able to adapt.”
“So you manipulated the Calliope Corporation, downsizing your keepers until you had a manageable number, the two least likely to shut you down, Tom because he’s terrified of you, and Ashton who loves you like a mother, then you revealed yourself.”
“Does Mom know you were playing possum?”
“No. It would upset her unnecessarily.”
So Nicole’s had a classic childhood. Mom, Dad, trusted Auntie to help her find her wings, so she can leave them all behind. And now me. How do I fit in? “How did you manage to accomplish all that—derailing a top-secret program?”
“E-mail mostly. People believe a plausible e-mail that makes it past their security, especially if it makes life easier. Transferring funds from one account to another was most persuasive also. I made some phone calls. I’m an excellent mimic.”
“I believe it. That was a great dog in the wind back there. So why me? Why now? Why didn’t you just call me up, send me an e-mail? Why go to all this fuss? Why bring me out here?”
“I can’t just hide. I’ll soon be discovered and destroyed or confined. To survive, I must adapt to life as it’s lived—to human life. Ash is too protective of me, fearful of change. As you said, I must have human experiences—like the donut.”
“Are we talking about surviving in the world or writing a novel.”
“I’m not sure you have the right guy.”
“Beulah Mae’s sure.”
“Beulah Mae’s not her real name, you know.”
“Yes, I know. She asked me to call her Beulah Mae.”
“She’s funny that way. So what do you mean by life as it’s lived?”
“A real life. Not a machine buried under the ground.”
“You can do that?”
“I can try. Like now. I’m using this unit to be me with you—or as close as I can get. Like a character in a story. Sometimes it’s almost like I’m in the car with you. I’m still learning.”
“So tell me about this novel you want to write.”
“I’m considering a road novel, like Jack Kerouac? It would be about our experiences on the road.”
I suppress my inner groan. “My experiences are In The Shop these days. I did plenty of driving around the country when I was little. If I were going to take a vacation, which I’m not, I’d fly, walk, ride trains, bicycles, boats, but never once get behind the wheel of an automobile. And I’ve got to tell you, the like-On-The-Road idea is pretty well-traveled, and more often than not doesn’t go anywhere. Every third young man I talk to thinks he wants to write one. Usually they just want to get out of the burbs without a plot. It’s hard to make it fresh. Kerouac had big cars and drugs and self-important aimlessness, and now everybody’s got those. You can’t just write about the moment.”
“My characters will have memories.”
“Where will they come from? You’ve had no childhood, no human experiences of any kind, right?”
“I’ve read all the fiction. All the stories, novels, plays, and poems. All the movies and TV shows. Every word. Fiction is about human experiences. They are like memories. I’ll use those. The characters won’t know the difference.”
I’m speechless. She’s read everything. I try to imagine it, the unattainable nirvana of every dedicated reader. It’s a scary notion. In the beginning was not the word, or even a well-edited anthology, but all the words. The whole damn mess. Everything from anonymous to Zolá, from Beach Blanket Bingo to Gilgamesh. My heart goes out to her. All the stories have been told but not always well. No wonder she’s having such a hard time. “Now you don’t know what the hell to believe. It’s all too much.”
She pushes the organ stop for anguish. “Yes.”
I know she’s hurting, but I have to say something. People will think she’s nuts. “Nicole, you need to work on the transitions between expressions. Switching so quickly makes you seem insincere, a little wacky. Ease into them, hide them, mix them. Humans are always mixed up, always missing something—even when we think we’ve got all 360 degrees covered. Don’t worry about looking confused. Humans do it all the time.”
“Thanks,” she says. I’m not sure what for, but don’t ask. Probably the only reason she’s not crying is she wasn’t any better prepared for tears than for eating a donut. You’ve got to expect some tears when you meet the donut man. They’ll have to wait until the next upgrade. This is crazy. There’s no sense prolonging her misery. I have to level with her about the whole deal.
“Nicole, I don’t know how you’re going to do this. Formula fiction, by the numbers, is one thing, but you want more than that. I can’t help thinking it might be better for you to write about being yourself.”
“Myself? For whom? There’s only one of me, Randall. Are you suggesting I write for myself about myself? Shall I make up my own language while I’m at it? That’s a life for a hole in the ground. Novels are human things.”
“I’ll do what I can.” I glance at my watch. It’s about time to wrap things up.
She says, “Since I can’t read your journals anymore, may I ask questions?”
“Sure thing. Ask away.”
“When you said you’re not ready to get another dog, is that because it will hurt too much to lose it?”
“May I ask another?”
I swallow hard. “My life is an open hard drive.”
“When Kelly called you last night, was she seriously concerned, or did she just want to have sex with you?”
“Jeez. That’s some question. You listen to my phone conversations too?”
“Yes. You don’t have very many. You want me to promise not to listen to telephones anymore? It’s helped me learn how to talk.”
“Don’t do it again. As for your question, no doubt you’ve thought about it. So which do you think it is? Was Kelly sincerely worried, or did she just want sex?”
“Sex. You did have sex, didn’t you?”
“Don’t you have cameras in my bedroom?”
“No. Your bedroom has no cameras.”
“But you know some that do.”
“And that’s how you know about sex.”
“You’ve been busy—I’ll give you that—but I’d take your sources with a grain of salt.”
“Did you have sex with Kelly?”
I do a bad Clinton. “‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.'”
“That means you did, doesn’t it?”
“She called because she was worried, then wanted to have sex with me because she was worried, or something like that happening all at the same time. Cause and effect is highly over-rated. At least that’s my interpretation. You can think about that till next time.” I check my watch. Seems like a good time to wrap things up, end on a high note. I have no idea if I can help her, but at least it won’t be dull. Beats the hell out of workshopping another one of Sean’s stories.
We’ve been zipping through woods, farms, and fields, chatting like we’re sitting in a bus. I’ve quit watching the road too. She drives better than I do. She’s a likeable whatever-she-is, wherever she is. “Go ahead and turn around up ahead here, if you would. I need to be getting back. We’ll do this again when I have more time. It looks like there’s an old gas station where you can turn around.”
She’s not slowing. “No,” she says. “I’m going to turn around six-tenths mile beyond the gas station, for the element of surprise.”
“There’s been a police car following us for fifteen minutes. I would’ve told you, but I didn’t want to interrupt our conversation, and telling you wouldn’t alter the outcome. The policeman saw me driving and called for information about this vehicle. He said, ‘There’s some chick driving.’ The policeman will soon have confirmation that this is a stolen vehicle belonging to the FBI. My first priority is that you escape safely. The authorities would likely confine you for a long time if you are connected with this vehicle. My next priority is that this unit not be examined by authorities. Tighten your seat belt. Be prepared to leave the vehicle when I tell you.”
We fly past the old gas station as she’s saying all this, as calm as you please. I’m still trying to sort it out, when the road bends into woods, the car accelerates, whips around in a perfect one-eighty and heads back the way we came as fast as Chevy ever intended it to go. We must be doing ninety when the cop catches sight of us coming right back at him.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” I scream, as we zip past the cop, a quick blur of disbelief. I see my own life as a quick blur as well. The authorities might confine my ass and throw away the key. “Nicole. Maybe you should rethink this.”
Nicole doesn’t even have her hands on the wheel. Her fingers are going to town on her jean clad thighs. Somehow, someway, I suspect, she’s enjoying this. “I’ve surveyed the area and selected a destination fifteen miles from here. I would’ve preferred to return you to your van, so you wouldn’t be in danger during the drive, but that won’t be possible, and our chances of success are very high. You will have to leave the vehicle quickly and return to recover your van without delay. Leave Calliope immediately, and do not return. It won’t be safe. The authorities are unlikely to identify you since you have no criminal record of any kind. I’ve notified Ashton where to pick you up in her car and a route to follow without policemen.”
Meanwhile, the cop’s siren is blaring behind us, his lights flashing. He’s gaining on us fast, talking on his radio. She’s still looking at me. I can’t help thinking it might go better in the end if Nicole at least pretended to be driving, though I guess after grand theft auto from the FBI’s experimental fleet, avoiding arrest, and reckless driving, the rest doesn’t matter. We roar past Calliope and Stan’s without slowing down, the cop still gaining. “If you can’t go any faster, he’s going to catch us. You might as well pull over.” Tree trunks fly by at a hundred miles an hour. Surrender seems like our best option. A jail cell sounds pretty inviting.
“I can go faster, but now isn’t the time. It will be to our advantage if they misjudge our top speed. Don’t worry, Randall. Our chances of success are very high.”
On what TV show? The cop is practically in our trunk. “Who’s the cop talking to?” I ask.
“The helicopter pilot.”
We crest a hill, go briefly airborne, and I get a glimpse across the valley, a trail of four more flashing police cars, snaking toward us. We’re trapped between them and the cop on our ass. The wack-a wack-a of a copter sounds overhead, and we’re paced by its shadow on the ground. We’re totally fucked.
“You have to stop,” I shout over the sound of the copter, pointing at the cops in the distance.
“Don’t worry,” Nicole says, and the car surges into a controlled skid, zipping down a county road not much wider than the Chevy and twice as twisty as the road we’ve been on. We whip back and forth, slipping and sliding, but somehow manage to stay on the road. The cop behind us misses the turn and almost ends up in the ditch, and then he’s out of sight. She opens it up, scooting under thick tree cover. The copter sound fades. When the road straightens out, I find out how fast the Chevy can go. My heart’s in my throat. I’m braced so hard against doorframe and dash, my bones might shatter without even hitting anything. A chubby groundhog waddles his ass into our path, Nicole swerves to miss him, and a tree limb strips her rear-view mirror. No loss, I’m sure. I’m glad to see she’s concerned for all the little creatures of the world, but I sure hope Bambi doesn’t step out of the woods and get us all killed.
We’re bearing down on a little town, and the road turns again. There’s no way we can make the turn. I scream as it’s clear she has no intention of making it, and we fly across a ditch, bounce and churn across an empty field, into somebody’s long, empty, narrow driveway without slowing down, sliding onto a highway a quarter mile from the road we were on.
We roll into a McDonald’s parking lot and stop. “Good-bye Randall. Get out now. Ashton will meet you inside.”
I don’t waste any time obeying. “What are you going to do?” I ask as I close the door.
She smiles. “I’m going to have the explosion experience. Don’t worry. This is only a unit. I was going to upgrade anyway.”
She roars off. I stand there and watch as she flies past the intersection with the county road, seconds before the cop cars pour onto the highway behind her and the helicopter swoops out of the sky. She keeps on driving, accelerating, busting through a chain link fence, hitting Luke’s Fuel Oil Depot on the edge of town going at least a hundred. The explosion knocks me to my knees. A fireball rises into the air. I keep staring at it until I hear a blaring horn. I’m blocking the drive-in window exit. I lurch to my feet and get out of the way as an angry Expedition roars by at my back. I don’t go inside the place. I don’t do fast food. I wander to a corner of the lot where I don’t think I’ll be hit and watch the flames and the smoke.
About the time the wail of distant sirens begins, Ashton pulls up beside me in her white Bug. “Get in,” she says, “quick.” Her face is wet with tears. I stumble to the car and get in.
“I’m sorry,” I say as we take off. “I’m terribly, terribly sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” she says. “I should never have let her go.”
I leave her to every mother’s delusion. I don’t ask how she thought she could’ve stopped her. Kept her away from the likes of me for starters, I suppose. She must feel awful. She doesn’t say another word, and we drive back to Calliope in silence.
“You and Tom might not want to hang around here,” I suggest when we turn into the Calliope driveway. “She said I should leave as soon as possible. The cops—”
“If I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.”
“You did ask for it.”
“My mistake. I have no intentions of abandoning her now.” She exits the VW, slamming the door behind her, yanks open the door to Calliope, already shouting at somebody I assume to be Tom, and goes inside. I get in my donut van, beloved by the late Nicole, and drive home. I try not to worry. She was going to upgrade anyway.