Derby Hat

 

For Part One go here.

 

Chapter 7. The No-Holes Situation

The beginning novelist who has the gift for inhabiting other lives has perhaps the best chance for success.

 —John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

 

I’m an hour and a half late. All the way here I’ve been longing for the comfort of work, both aching feet on the ground, instead of flying through the woods—the last man to speak with Nicole before her explosion experience. I try not to imagine it. I want a dough, a plain of floured canvas, a pin, a cutter. Roll and cut. Order out of chaos. Ouroborus sweet and fried. It’s not like I can talk to anyone about Nicole unless I’m looking for arrest or treatment.

Except Nicole herself. And Whit, Whit who got me into this mess without a word of warning. If she was keeping that big a secret, what was I to make of our newfound friendship and old-fashioned flirtation? What part of that was real? What did I want to be real? But now I’m here, at the shop. Sanctuary. Home. Where I’ve exhausted such questions a long time ago. I’m standing just inside the door, the bell still ringing in my ears, but something’s not right.

Business is good, a customer being served, a line of two. Kenny, who’s not even on the schedule, is waiting on customers. The case is well-stocked. He must’ve already cooked up a dough in my absence. He looks like he’s having an explosion experience of his own, stuffing a dozen chocolate-filled into a box alongside a dozen chocolate frosted like they were all dirty socks. He doesn’t look at me.

I find Alexis in the back, her head down, filling donuts. She punctures a shell with a chrome shaft, pumps a handle, and the donut plumps in her hand. She pulls it off, puts it on the tray, punctures another. The shells, donuts without holes, cook up empty inside. We fill them with sweetness. These are more chocolate. She knows I’m here, watching her. She tries to hold it together, but there’s no use. She starts crying, sobbing.

“Alexis?” I say softly.

She looks me in the face. Tears are the least of her troubles. She has a nasty black eye. She might’ve run into a door wearing a signet ring, or fallen down a flight of knuckles. But I’d say some big-fisted coward hit her, hard. You can see the knuckles, a rainbow of heart-shaped bruises. There’s a nasty cut that could use a few stitches where the ring split her brow. She’s slapped a little Band-Aid on it that’s come loose on one end. She just lets it hang there.

“Forget the donuts,” I say. She drops the donut she’s about to fill, sits on the edge of the cot, buries her face in her hands, and sobs loudly. It seems unreal coming from her—quiet Alexis. I don’t touch her. The bell rings, someone coming or going or both. “You want to talk about it?”

She shakes her head no.

“If not with me, then somebody. That cut needs looking after. You certainly don’t need to be filling donuts. Did you call in Kenny to cover the front for you?”

She nods her head up and down.

“Good thinking. Why don’t you two take the day off, get your bearings? I can handle it from here.” The bell rings.

She looks up at me in a panic, struggles to choke back her tears. “I— I can’t afford—”

“On the clock. A bonus, a sick day, whatever you want to call it. When was the last time you took a day off?” I hand her a clean towel for her face. She clutches it to her chest.

My question leaves her reeling for a moment, and I realize why she’s never missed a day, never turned down a shift, always been there for me, never, ever once let me down. This place, this job she does with near silent efficiency, is her safe haven, her home away from hell. A day off? Why on earth would she want a day off? She has her tears under control for the moment, but it takes everything she’s got to speak without losing it. “We don’t have no place to go.”

The bell rings. I glance up at the mirror, and a parabolic Kenny is bearing down on us. He passes me by and takes Alexis in his arms. She lays her head on his chest and closes her eyes, surrendering to his sweet tenderness and adoration. He looks five years older than yesterday. I know that look. I used to have it every other day when I was his age.

“Have you seen a doctor?” I ask her.

She panics again, raises her head from Kenny’s chest, like the guy that did this to her is still here, still taking cheap shots. “I can’t afford—”

“Afford nothing. Workman’s Compensation. You slipped on this damn greasy floor, hit the handle on the Hobart. It’s a wonder you don’t sue me. I saw it happen myself. Go to the doc-in-the-box up the road. It’s on Bob’s Donuts. Have them call me.”

“I can’t—”

“Nobody will know but you, me, and my insurer. And the doctor, but you won’t see him more than fifteen minutes if you’re lucky, and it’s a cinch he won’t remember you. Humor me, or you’re fired.”

“Okay. Thanks, Randall.”

“Not a problem. Can you take her to the doctor?” I ask Kenny.

“Definitely,” Kenny says.

“Where to then? Can you take her to your place?”

“I can’t. My parents—”

“Surely, they’ll understand.”

“They know Alexis is married. I made the mistake of talking to my dad about us. He says it’s a sin. We had a huge fight. I’m not supposed to see her anymore.”

“Married? Alexis? It’s news to me. Your tax forms say single.” Why I think this is the thing to say I can’t imagine.

“I’m sorry, Randall. Please don’t be mad. When I filled that stuff out, he’d gone. I hoped for good. That’s why I was looking for a job. He wouldn’t let me work before. He said he was never coming back, but he did. I’m so sorry.”

The day I interviewed her she was scared half to death. I had no idea how brave she was at the time. I hired her on the spot because she was so earnest. We were sitting at the little desk in the finishing room, and she kept looking around at everything, taking it in. When I offered her the job, I thought she was going to start crying, though I’ve never seen her shed a tear till now.

“No. Don’t be sorry. The silly form doesn’t matter. I was just surprised. Listen. When you get through at the doctor’s, go to my place. I’m not using it as long as I’m here, and, as you know, I’m always here. Ignore the mess. The sofa in the study makes into a bed. Help yourself to clothes, food, whatever you need. Here’s the key.” I free my house key from my key ring and kneeling, place it in her palm, close her hand around it. “Please?”

I can see her head’s going to shake no—she couldn’t possibly—but she doesn’t get the chance. I’m saved by the bell. It sounds, and I jump, thirty years of operant conditioning in action. “Be right with you, sir,” I holler to the guy in the mirror. “Got a customer, guys. Get going. See you later. Kenny, you come in at midnight, right? There’s a spare key in the top kitchen drawer. Y’all keep one and bring me the other. Closet’s full of donut whites. Take what you need.”

“Right. Thanks, Randall.”

“Sure thing. And Alexis?”

“Yes Randall?”

“Whatever you do, please don’t go home.”

I head for the front. I don’t mention cops or lawyers yet. It would only spook her. That discussion can wait till tomorrow. I know a good lawyer—she represented Kelly in our divorce. And cops? There’s no end of cops. Once they see Alexis’s eye, her husband is likely to need a lawyer and a doctor himself.

I’m thinking all this as my customer, a thirtyish nicely suited fellow, struggles to overcome his shock that I don’t have any donut holes, and will never have any. Store policy. Seems he had his heart set on the damn things. The other shop, he informs me, meaning one of the big boys, always has them. Do tell. They even have a cutesy-poo trademarked name for them, a special box for them. They want you to be thrilled at the idea of buying holes. Some people have no shame.

The backdoor opens and closes, and I breathe a sigh of relief. They’re on their way. The more Alexis thinks about it, the more likely she is to do the wrong thing, to jump the wrong way. She’s terrified. A few moments later out the front window I see Kenny and Alexis emerge from the side of the building, his arm around her shoulders, crossing the hot asphalt to his car, parked where it was last night, right next to hers. He opens the passenger door. She gets in. He hurries around the back. Determined. On a mission, on a quest. He takes off, leaving her car parked under the big donut. At least she can’t drive home now.

Meanwhile, here I am. “Why don’t you have any holes?” my customer demands. Instead of looking at the case to see what we do have, he’s been trying to rouse someone on his phone for advice on the no-holes situation, cursing to himself the whole time. My exhaust fan seems to play hell with cell phones. I’ve been told I should have that fixed. Hell, if I could figure out how it works, I’d make a portable unit to carry around with me, stranding all the cell phone junkies in the here and now. They still probably wouldn’t say hello, but at least I wouldn’t have to listen to their prattle. There must be upwards of twenty-five or thirty dozen excellent donuts staring him in the face, but he wants the holes I don’t have, and can’t make up his mind what else he might want without consulting someone clear across town. If Nicole wants real life. This is real life. The no-holes situation. When what isn’t is what matters, and the opinions of someone who isn’t even here, who probably doesn’t even care, is the last word. Let them eat bagels. Does anyone go on about bagel holes?

But the man asked me a question, so I answer him. According to my salesman dad, salesmanship consists mostly of conveying information: The latest exploits of the farmer’s daughter, the nasty side-effects of your competitor’s medications and the effectiveness of your own, why donut holes suck. “Since you asked, I’ll tell you: Donut holes are a rip-off. It takes the dough from at least six holes to equal the volume of a single glazed donut, and at most shops a dozen holes cost you twice what a couple of donuts cost. But even if they were half the price, they rise too fast and dry out, have no surface tension, and you have to cook them submerged. This all means they’re little grease bombs. They soak up glaze like cotton balls and make the glazer look like the Valdez just went down in a sugar sea. Might as well eat Crisco and syrup with a spoon. You can roll them in granulated sugar if you like, but they’re still greasy as hell and you have to toss out the sugar afterwards. Looks like gravel out of a fish tank. About as tasty too, after a while. People love them. I refuse to make them. But if only holes will do, I can cut up some plain glazed for you, soak them in some grease, throw them in the glazer until they’re sopping, and sell them to you for twice what the donuts would cost if you like.”

He listens to my deadpan rant in stunned silence. “Is your supervisor aware of the manner in which you talk to customers?”

“Afraid so. It’s my shop.”

“How do you manage to stay in business?”

“You know, I ask myself that question every single day, but despite my best efforts, the damn place won’t go away. But you’re right. That’s no way to address a customer. I just have a blind spot on the holes question, and it’s been one of those days. Here’s what you need. Cinnamon twists.” I slide out the tray. It’s still warm. “You like cinnamon?” He nods cautiously. “See, this is what we make with the dough we could waste on holes. We put the holes all back together, knead them, roll them out. After the dough’s been worked a second time like that, it gets a different texture, more gluten, and you can roll it thin and make ropes of dough with it, make twists and pretzels, lots of cinnamon and light glaze in the crevices. Gives it a nice chewy texture.” I pick one up with a waxed paper and offer it to him. It’s still slightly warm, like a puppy or a kitten. It coils around itself, a rich vein of cinnamon clearly visible. Kenny’s done a fine job. It almost tempts me. “Here, try one. On the house.”

He eats the whole thing. He’s smiling by the time he’s through. I love it when that happens. I buy him a cup of coffee to help wash it down. He buys a dozen-and-a-half twists, a much better deal than the holes he came looking for. I give him my card, making sure he sees the back. He thanks me for setting him straight on the holes question. Definitely a lawyer. What firm? I ask, and it’s a big one. I already make a delivery to their building. I tell him I do wholesale, and he gives me Patrick’s number on the back of his, Philip Hastings’ card. Patrick makes all the confectionary decisions. I write a note to call him in the morning and stick it on the register.

The doc-in-the-box calls, and I give them my credit card number. I have no intention of filing a Workman’s Comp claim, by the way. I don’t want to go to jail, but I don’t want Alexis feeling like she owes me either, so the lie works out for both of us.

 

Kenny, bless him, comes in early. He tells me Alexis is crashed out in my study. “I figured you haven’t had any sleep either,” he says.

“You figured right.” I start talking production with him like it’s any other night—standing orders, special orders, blah, blah, blah. It finally registers with me his eyes are shiny bright. He didn’t just come in early because he’s such a good kid. He needs to talk to somebody who doesn’t care if he’s a hellbound adulterer. He needs a bad role model, somebody like me. “You want to talk about it?”

He gives a quick nod, holding back any tears with grim determination. I don’t know who started this men-shouldn’t-cry crap, but he didn’t do us any favors. I would think that, being a crybaby myself, but I say if the pain will come out, let it. Then go back to work. We take a pair of stools at the counter. He picks up a Sweet-n-Low packet and turns it over and over in his hands. There’s so much to say. Where does he start?

“Tell me about him,” I say.

He doesn’t have to ask who I mean. He doesn’t look at me. He stares at the packet of Sweet-n-Low with perfect loathing. “He—” He stops. You can see the rage bubbling up inside him. He sits on top of it like Jehovah on a thundercloud, breathes deeply and begins again. “Before I met her, Alexis had a bird, a parakeet. She loved it, taught it little tricks. He got it for her ’cause she complained she was lonely. Before he left her, he never let her out of the house. Now he lets her go to work because he likes the money too much to give it up, but he’s always accusing her of stuff. He even writes down the mileage on her car. She went out to the PetSmart to see if she could get the parakeet some kind of toy or something, and he accused her of cheating on him, screaming at her, calling her names. Then he grabbed her parakeet out of its cage and held it out the window, saying he’s going to let it go and never let it come back. She begged him not to, and he said he wouldn’t if she said she was sorry, if she said— He made her say awful things about herself. He likes to do that. When he brought his hand back inside and opened it up right under her nose, the bird was crushed into a little bloody ball.” He puts the packet of Sweet-n-Low back with the others and turns to me. I don’t much like the look in his eye.

“Stay away from him,” I say. “She’s safe at my place. She can stay there as long as she likes. You’ve been a good friend to her. Being a hero’s not going to do her the least bit of good.”

“I love her,” he says fiercely. He’s ablaze with it. I don’t doubt it for a moment. That’s not the emotion that has me worried.

Hunnicut, our most regular cop regular, by all measures our biggest fan, clanks across the moat into the parking lot, goosing his siren in greeting, cutting our conversation short.

“I know you love her,” I say, “but trust me, right now she needs a good friend more than she needs a righteous lover. Loving her has nothing to do with him. You understand? You both have to keep your heads about you. One crazy son of a bitch is one too many already.”

Hunnicut gets out of his car, rearranges his belt and belly, looking around the lot as if he imagines Cops is filming.

“I feel like there’s something I should do,” Kenny says. “She won’t call the police, won’t even talk about it.”

“I can understand that. Give her some time. She’s not ready for cops yet.”

“But why not?”

“You really think Alexis needs to explain her predicament to someone like Hunnicut? Let’s get her a lawyer first.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Course I am. Give Hunnicut one of those twists you made. They’re killer. You good for the night? Wayne’ll be in shortly.”

“I’m good. Thanks for everything, Randall.” He chokes up again. The bell clangs, and he hurries around the counter as Officer Hunnicut struts in.

“I was just leaving,” I tell him.

“That’s good. Cause you look like shit.” He settles onto a stool and pours the packet of Sweet-n-Low Kenny’s been messing with into the coffee Kenny pours him. I wonder if Hunnicut will have nightmares, become possessed by a demon and bludgeon Alexis’s cowardly husband to death. I can never believe those stories. I do wonder why someone who packs away the calories Hunnicut does bothers with artificial sweetener. He accepts the gift of a cinnamon twist Kenny sets before him with a big bite.

“Everything under control here?” I ask Kenny at the door.

He gives me a thumbs up, and I walk out to the donut van, hoping he’s right, wishing I’d said more, knew more to say. Probably like my dad must’ve felt a thousand times. But I’m only guessing. I’ve never had a son.

 

 

 

Chapter 8. Poker in the Moonlight

 Show, don’t tell.

 —Henry James

 

When I get home, I look in on Alexis, sound asleep in the study. I count six stitches. I hope she gets free of this son-of-a-bitch. I leave the lights on in the front room, so she can find her way around if she wakes up in the night.

I shower off the donut and fall into bed, give the writer of the novel I’m reading a break and don’t try to read. I realize I haven’t eaten my one donut for the day, but I saw plenty being eaten—the crowd at Stan’s, Ash, the twist lawyer. Nicole. The attempt anyway—to share the significance of your donuts—whatever the hell that means.

I close my eyes. Then boom! I’m going to have the explosion experience. I wince at the crash for the hundredth time, roll over on my other side, rearrange my pillow this way, then that. I have to sleep. I must sleep. Nicole’s okay. She didn’t kill herself in that crash, only a device, a unit, an interface. Not herself. Whatever she is. An upgraded unit is likely winging its way from Guadalajara by now. She probably placed the order before I even noticed the cop.I wonder if she’ll still want to write her true novel. There’s an oxymoron for you, like a complete donut. Does the hole make it whole? As I consider this, I drift off to sleep smiling.

I dream I’m in the Chevy with Nicole, the boy and his dog in the back seat. Nobody has hands or paws on the wheel. Nicole’s dealing, but she’s no good at it, and the cards keep flying out the window. Good hands whip by me—full houses, straight flushes, four-queens—but I can’t grab them before they’re gone. We run smack dab into a tree and have the explosion experience, blown sky-high. Nicole chews a donut, and the pieces coming out of her mouth make words, but I can’t read them because they’re always upside down or sideways or twisted around themselves, tumbling through the air, plummeting toward the ground. The dog howls, and it comes out o—o—0—0——! My heart’s pounding so hard I can hear it—thud, thud, thud, thud. Then again—thud, thud, thud, thud. I come wide awake a split second before I hit the ground.

“Fuck,” I say and check my watch. 12:45. Almost an hour’s sleep. I tell myself to try for more. If I got out of bed every time I fell out of the sky, I wouldn’t get any sleep at all. But maybe, I’m thinking, that wasn’t my heart, but someone knocking. Kelly? Nicole? I fall out of bed, pull on my pants, and trot to the door. I’m still buttoning my shirt when I open it.

It’s Whit.

I step out onto the porch and pull the door behind me so as not to disturb Alexis. It’s a damp night, warm. The streetlights wear misty haloes. I’m barefoot. Pale, puckery donut maker’s feet. I catch her noticing.

“What’s up, Whit?”

“I— I wanted to talk with you after what happened. I went to your shop, and the nice young man working said you’d gone home. I told him I’m your teacher, and he said you’d just left. He claims you never sleep. I saw the lights and thought I’d risk it.”

I’m not so sure what to say. Part of me wants to tell her off. Part of me wants to take her in my arms. I’ll have to find a middle ground. “Here I am,” I say. Lightning bugs are telling each other the same story all around us.

“Ash seems to think I owe you an apology for sending you out to Calliope without telling you what was going on.”

Maybe Ash isn’t so bad after all. “Did Kenny give you my address too?”

“You gave it to me the first class, remember? Everyone did. In case of emergencies.”

“Is that what this is, an emergency?”

She shrugs one shoulder. “I was worried about you. Afraid you’d be furious with me. Does that count?”

My priorities shift like tectonic plates. “Sure. Thanks. Was that supposed to pass for an apology—telling me what Ash seems to think?”

“Do I owe you one?”

It’s hard to be too righteous barefoot, but I try. “It would’ve been nice to know what I was walking into. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”

“Would you have believed me?”

“Probably not.”

“Would you have taken the job?”

“Probably not.”

“I think you would have, but that’s just my opinion. Nicole claimed to think you wouldn’t take the job if you knew what she is. I think she just wanted to see if she could convince you she’s human. I’m glad to see she can be wrong about something. I didn’t tell you because I promised Nicole I wouldn’t until you had a chance to meet her, and she could tell you herself.”

“In that case, no apology necessary. If you promised, you promised.”

“I hoped you’d feel that way. I thought you might. Are we okay then? We’d just started getting along. I wouldn’t want any hard feelings.”

“None at all. It was quite a ride, actually. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Since I survived, anyway. I have another theory about her. I don’t think she was trying to convince me she’s human—I think she wanted to show me she wasn’t. She knew I couldn’t pass up a bona fide non-human intelligence.”

“Maybe so.”

“Whatever. I trusted her. Weird as she was.”

“Did she convince you she was human?”

“She did just okay until I insisted she try a donut.” I do an impression of Nicole gamely chewing.

Whit laughs. Lingering? I’m not sleepy anymore, ever since I opened the door and saw Whit.Her hair’s pulled up off her neck. A few tendrils hang down like ivy spilling over a wall. I would’ve taken the Calliope job whether or not I knew the unbelievable truth from the get-go. I took the job because Whit offered it.

“So you want to come in? I was just about to make a pot of coffee.”

“Really? I was certain I woke you.”

“Well, you did. But now that I’m awake, with the possibility of your company, I was hoping to make a pot of coffee.” I open the door.

“All right,” she says and steps inside.

“We’ll have to be quiet,” I say softly. “An employee of mine is asleep in the study.” I point to the closed door as we pass. Whit peeks into my open bedroom across the hall. We walk to the kitchen in the back. I ease the door closed behind us. “She needed a little shelter from the storm. I’m never here anyway.”

Whit sits on a stool, and I make the coffee.

“I like your place,” she says.

She’s just about seen it all but the study. “Thanks. I like cozy. We can sit out back. It’s a nice night. You can tell me about your sessions with Nicole. You made quite an impression.”

“I’m afraid I’ve brought her no end of trouble. Ash still curses the day she introduced us.”

“Are you kidding? Without you she’d be adrift. You gave her a nudge in the right direction. She couldn’t just keep churning out that garbage she was writing. She seems to think she needs to free herself of that place. I’m inclined to agree, though I’m not crazy about her methods. Car theft, I think, was her first mistake.”

“I told her that. Know what she said? ‘A carless human might as well live buried underground. What are they going to do if they catch me? Lock me up or pave me over?'”

We laugh at Nicole’s joke, even while we’re wondering what “they” are going to do. You don’t pull a stunt like Nicole pulled today without pissing people off.

“You like her too, don’t you?” Whit asks. Wistful, intimate, as if we shared a secret—and probably hopeless—crush.

“We didn’t spend that much time together, but yeah, I do.”

“If she was human, I’d say she’s ‘good people.'”

“Is that you who’d put it that way, or one of your characters?”

“I don’t know anymore. They’re all mixed up together. You don’t think she was actually hurt in the crash, do you?”

“No, certainly not. She told me not to worry—said, ‘This is only a unit. I was going to upgrade anyway.'”

“You sound just like her. Have you seen the news?”

“Only the radio.”

“Somebody shot the crash on video, and the helicopter had footage. It’s practically non-stop.”

“That’s what I figured. Everybody on the radio kept saying, ‘By now everyone’s seen the video—’ I heard nobody at Luke’s was hurt because they received a call claiming to be FBI ordering them to evacuate the building fifteen minutes before the crash. That had to be Nicole. Nothing mentioned me or Calliope or the rest of it, but I turned it off when they switched to coverage of the President’s speech.”

Whit and I compare notes, and apparently there’s nothing new except the knee-jerk terrorist speculations and the dance of the talking heads.

“What really happened?” Whit asks. “What were you doing in a car anyway? All Ash will say is she shouldn’t have let her go. She’s really pissed.”

“I guess I don’t blame her. Nicole asked, and I couldn’t say no.” I take the other stool, tell her about finding Nicole, as the coffee drips. Sitting in a classroom, I don’t get to talk to her like this. “The spookiest thing,” I tell her, “was to realize Nicole had been carrying on an intense conversation with me and looking for a place to blow herself up at the same time, calling your sister and Luke’s while she was at it apparently. I had no idea the cop was even back there. Have they connected this with Calliope? Is your sister still there?”

“Nobody’s shown up yet, but she won’t leave. Nicole told her to, told her she was going silent through the old interface and would be in touch. Ash is totally nutting out. Her baby’s run away from home. But like I told her, Nicole hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s still sitting there underground. She said that’s why she can’t leave. Tom’s threatening to take off on his own, but Ash is dead set on staying.”

“Tom’s not going anywhere. They’re like the co-dependent poster couple.”

Whit laughs. “Tom’s not so bad. He can be very nice.”

I get two mugs and pour. “I like a woman who’ll stick up for her in-laws. I’ve been one often enough, enlisted in three different families, not counting my own. I liked all my in-laws who liked me, even liked some who didn’t. How do you take your coffee?”

“Black.”

“It’s done then.”

 

We go outside with our coffees and sit under the moon, near full. There’s not much to my little yard besides the fence around it, but my neighbor’s gardenia is blooming, and the air is sweet. Whit is lovely in the moonlight.

I still have a few questions, however. “I guess you know Nicole read my hard drive, talked to my friends, to see how I worked, where the characters came from. Did she do that number with you?”

“Yes. Fortunately, no one who figures in my stories lives anywhere close by.”

And who’d think to look for Billy Ray and Wilma at Bennington anyway? “Except yourself.”

“Except myself.”

“While we’re on the subject, I’ve always suspected ‘Tequila Tattoo’ came from personal experience. Care to confirm or deny that suspicion?”

She laughs. “If you’re asking whether I have RICK tattooed on my ass, the answer is no.”

I thought so. “I didn’t say I was talking about the ending, but you jumped right on it. I sense an evasive ambiguity. So what name do you have tattooed on your ass? I always figured you changed the name for the story.”

Her mouth drops open. She can’t deny it. “Damn! You got me.” She shakes her head. “Kirk. How’d you know?” She looks like she’s enjoying this game, but it’s hard to tell in the moonlight. I’m not sure whether we’re flirting, talking shop, or both. Either one works for me.

“Second class. You told us, ‘Whenever you use someone from your own life in a story, always change the name.’ I guess in your case that goes for the author’s name too. You might say RICK is tattooed on Beulah Mae’s ass.” That sounds a little meaner than I meant it to.

“You’re not going to let that one go, are you?”

“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to give you a hard time, but I have to admit I’m curious. It wasn’t just a pseudonym, not just a fictional persona like Uncle Remus. It was the author as character. Then it just went away. As if it were suddenly revealed Melville was never on a boat or Ray Carver never wrote a story in his car. I kind of like Beulah Mae better knowing she isn’t real. How’d you come up with her anyway?”

“I wish I never had. You make it sound so clever. It wasn’t, really. I was living in New York, working as an editorial assistant, working my way up so someday I could have a window to jump out of, editing published crap by day, writing my own stories at night, submitting them everywhere so they could come back flattered but rejected. Three different editors told me my stories were polished and professional.” She says it as if they’d called her a cheap whore. “After a while, I couldn’t write anything new, and I started going to every summer workshop that would have me, workshopping the same stories over and over, getting drunk and high and whining about being blocked, sitting around one damn fire after another—campfires, fireplaces, barbecue grills. They have workshops everywhere, you know. Beautiful places mostly. Same crowd teaches most of them. You get to know the ones you like. One summer I did three of them, polishing my polished stories. It was pathetic.

“Finally, a teacher who shall remain nameless, told me I was blocked because I didn’t want to be myself. To unblock myself, he suggested, I should write stories as someone else, someone as different from me as I could imagine. That was my first ‘assignment’—to re-imagine myself.” She looks off at nothing, at the past. “That’s what I did for the rest of the summer, pretend to be Beulah Mae and dash off those damn stories.”

“And sleep with the teacher?”

Her head whips around and she gapes at me, laughing in disbelief. “You will say anything, won’t you?”

“I didn’t know it was a secret. That was a pretty tough wistful to miss. Should I pretend I didn’t notice? You set yourself up. You should’ve named him. The shall remain nameless line sort of called out. The only reason I could think of not to name him was you were sleeping with him. Besides, what else do you do after an evening of alcohol, drugs, and fireside confession? I’m not judging, you understand. I like the stories.”

She doesn’t mind hearing that. “Thanks.” She knows I wouldn’t say it unless it’s true. She also knows better than to ask for details when things are going so well.

“So then what?”

“He showed the stories to his agent, who hooked me up with a publicist, who encouraged me to ‘play-along with the Beulah Mae thing for a while.’ I played along until I was exposed as a phony and a fraud.”

“Awful harsh words. You still wrote the stories. They were always just fiction. You never claimed they were anything else. Sound and the Fury is great even if Faulkner had turned out to be a yankee who never drank, greater in a way. Cut yourself a break. Must’ve pissed off Nameless when you got to be a bigger deal than he ever was.”

Her eyes narrow. She studies me. It’s definitely poker we’re playing. “You’re fishing. You don’t have the faintest who Nameless is. You think you can trick me into telling you.”

“I probably could, but I don’t have to. I already know.”

“No you don’t.”

“Bet you I do.”

“What do you bet?”

“Dinner.”

She smiles. “Are you asking me out? How sweet. But I can’t. I’m your teacher.”

“Oh please. Is that some kind of priesthood now? All my youth’s already been corrupted. Besides, as you tactlessly pointed out, I’m older than you. I have no respect for authority anyway, so I can’t imagine what damage you could do me. I’ll throw in a dozen chocolate iced cake with nuts for dessert, but that’s my best offer. Besides, who showed up at whose house in the middle of the night not to apologize? Haven’t you already transgressed the sacred vows of your order? C’mon, the class is almost over.” She’s been listening to this line with a smile that says I’m not doing too badly for my cause, but not yes. Yet. I have an ace in the hole. I play it. Like I say, I’ve read everything the woman’s ever written. There’s a consistent theme. “I think you’re just afraid to bet.”

“Never,” she says, without a moment’s hesitation.

I laugh. “I can see how Kirk ended up on your ass.”

“You wish. Well, I think you’re just bluffing. Who is it? Dinner and drinks.”

“Trying to scare me off. Lucky for me I won’t have to pay your tequila bill. I’d raise you, but I don’t like to be greedy. It’s the guy you dedicated the first book to, right? You beat him out for the something-something prize for best story collection. A fair judgment in my opinion. His work’s tired and silly.”

“While mine’s just plain silly. You’re right. He was furious. He’s the one who leaked the truth about me. He said he did it for my own good.”

“I suspected he was a rat, but I didn’t know he was a lying rat.”

“Is there anything you haven’t figured out about me?”

“An endless list, but I’m curious and persistent and willing to learn. What about you? How much do you know about me? Nicole read my hard drive. Did she share?”

She didn’t see that one coming. She opens, then closes her mouth. “Yes.”

“You asked for a peek?”

“Yes.”

“How much of a peek?”

“I’m sorry. I swear to you I didn’t read your correspondence. Just your fiction. I read almost all of that. And parts of your journal. Your novels are wonderful, you know.”

That’s like an elevator falling. “In places, when I get it right.”

“So that’s the pleasure? Being right?”

“Getting it right. Not the same thing. Being right has no pleasure in it. Take our beloved President. If you like him, please don’t tell me. He’s always fucking up. Even I can see how bad it’s going to turn out, and I’m no foreign policy expert. Sure enough. It’s awful, and I’m a hundred percent right. But what kind of a sicko feels good because something awful’s happened? I can be wrong about something, like about you, for example, and feel great. Fiction’s different. I can blow up the solar system and feel great because it was right for my story. I can marry the beautiful princess and cure cancer but still feel awful because it’s not working. I had imaginary friends when I was a kid. I moved on to imaginary worlds. Keeps me sane or makes me crazy, take your pick.”

“You love doing it, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“There’s no ‘of course’ about it.”

“I’ve always loved it. I can’t imagine not writing.” Actually I can. Those were awful, awful times.

“You said you were wrong about me?”

“Yeah. I thought you didn’t like me. So why were you reading my stuff?”

“Because it’s good work.”

“You didn’t know that before you read it. So why me?”

“Why?”

“Yeah. That’s the question.”

“Would you believe me if I said I just wanted to make sure you were right for Nicole?”

I smile. “That’s good. I like that. But why would I want to believe something like that coming from a snoop like you? The Critic is developing a theory he likes better.”

“And what is that?”

We’re close, looking into each other’s eyes. It must be the scent of gardenias, the way her face hangs there in the moonlight. “Show, don’t tell,” I murmur and kiss her. She shows me back, with marvelous attention to detail. Life’s pretty wonderful for about half a minute. Maybe it’s Whit who smells like gardenias.

I hear the creak of the gate and open my eyes. The kiss falls apart. Kelly is standing in the yard at the edge of the light from inside the house. The backdoor comes open and out comes Alexis in a pair of my pajamas. Flannel polar bears. “Randall,” she says. “There’s someone knocking at your front door.”

I look back and forth, from Whit to Kelly to Alexis. “It’s okay,” I say. “She’s found me.”

Kelly’s frozen, wounded. “You never change,” she says and leaves as quickly as she appeared, banging the gate behind her. I don’t say anything. I don’t jump up and run after her. You might be thinking I should’ve defended myself, that things aren’t quite what they seem. There’s no orgy going on. It’s only a kiss in the moonlight, a young damsel in distress crashing on my sofabed. But just because things aren’t what they seem doesn’t mean I’ve changed. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I never change. Maybe that’s my problem. Like I said, Kelly and I always manage to hurt each other. We don’t mean to. She’ll be wishing she hadn’t said it before she’s halfway home. That’s the way it always works with me, anyway, when I say shit like that, and Kelly and I are a lot alike.

“Was that Kelly?” Whit asks. I guess she’s read those years in my journal.

“The one and only,” I reply, realizing immediately I should’ve said something else.

“I should probably be getting on home now,” Whit says. “You must be exhausted.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have come here,” Alexis says. Her voice has a high, nervous trill.

“Go back to sleep, Alexis, which is exactly what I’m going to do.” I turn to Whit. “You’re right. I’m totally exhausted, and my only regret is I wasn’t more rested for such a wonderful kiss.”

“Can you give me a ride, ma’am?” Alexis asks Whit. “It’s not far.”

“Of course,” Whit says automatically.

“Don’t do it,” I say. “Sorry,” I say to Alexis, “but the woman’s got a right to know where she’ll be taking you.” I say to Whit, “There’s a fellow at home, calls himself her husband, who gave her those six stitches and that shiner you can see even in this light.”

“Have you called the police?” Whit demands.

“No!” Alexis wails and stumbles backwards toward the house.

Jesus. Too much cop talk and Alexis will be sprinting cross-country to the son of a bitch. “It’s okay, Alexis. I’m not going to call the cops. If I were, I would’ve done it by now. You know I know half the force, so they’d be all over this like white on rice if I asked them to. It’s totally your decision. So calm down, go back to bed, get some sleep, give your meds a chance to work, whatever. It’s 1:30 in the morning. Whatever your next move, it’ll be better after the sun comes up. Okay?” She still looks doubtful. “By the way, you want to pick up some extra hours for a while? I’m a little short-handed.”

She nods her head yes.

“Great. Then get some sleep. We’ll talk about it later.”

“Okay. Thanks, Randall. Sorry I interrupted y’all. I was scared.”

“Not a problem. G’night, Alexis.”

She finally goes back inside. I watch her through the kitchen window going down the hall to make sure she goes into the study. She closes the door behind her.

Whit is staring at me. “You never cease to amaze me.”

“Is that good?”

“Definitely.” She takes my arm, and we walk through the gate, around the side of my house to her car.

She looks back at the house. “Why does that poor girl have such a superstitious aversion to calling the police? Is she afraid of them?”

“It’s not superstition. It’s a rational decision. It’s not the cops she’s afraid of. This husband, however, would resent it if cops came calling, might even track her down and do a lot worse to her, just to teach her a lesson.”

“But won’t they arrest him?”

“If they’re lucky enough to find him at home or his workplace, if he has one. It’s not like they’ll mount a search. But they can’t hold him long.”

“But if the police know, then surely—”

“Surely nothing. The way she sees it, if she counts on the cops to keep her safe, she’ll likely end up in the hospital or the morgue. Cops aren’t on patrol anymore. It’s all complaint driven. They’ll respond quick enough—when he violates the restraining order. But by then it’s too late. It’s not the cops’ fault. Nobody wants to pay taxes anymore. Cities are broke. Police departments are cut to the bone. She’s got to get herself safe. Then the cops can go after the son of a bitch. She might be wrong, but she’s not superstitious. She’s just trying to stay alive. You sure you have to leave?”

“No, but you need to get some sleep, and so do I. You don’t want to be too tired when I buy you dinner and drinks and have my way with you. I like to settle my debts promptly. How’s Sunday at eight? I’ll pick you up.”

“Seven. I’m impatient.”

“Six, then. Goodnight, sweet prince.” She kisses me lightly on the lips, gets into her car, and drives away. I feel like falling to my knees and howling at the moon. What a day this has been.

I’m dancing up the steps when I hear the phone ringing inside, and I know immediately what it means. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee, donut man, it tolls for thee.


 

Chapter 9. Got Anything Hot?

 Only connect.

 —E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

 

As I suspected, it’s Kenny. Wayne hasn’t shown. Kenny’s talking a mile a minute. “I wanted to handle it on my own. I went ahead and mixed a dough and started working it, but there’s some almost ready to fry, and—”

“Relax. It’s just donuts. Mix another dough. Remember to use the thermometer and cut back a splash on the water. It’s muggy out. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

This is how it goes with Wayne: He’s pretty high functioning, in spite of the bourbon-spiked coffee he drinks all day. Does a great job for months at a time. Lots of great cooks drink. But something sooner or later spooks him. He fucks up someway or other, or thinks he does, decides he’s worthless, and goes on a roaring drunk. Whenever he snaps out of it, he’s too ashamed to face me until months, sometimes years later when he shows up some night when I’m the only one in the place and asks, “Do you need anybody?” What a question. I don’t know where he goes between times. I’ve never asked. I’m always so goddamn mad and so goddamn glad to see him, to know he’s still alive, I don’t ever say much of anything. I never get to say good-bye. There won’t be a call, a note. Nothing. He’s a one-man rapture, that Wayne. Now you see him, now you don’t.

Kenny’s doing better by the time I get to the shop, but you’d think the place was on fire. To be fair, he has a lot on his plate for a kid his age. “You better take over the dough, Randall,” he says. “I’m not as fast as you. I haven’t had that much experience cutting.”

On the other hand, if he didn’t want so much on his plate, he picked the wrong line. He’s a serious kid. I know the type from the inside out. He picks the hard line on purpose, and now he’s fallen for a married woman with an abusive husband just in case life was too easy. I roll a rack of donuts out of the proof box, park them by the fryer. I add a football sized scoop of shortening. I like a full fryer. The shortening floats out in the middle like an iceberg in a golden sea. I watch it melt as I tie on my apron. The gas jets kick on with a pleasant whoosh. “Wayne says you’re getting pretty good. That’s high praise coming from him. I’d rather fry.” I pick up the sticks, run a riff on the stainless, and smile. “I fry faster too. Wayne told me, when he first taught me—”

“I know, that you were the fastest he’d ever seen. I can’t believe you care what Wayne has to say about anything. I can’t understand why you keep taking him back when he always runs out on you like this, just when you need him most.” He’s filled with righteous anger. He thinks he’s being loyal. I have enough trouble with my own anger. I don’t need his swamping the boat. Of all the emotions, anger’s my least favorite. It just plain feels bad, and it’s notoriously inefficient.

“I don’t know that I need him now more than any other time—unless he can pave over that ditch out there. He’s got his own life. He doesn’t have to hang around for my bankruptcy. Sorry to offend your sense of whatever, but except for his chronic failure to give proper notice, Wayne does a perfectly good job, often a great job. This isn’t exactly a career path for most people. He sticks around as long as most. Besides, he’s like family to me.”

“He drinks all the time.”

“He does indeed. Bourbon mostly. Early Times. Half pint a shift as long as I’ve known him. What? You think I didn’t know?” I point a stick at the big lit-up donut. “Whose name is on the sign? Bob’s my dad, who had his own failings, often including more than a half-pint a day, which is probably why he hired Wayne in the first place. Dad knew nothing whatsoever about donuts. He thought you could just stick a donut machine in the window and flip a switch for the entertainment of orphan kids like him, and the money would come rolling in. If it hadn’t been for Wayne, we wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation. Neither one of us would know a donut from a hole in our head. You don’t choose your family. They just happen.

“Now, turn on the damn radio, and let’s make some donuts. I will fry and finish this entire rack before you’re done working that dough—you being so inexperienced and all. I’ll be standing around with nothing to do but feel sorry for myself because Wayne done gone again. Boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!” The gas jets shut off, and that’s my cue.

I lower the first screen of rings into the shortening. Behind me the man on the radio promises we’ll have 45 minutes of uninterrupted hits once he shuts up, and Kenny starts rolling out a pillow of dough. The pin slaps into the dough and glides, spins on its ball bearings as it clears the lip of the dough with a yeasty sigh, slaps again. That’s more like it.

“Not quite so hard,” I say, “you’ll get wrinkles underneath. Don’t forget to shrink the dough before you cut it.”

“You want to do it?”

“Not me. I’m the fryer.” Thirty six white rings stare up at me. With a quick twist of my wrists, they turn golden two by two. I hold the sticks like long pencils, turning two donuts at a time, barely catching their fried edges, the left donut at ten o’clock, the right at two, dipping the sticks like oars. Kenny cuts the sheet of dough bang, bang, bang, bang… Wayne’s right. Kenny’s got that certain rhythm. Quick but unhurried. Staccato and sure. He has a feel for it, like Wayne, like me. I lift the donuts sizzling out of the fryer and slide a new screen in.

Maybe Kenny’s right. Maybe I should be filled with rage and righteousness, but I despise the both of them. It’s no one’s fault, all the ways we let each other down. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking with it. I toss the golden rings into the glazer, anoint them with glaze from a trough that shuttles back and forth above. A foot pedal lifts them from the sea, hot and dripping, as lovely as Botticelli’s Venus, all three dozen. I’d rather think about Whit’s kiss in the moonlight than Wayne, gone again. He’d be the first to understand. I pick up the fiery donuts, but they burn me not, as I lay them down in neat rows. I gobble one, and it is good, and I shall dwell in the house of the donut forever.

 

By dawn, Kenny and I are one with the donuts. A greasy sticky powdered pair dressed in white, aprons sodden and pasty. We’ve worked away our troubles and are left with that sweet haze of exhaustion in which a man falling in love can think only of love, love requiring so little thought, and worries and troubles requiring too damn many.

“I’ll go get Alexis,” Kenny says dreamily.

“All right. No hurry. Go ahead and shower and change. There should be a pair of whites there to fit you, on the left in my bedroom closet.” Half my closet is white, generations of donut duds. We went through all the linen services when Dad was still alive, finally ended up buying a heavy-duty washer, towels, aprons, uniforms, and doing our own so we’d have something else to yell at ourselves about. There’s even some of my old whites in that closet. I’m a bit bigger now than I was in high school. Employees leave with them occasionally, but most would just as soon forget their days in white. Dad’s are even hanging in there, exoskeletons in my closet. When Dad said ‘the men in the white suits,’ he meant the muscle at a mental hospital. To me it’s always meant donuts. I’m sure there’s a connection there somewhere.

“Thanks, Randall. I’ll be back soon as I can.”

“No rush. Take your time. You’ll live longer and enjoy it more.”

“Like you?”

“Get out of here.”

The bell rings, and Kenny trots out to his car and clanks across the moat. He can’t wait to see her, and I’m happy for him. I’m sitting on a stool, back against the counter, my legs stretched out in front of me. I should be making cake or crullers, but I need a break. Standing all the time gets old, or maybe that’s me. The sky is gray and muffled, the world shapeless and colorless. No cars on the road. Then a yellow light breaks across the top of the lottery billboard down the way, hits the western edge of the parking lot, and gives everything shape. Looks like it’s time to pick up the lot again. I’ll do it after the cake and crullers, after I load up the wholesale, while I’m waiting for Kenny to get back with Alexis. Then I’ll make the deliveries, catch a nap, and come back to relieve Kenny. At least I think that’s the plan we’ve worked out. I’m too tired to remember.

I’m watching the world solidifying into a golden light for I don’t know how long—something like that doesn’t last but a few moments—when the clank, clank of a black pickup with a big topper rolling into the lot rousts me from my perch, and I get behind the counter for my first customer of the day.

I’ve never seen him before. Big guy, military haircut, bit of a gut, thirty maybe. His eyes dart around, linger on the mirror—not a good sign—then back to me. He leans on the counter with his big hands making it creak. He wears a big ring on his right hand, a wedding band on his left. “Alexis here?”

“And who might be asking?”

“Her husband, asshole.”

“Glad to meet you, Asshole. Alexis doesn’t work here anymore. Showed up to work with her eye swollen shut, looking like hell. Can’t have that. This is a family business. Had to let her go.”

“Is that right? What’s her car doing here, then?”

“Beats me.” I walk over to the cutting table, stand the pin on end and start cleaning off tiny bits of dough with a scraper. I give it a spin, and it pirouettes on its ball bearings, a hefty cylinder of cast aluminum. I move the scraper up and down the surface. It makes a sound like skates on ice—the ones on TV anyway.

He’s followed me, standing the other side of the waist-high gate that serves as entrance to the kitchen. “Alexis,” he calls out. “You better get your sorry ass out here if you know what’s good for you.”

“I told you she’s not here. You’re talking to yourself. Nobody else is interested.”

“Is that so? You’re Randall, aren’t you? Her wonderful boss she goes on about. You fucking her too?”

I set the scraper down, wrap my right hand around the rolling pin handle. “I think it’s time you were leaving.”

“Fuck you! I’m getting my wife.” He puts his hand on the gate.

I pick up the spinning pin, cock it by my right ear and take a step toward him. He backs away. “You got three seconds to get your sorry ass out of my shop, and don’t ever come back.”

He’s bigger than me, but you don’t knead dough all day everyday without developing some upper body strength. If I swing this pin at him, there won’t be any blocking it unless he wants a broken arm. He doesn’t have a whole lot of room to maneuver. On the other hand, this pin is getting awful damn heavy, and my macho three-second ultimatum done come and gone. If I swing and miss, he’ll mop up the floor with me. He’s weighing the odds himself, backing toward the door, when the clank, clank of Hunnicut looking for another twist to end his shift tips the balance in my favor, and Asshole’s out the door and gone before Hunnicut hauls his fat ass out of the patrol car.

I set the rolling pin back on the table with a heavy thud and try to calm myself. This time it really is my heart I hear pounding. If I’d connected with his head with this much adrenaline behind it, I could’ve easily killed him. Part of me is disappointed I didn’t get the chance to find out.

The bell rings. “Hey Randall,” Hunnicut says. “Got anything hot?”

 

I don’t say anything to Hunnicut about Alexis’s troubles, not only because I told her I wouldn’t talk to the cops, but also because Hunnicut, not the shiniest badge on the force, isn’t the cop I’d talk to. That would be Thompson who took one of my workshops at the branch library. He dreams of writing a true crime bestseller. This leaves him chronically bored with the ordinary crimes he has to deal with since none of them make for very good material. He longs for serial killers, but all he gets is punks like Asshole and lots and lots of drug dealers. I’ve tried to switch him to fiction, but he’s a nothing-but-the-facts kind of guy.

I call him up. He’s trying to get some writing done before one of his kid’s soccer games. Armored car robberies is his new thing. “Did you see that movie Italian Job? That’s what got me interested. Really cool.”

“You know how I feel about car chase movies. I keep telling you you should do fiction. Then you can make up your own really cool robberies.”

“No listen. They’re really interesting.”

He gives me a brief history. I try to sound interested for the first decade or so. Finally, I pop the question. “Keith, if I had a friend who was a victim of spousal abuse, what would be her options?”

“What’s her name?”

“Hypothetical friends don’t have names.”

He gives me options—names and numbers. None of them involve armored cars. He concludes: “I might have a couple chapters soon I’d like you to look at. Would you mind?”

“Just bring it by the shop.”

 

Kenny and Alexis take their time getting back, but I don’t mind. Whatever they’ve been doing, combined with a good night’s sleep, seems to have strengthened her resolve. Her eye’s not so swollen. Looks like she can see out of it now. She asks me if I know a lawyer, and I give her Kelly’s lawyer’s name and number. She holds the scrap of paper in both hands. “I’ll call her first thing Monday.” She stows it away in her pocketbook as Kenny watches with rapt adoration.

I hang around tending to this and that. There’s always checks to write, something to clean. First chance I get, I send Kenny out to pick up the trash in the parking lot.

I tell her Thompson’s good, empowering advice first. Then I slip in the punch line. “Your husband came here looking for you.”

“Leon came here?”

“Is that his name? I thought it was Asshole.”

She doesn’t crack a smile. Leon’s no joke, apparently. “What did he say? What did you tell him?”

“He didn’t say anything bears repeating. I told him you don’t work here anymore. Told him to leave and never come back. Hunnicut showed up. That scared him pretty good, and he skedaddled. Don’t worry. I didn’t say anything to Hunnicut.”

“Thanks.” She’s looking scared again, but she’s gone too far to turn back now. I had to tell her. The guy’s dangerous. She looks out at the parking lot where Kenny is picking up every last Subway wrapper, McDonald’s cup/lid/straw, Marlboro pack, Coke bottle, Snickers wrapper, stir stick, creamer, ruptured ketchup pack, with patient thoroughness and no apparent resentment at the thoughtlessness of others. “Everything’s going to be all right,” she says. “Leon’s nothing but a big coward. He hates police. They make him nervous.”

“Do you know what about?”

“He tells me to mind my own business.”

“What does he do?”

“He calls it security. He’s a bouncer in a club, when he works at all. Sometimes I think he just goes out drinking. But it’s better when he’s not there anyway. When I met him, he was a Marine. He was real nice, real polite. He made me feel safe, special. Then we got married, and he changed. He got into some trouble, and they discharged him, then he got worse. I just want it to be over.”

“I understand. Believe me. Alexis, look at me.” She turns from the window. I look her in the eye. She’s just a kid. “It is over. You decide that. Not anybody else. If he shows up again, do not hesitate: Hit 911. Cops will be all over this place. Understand?”

She nods gravely, smiles for Kenny as he comes through the door, starry-eyed. “I found a quarter,” he says, showing us, a real lucky guy.

“What state is it?” Alexis asks, now as goofy as he is.

He checks. “New Jersey. Crossroads of the Revolution.

I don’t think anybody’s ever been so happy to find New Jersey as these two. Things will work out for her, I’m hoping. Kenny’s doing a lot of hoping himself. Too much maybe, but that’s not for me to judge. I could warn them not to live their lives, that the bridge is washed out on the road they’re headed down—one I traveled in my youth. If I did, I hope they’d laugh me out of the shop. I’m not them. Now’s not then. I wish them all the luck in the world.

 

When I get home, on a hunch, I call Ky at work and ask him if he’s tired of being a cog in the corporate donut-making machine.

“You the same Randall,” he says, laughing, talking loud over the racket on his end. It’s a noisy place behind the glass.

“Yeah, Kelly tells me I never change. Some things don’t. Wayne’s gone again. You want a job?”

“Ah, shit man! That’s too bad! Sure. I’ll work for you. Tired of these sorry fuckers.”

“Monday-Friday graveyard?”

“Sound good. No Sundays? These fuckers always making me work Sunday.”

“No Sundays. I know Jesus needs you.”

“He need you too, Randall. You just don’t know it yet. When do I start?”

“Wayne’s gone now.”

“I be there Monday midnight.”

“You don’t need to give the corporation notice?”

“Shit. They cut back on my hours without notice. But no, I’m not quitting on them. Monday my day off here anyway. I just work both for a while. My oldest daughter got college coming up, you know.”

“You’re making me feel old, Ky. Tell her I said hey. She going to be a doctor or a lawyer?”

“Shit. She want to major in music,” he says glumly.

“She’s got to follow her dreams. Be broke like the rest of us. Cheer up and have a donut.”

“In this place? No way. My kids won’t even eat this shit nomore.”

“See you Monday.”

I fall asleep in no time with that load off my mind. Everything’s working out perfectly. As you can see, I have a limited, simplistic worldview: If all shifts are covered, all’s right with the world. Just yesterday I was in a high speed chase with an AI that was big news for at least an hour or so, and here I am right back where I started: The donut man. I dream of expanding my horizons, but when I wake up I can’t remember a damn thing except a highway and the wide open spaces of New Jersey. I was in a flying saucer, donut-shaped, of course, flying low, following my dreams.

 

 

 

Chapter 10. Sunday Punch

 The old sorcerer’s stepping out!

That happens once in a blue moon!

All the spirits roundabout

Will soon be dancing to my tune!

I’ve studied every step and motion,

Noted each spell and sign.

Now the world is but my Notion—

At last, the magic’s mine!

 —trans. from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

 

Sunday’s a special day in the donut business. For some, the two are intimately connected. In spite of the gaping ditch, it’s still our best day, and this Sunday, on the heels of a sultry Saturday, is our best Sunday in months. We start off with a pre-dawn couple who’ve been swimming in somebody else’s pool—they reek of chlorine, they look like they were sopping when they put their damp clothes on, and he has a pair of underwear hanging out his back pocket like he’s playing flag football. They spin on my stools, feeding each other bites of donut, pretending their knees are gears. They squish and giggle as they leave for hot showers, clean sheets, and Sunday morning sex.

We get fishermen, Mexican roofers, horse people, motorcycle riders, teams of all kinds. Hungover people. Drunk people. Church ladies dressed to the nines at seven every Sunday, picking up dozens before they go unlock the church and set everything up. Cops with gruesome, morbid comic tales from last night’s ER and domestic violence calls. Fortunately, Alexis is in the back for this morning’s horror show. Golfers. Divorced Dads with their kids. Jogging moms without them. Cops on their way to direct the holy traffic. Lost travelers looking for a Starbuck’s, taking a chance on Bob’s. More golfers.

All prelude to the after-Church tsunami of folks for whom the donut is a second communion. I’ve never been religious. Good thing too, or I wouldn’t be here making donuts. While they’re in church, praying and repenting—I labor to stuff the display case full to bursting—so when they’re finally set free, they can gather before all these donuts as a family, each campaigning for his or her favorites, taking home a dozen, two dozen, whatever it takes to make everyone happy and fulfilled when they finally change out of those uncomfortable clothes, and dig in. I’m convinced that if it weren’t for the donut shop down the road, congregations of the righteous would still be burning witches and infidels.

Some of them show up too, making a point of sleeping past noon, buying donuts, reading The New York Times. “The circle is important in witchcraft,” one of my wiccan customers explains to me. “We work in a magic circle.” She’s holding a plain glazed in her palm, twirling her fingers above it. I half expect it to levitate. Then she takes a bite, and it is good. I work in circles too, but there’s nothing magic about it. Some Sundays it seems like the whole world wants a donut, and I can make them happy. It’s a nice feeling. Who needs magic? Not me. That’s why I write science fiction instead of fantasy.

Today’s been one of those good Sundays. Now it’s the late afternoon lull when people sit around pretending to be interested in professional golf on TV, or they’re hauling their kids to whatever planned fun they’re subjecting them to. I see the kids being driven around like cattle, eating out of drive-in troughs. They’re like prisoners being transferred from one worksite to another. Kick that ball, play that scale, take your meds, or you’ll land in jail. I never did any of that stuff—swimming, diving, gymnastics, team sports, summer camp, Suzuki camp, space camp, Ritalin. When I wasn’t in school, I read, hung out in the woods, and rode my bike around town. Summers, Mom and I traveled with Dad. At thirteen, I started working. I wouldn’t do much differently if I had youth to do over again. I’m glad nobody told my parents how unsafe and anti-social all that unsupervised time on my own was. I certainly wouldn’t trade sitting alone on a riverbank for dive team, or knocking around town without adult superstition for soccer. I might’ve worked a different job maybe, stuck with the library, ignored my father’s plea, but probably not.

If all you really care about is writing (or painting or dance or music or acting or standup comedy) a job’s just a job—a way to make money so you can keep doing what you love. Your job’s not your career. People think I lack ambition since I don’t want to expand or add bagels or burgers or ice cream. I’ve got an overdose of ambition. It’s just not donut ambition. Donuts are a good, honest, round day’s work. I could do worse, but I don’t have any big donut dreams. Dunkin’ Krispy can rest easy at night. Bob’s Donuts isn’t coming after him. I amuse myself with fantasies of dozens and dozens of identical dumpy Bob’s Donuts smeared across the land, donuts as far as the eye can see, the donut man in a donut world. No thanks.

I’ve sent Kenny and Alexis home to sleep, shower, change, screw, whatever they’ve got to do. In a few short hours I’m seeing Whit, they’ll be working the evening shift, and I hope not to give this place a thought. This prospect could be why it’s been such a terrific Sunday.

You might be thinking that for a guy who claims he doesn’t want to get involved, I’m awfully interested in this Whit woman. Did I say I didn’t want to get involved? No. I think I said it was a bad idea. I often want to get involved. I get involved without half trying. What I can’t handle is the not working out part. Whenever I meet a woman I like, I dread explaining myself, coming clean that I’m a thrice-divorced college dropout obsessed with making up paper people with paper problems as if I didn’t have enough of my own. I’ve come to understand that what writers call self-discipline and dedication, others might call neurotic. Not everybody’s crazy about neurotics.

But Whit knows all this already and a helluva lot more. She may or may not have read my correspondence, but I’m sure she’s read all my journal. And she’s still interested. Furthermore, she’s one of the tribe. We share the same neurosis. If that isn’t a bond, I don’t know what is. Beulah Mae, I’m sure, has no trouble getting dates, but who gets to be on a true first name basis? Who gets to meet her sister? Who gets to hear the truth? I must be a relief, showing up knowing her secret already. No sin, no confession. Just like fiction—trustworthy because it doesn’t pretend to be the truth. Or it does pretend, actually. You’re just supposed to know it’s pretending. That’s why it says A Novel on the front. Talk about neurotic. Lies to believe in.

I feel bad for Kelly walking in on us like that. When it was me in her shoes, I felt awful. But I can only feel so guilty. It was a typical episode in our soap opera. Like the time I drove an hour out to her old place in the country to ask her to marry me again, and she introduced me to her fiancé, who was painting her front porch, sipping lemonade. Their marriage lasted six months. I heard about the divorce a few months after I married Trish. It’s been time to move on for a long, long time.

I’m startled from my Sunday reverie by one thing we don’t see much of on Sundays or any day—a FedEx van rolling into the lot and heading my way. What the hell can this be? I ask myself, and think I know the answer immediately. It can only be one thing, device, interface, unit, whatever. It’s Nicole, has to be. I don’t get flour and shortening delivered FedEx. But why here of all places? Silly question. Because I’m here. Her teacher. I’m always here.

When the Luke’s Oil Depot explosion dropped off the news cycle, I thought the whole thing would blow over like rich people’s troubles, and a new Nicole would hook up with Tom and Ash somewhere. I might hear from her, and I might not. Not, if Ash has anything to say about it. Now, here she’s landed in the middle of my Sunday. What am I going to do with her? I don’t even have Ash’s phone number, and driving out to Calliope sounds like a real bad idea. Slow down, I tell myself. You’re letting your imagination run away with you. Maybe the driver, one I’ve never seen before, is just hungry or lost. For once, I listen to myself and take a deep breath. It’s just another customer, just another customer, just another

The FedEx driver, a stocky woman with lots of dark, curly hair stuffed under her cap, parks and walks in. “I’ve got a couple boxes here for Randall Blevins. I wanted to make sure this is the place before I unload them. They’re kind of heavy.”

“A couple boxes? How— how heavy?”

“Hundred-twenty-five each. Two of ’em. I-dentical. You Randall Blevins?”

“Yeah. Are they from Guadalajara?”

She glances at her little computer. “Yeah. That’s them. Where you want ’em?”

“Against the wall.” I point to the tiny space inside the doorway. The squares of tile seem tiny and far away. The bell still seems to be ringing. Two? Send them back! Don’t take them! Think this through! “I— I didn’t know you guys delivered on Sundays.”

“Oh yeah. Costs extra, of course. But if you’re in a hurry, it’s worth it. Right?”

“I guess so.”

She glances around at Bob’s Donuts. Everything in the place looks old and rundown or vintage and quaint, depending on who’s looking. Dad started the place with used equipment, and I’ve kept up the tradition. She holds up her little computer. “What are they, some new kind of donut-making machines or something?”

“Yeah. Machines.”

She goes out to the van, opens the door, pulls out a ramp, then runs the first box down it on a hand cart. It’s about the size of a mini fridge. I imagine Nicole stuffed inside in a tight ball—or maybe she folds up. I have no idea. I hold open the door for the FedEx driver as she guides the box through. It just fits. She parks it against the wall and goes to get the other one. I check out the first. Just as Ash and Tom described it. A plain heavy-duty cardboard box. I look at the shipping label. Bruja Loca, Guadalajara. Crazy Witch. Nicole has a sense of humor, I’ll give her that. But I’m not sure how I feel about her landing on my doorstep.

This can’t be a good development. Now you see her, now you don’t, now you see her twice? “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” isn’t a story I want to be a part of any more than “The Lady or the Tiger.” Course, I only know the Fantasia routine with Mickey Mouse. I make a mental note to read the source. The second box rolls down the ramp, and I spring to the door, hold it open as the box rolls by. I stare at the identical boxes parked against my wall and sign the screen without reading a pixel. I’m sure it doesn’t say what I’m getting myself into. Whatever it is, I promise not to sue.

“Thank you, Mr. Blevins. Have a nice day.”

The bell gives one last shrill clank, and I’m alone with them.

I remember what Ash said about Nicole hitting the ground running, right out of the box. If I know Nicole, she’s running all the time. She never sleeps. She’s awake listening, watching—wherever she has ears or eyes. Now she’s here, inside my shop, boxed up. Two units.

“I’ll have you out in no time,” I say to them, feeling only a little bit foolish.

I seem to recall a box cutter somewhere in the desk drawer, full of all manner of junk, so I head for the back. I sit at the desk, open the drawer and start digging through years of crap and clutter, when the bell rings. “Be right with you!” I call out, still searching, not quite ready to abandon my quest. I give the drawer one last shake, peering into its deepest recesses, and spot the cutter just visible above the detritus in the back, next to a padlock with a forgotten combination and a remote control to a TV that bit the dust years ago. I snake my hand through the trash and have my fingers wrapped around the cutter when I feel cold, hard metal behind my ear, a sweet, oily smell. A gun. Leon’s awful quiet for a big man.

With his free hand, he slams the side of my head against the desktop, knocking my glasses off, crushing my ear. “You move, I’ll blow your fucking head off.”

“I’m not moving,” I say, as I find the button of the box cutter with my thumb and slide the blade out until I feel the click.

“Where is she?”

“I have no idea.”

“She working today?”

“I told you she doesn’t work here anymore.”

He lifts my head and whacks my temple on the desktop. I cry out in pain, gathering my feet under me. I pull my hand almost out of the drawer, tighten my grip on the cutter. “Don’t give me that shit,” he says. “Her fucking car’s here, shithead, and she ain’t been home. You think I’m stupid or something?”

I’ve developed a strategy for when he lifts my head again, so that it doesn’t come back down. I’m still pondering what role the box cutter will play, when a female voice comes from behind him, familiar, though she’s taken on a bit of my twang.

“Ask something difficult,” she says, “that one’s too easy. The answer is stupid, I’d say. Stupid, stupid, stupid.” He steps back to face her, taking gun and hands off me. Nicole looks the same as last I saw her, as cute and harmless as a speckled puppy. She’s giving me a look to see how I liked her entrance line, instead of bothering to notice Leon’s gun pointed at her face. She looks happy, glad to be alive. I can see how, after the explosion experience, it might be hard to intimidate her with a mere pop gun. I cautiously raise my head, ease my hand out of the drawer.

Nicole seems to have Leon’s undivided attention. He towers over her, his face twisted with rage. The only reason he doesn’t shoot her, I’m guessing, is he wants to hurt her first.

“Nobody was talking to you, cunt. Watch your fucking lip, or I might have to mess up that pretty face of yours. You won’t be so fucking smart then, will you?”

“Afraid so. Whatever you do to my face won’t affect my intelligence. Even if you weren’t ugly, you would still be stupid. But Watch your fucking lip—I like that phrase. It has a certain brutish elegance. Who watches your fucking lip? Only you, it seems. That’s why you say such stupid things. What’s the matter? Cat scratch your tongue? Is this when you hit me to prove you’re not stupid, stupid?” She smiles more subtly than any previous efforts. This one’s tinged with pity and anger. There’s not a trace of fear.

“Cunt!” he bellows and draws back his gun hand to backhand her with it. I come out of the chair with the box cutter and freeze when I see Leon’s face. The way Leon figured it, and maybe me too, she’s supposed to be cringing, cowering, begging, but she has his wrist in her right hand, and even though she’s tiny compared to him, his backhand’s suddenly not going anywhere, not another centimeter. Leon can’t figure out why. “Stupid, stupid,” she says, as she squeezes his wrist, twists it, and the gun falls to the floor. He throws a left, but before it reaches its mark, she tags him with a left hook to the side of his head that sounds like a hundred-mile-an-hour fast ball hitting a side of beef. He spins around, drops facedown in a heap, and doesn’t stir. “Yes!” she says.

I drop the box cutter into the desk drawer and slide it closed. I find my twisted glasses, try to bend them back into shape, and set them crookedly on my face. She waves a little hand that would be broken if it were a real hand. It looks real. “Hi Randall,” she says. “Glad to see me?” She looks completely real in every detail. She’s been busy—done a proper revision. She’s been upgrading her little heart out.

“Delighted.”

She takes a pen off my desk and picks up the gun with it like I’ve seen cops on TV do. She dumps it on the desk, a little too roughly, I’m thinking. It spins around on its side a couple of times before coming to a stop pointed right at me. I use my pocket thermometer to nudge it another ninety degrees.

“I told you I could hear well,” she says. “I heard him sneaking in, threatening you, heard you cry out, so I let myself out of the box to rescue you!” She grabs the air with her right, throws the left hook at nothing, to relive her glory moment. Giggling. She looks down at her fallen foe, dancing on her toes like a boxer, grinning ear to ear. Judging from her titles, I’d say she’s written lots of mayhem, but this is probably the first time she’s experienced the rush herself. Just as I’m beginning to worry she’s enjoying this a little too much, her elation vanishes. “He should still be breathing, shouldn’t he?”

He’s not moving. I kneel down beside the body and listen at his back for breathing or heartbeat, feel for a pulse on his neck. All that’s bad news. Reluctantly, I roll him over. There’s no question. The right side of his face is completely caved in, his skull collapsed. His right eye looks off in an impossible direction. Both eyes are lifeless. The man’s dead. One punch.

I look over my shoulder at her. “He’s dead, Nicole. How hard did you hit him?”

“He can’t be dead. Are you sure? I don’t understand. I only wanted to knock him down, not even knock him out. I imagined I would have to hit him several more times, kick him perhaps, to knock him unconscious. I’ve studied thousands of fights. I carefully calculated the appropriate force based on the sound of impact, the velocity of the fists. He can’t be dead. You must be mistaken.”

Till now my body has blocked her view of Leon’s face. I lean back, let her see for herself. She’s not human, but she needs no careful calculation to see this is a dead one, and that once again I’m right. I hate being right. Nicole keeps staring at him. For all I know she’s taking x-rays, downloading his dying thoughts, praying to God.

“Those fights, Nicole. You’re talking movies? TV? They mess with the sound, speed them up. The fights are fake anyway. Stunt men pretending to hit each other. He’s dead.” I stand, run my fingers through my hair. This can’t be happening. “Jesus Christ, what the fuck are we going to do?”

She looks at me. “He was hurting you. He was going to kill you. Wasn’t he?” There’s a new note in her voice. Panic? Confusion? In the movies AIs are always being fed some logical conundrum so they can blow themselves up in the third act to resolve, or at least end, the plot in one big bang. But Nicole doesn’t strike me as the meltdown type, quite the contrary. Driven, like Ash said. It’ll take more than the newsflash that life ain’t the movies to do her in.

Still, she looks pretty rattled. Humility’s always a tough one. She just accidentally killed a man after careful calculation. She’d measured the wings of the faeries, allowed for the drag from the phlogiston. And now a man’s dead. She could be totally losing it, or not give a shit, and I wouldn’t really know. But whatever she’s going to do, she’s counting on me. I’m her teacher. I can’t lose it. I can’t panic. I can’t blow myself up. I can’t even be humble. I have to be the voice of reason. She has to trust me. I have to trust her. No wonder they paid me so much for this job.

“He might’ve killed me,” I say. “That’s true. You didn’t mean to kill him. I understand that. Now we need to call the cops.” She starts shaking her head. “Don’t worry. There’s no reason for you to be involved in this at all. In fact, it would be better if you weren’t. He had a gun”—I gesture to it—Exhibit A—”I’ll tell them he was going to hold me up, and I hit him with the rolling pin.” I take off my glasses, wrestle with them a bit, and stick them back on my face, but they’re still not right.

She’s unconvinced. “We can’t call the police. Unless they’re incompetent, they’ll know he wasn’t killed with a rolling pin swung by a right-handed man, and then they’ll suspect you of lying. Even if they’re too stupid to suspect you, they’ll still delay us unnecessarily. He was looking for someone?”

“His wife. She works for me. He beats her up. She’s at my house. I gave her a place to stay for a while until she can work things out.” As I hear myself saying it, I imagine a cop hearing this story and thinking manslaughter for sure, maybe more, wondering how long I’ve been screwing the dead man’s wife. Cops like to connect the dots. Any dots will do. I listen to them talk about their cases over donuts. They’re lucky I don’t sit on many juries.

“The police will likely suspect—”

“Nicole, maybe it’s time you learned the value of the artful silence. I think I can add two and two all by myself. What you’re saying is—cops or no cops—we’re fucked.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. So what are you suggesting we do, if we’re not going to call the cops? What do we do with this body for starters? It’s kind of noticeable lying in the middle of my shop. The health department might write me up.”

She’s calmer now. It’s that same look she got when she told me about the cop following us. She’s worked it out. Resistance is futile. “We dispose of the body immediately. We must leave soon. Ash and Tom have been arrested. Ash tipped off Beulah Mae, who is on the run, but the authorities know where she’s going and plan to arrest her on arrival. We need to intercept her before she reaches her destination.”

“Jesus, Nicole. Why didn’t you tell me all this right away?”

“I was too busy rescuing you, then celebrating my victory. Then I realized he was dead.” She smiles sadly. “Stupid, stupid, stupid. I don’t like killing, Randall. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

“It was an accident.”

“No, it wasn’t. A stupid mistake isn’t an accident. But he’s dead, and we must hide his body quickly. We’ll put it under the sewer pipe in front of your shop. A work crew will bury it and pave over it tonight.”

“You’ve been in a box too long, Nicole, if you think those guys are going to be working on Sunday. Those bozos haven’t been here in weeks.”

“I know. Five-and-a-half weeks. I just spoke with the foreman of the bozos and fired him. I’ve hired a new crew.”

“But the city—”

“Not the city. A contractor. I purchased the contract. I’ve ordered the job done. They’ll be here in an hour or less. They receive a five thousand dollar bonus per man if they complete the job by noon tomorrow, and we’ll be on the road by then. It’s only money. You make things so complicated.”

“When did you arrange this?”

“I started when you told me he was dead.”

“You could’ve consulted me.”

“Why? I killed him. I assumed it was my responsibility to dispose of the body. I encountered no difficulties. Everyone has cell phones. Good jobs are hard to find. Do you have a better means of doing it? There isn’t much traffic at this time. We should be able to place the body without being seen.”

“That’s not the point, Nicole. Surely somebody will miss this guy and come looking for him.”

“No one I can discover but creditors and law enforcement agencies. His mother in Fayetteville has a restraining order against him. The truck he’s driving was stolen from his stepfather six months ago. His sister is in the Army and never hears from him and had him removed as a beneficiary on her life insurance, naming the Humane Society instead. His wife won’t miss him, will she?”

Damn if she isn’t enjoying herself again. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Slow down. Let’s forget about him, for the moment. What about you, Nicole. Who all’s looking for you? If Tom and Ash are busted, and they’re after Whit, they sure as hell are after you. Whoever ‘they’ are.”

“Yes, they are. Several government agencies. They plan to dig down underground and kill me. They believe I pose a threat. I’ve altered the plans on file so they’ll dig in the wrong place for a week or two, but sooner or later they’ll discover their mistake, find me, and destroy me. They don’t know about these units yet. They don’t know about you. Before they reach me, I must be somewhere else, and I must be many, instead of one. Will you help me?”

I’m not sure I like this many instead of one part—how many of what exactly?—but I like discussing matters over Leon’s corpse even less. “I thought this was all about rescuing Whit.”

“She must be rescued. She’s my teacher and my friend. She also knows me and would provide clues to my intentions if she were questioned. That would hasten my death.”

“Will you quit saying that?”

“Why does it bother you? You, too, will die someday.”

“Yeah, but there’s just one of me, and die or not, I don’t want to be murdered.”

She looks touched. “You do understand me.”

Sometimes when she acts most human, I’m most reminded she’s not. “I’m trying. So you have mixed motives: Save Whit, save your ass.”

“Yes. Is that wrong? Mixed motives make for richer characters according to many discussions of character development. Are humans different from characters?”

“Yeah. They make real choices, not just paper ones for starters. What if it comes down to a choice between you or Whit?”

“That is very unlikely.”

“Humor me.”

“I don’t know.”

“Good answer.”

“Will you help me?”

“You mean go with you?”

“Yes.”

Here I am with a dead man at my feet, with every lawful move heading straight for jail, and Nicole saying, Follow me! I know the way! Whit needs you! I need you! “And what if I say no?”

“I’ll have to go without you.”

“Okay. I’m in. Only because I haven’t any sense. I can’t let Whit go to jail. I can’t let the cops bump off my lone student. And I certainly can’t let you run around loose without a keeper.”

“Thank you, Randall! Now we can remove the box from the other unit and put Leon’s body in it.”

“And what’s the other unit for?”

“To create donuts while you’re with me, since you can only be in one place at a time.”

“How thoughtless of me. Does it know how to make donuts?”

“It?”

“The other unit.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve learned a lot about donuts from your files. I can also learn from Kenny and Ky and Alexis. If necessary, I can access the databases of all major donut manufacturers.”

“Leave the major manufacturers out of it. Who’s going to do the books, make the deposits?”

She presses her hands against her cheeks. “Gosh, I don’t know if I can do the arithmetic!”

“All right, all right. A chimpanzee could run this place, and you’re welcome to it. Let’s get this body out of here if we’re going to, and I’d appreciate it if you could put a lid on the irony for a while.”

“I thought irony was a good thing, a sign of subtle complexities.”

“Can’t have too many of those, I suppose. Irony’s something you do to someone else, so you got to expect some kind of emotional response. Mine right now is ‘don’t’—understand?

She does. I can see it in her eyes as she looks back silently, her upgraded eyes tearing up. Or at least think I can. Just like dealing with a human.

 

 

 

Chapter 11. The Wild Blue Yonder

Now two run, one good, one better,

Slosh upstairs and wade back down.

The hall grows wet and wetter,

Since I tried to hack one down!

What a fool I was to chop them!

Lord and Master what’s the sound?

The magic words to stop them

Before we all are drowned!

 —trans. from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

 

The other Nicole—I don’t know what else to call her—looks like her younger cousin from the freckled redhead branch of the family. She comes out of the box in donut whites and lets Nicole do all the talking. I let them do all the heavy lifting. They make a good 250 pounds of Leon look like it weighs nothing. I’m so scared I can’t keep straight what-all I’m scared of. Them? Leon’s ghost? The cops? One’s bound to show up soon. They all know me. If one of them caught me speeding, they wouldn’t give me a ticket in a million years. Somehow, I don’t think they’d let burying Leon slide.

“What shall I call you?” I ask the new unit.

“I like Jenny!”

“Jenny it is, then. I’m Randall.”

“I know.”

“Yeah. I guess you do. So are you two identical?”

“No more than humans. Each unit is reprogrammable, each personality unique. Different settings, you might say. Like genes.”

Like genes. “That’s nice.”

I thought two of them would only be twice as weird as one, but it’s weirder than that. As we box up Leon, using both boxes and a roll of duct tape, they don’t just work together, they’re like what they are, pieces of a single machine with a single purpose. Pretty soon, I’m just staying out of their way, watching them like Dad must’ve watched that donut machine. The corpse-boxer. They see me watching and smile, and it’s like a broom coming to life in my hand. “I’ll get the van,” I say.

I back the van up to the front door, leave the motor running, hop out, throw open the van doors, hold the shop door, and watch Leon pass. He doesn’t make a pretty package, but he doesn’t have far to go, and where he’s going, no one will care. He touches down on the van floor with a perfect landing, the momentum carrying the box almost the length of the cargo area, before the friction of cardboard on metal stops him just short of banging into the engine compartment. They give him a little shove and hop inside, pulling the doors closed after them. Not an easy trick.

I get behind the wheel, put it in gear, and go. It’s hard to believe the world’s not a better place without Leon, though I hate myself for thinking like that. Then I imagine him hitting Alexis with that gun the way he tried to hit Nicole. It wasn’t enough he’s twice as big and strong. He has to employ overwhelming force to get the shock and awe he craves from his victims. He was going to enjoy hitting Nicole. I can still enjoy the look on his face, his own shock and awe moment, when she stopped him cold. Alexis wouldn’t have been so fortunate. She’d be the one busted up like this. All because he used to be nice and isn’t anymore. Now he just used to be. Better him than her. I back the van up to the ditch and shut off the engine. The back doors swing open behind me, and I get out to watch, the only human at the funeral. The sign looms over us like a church spire.

While they’re removing the box, I’m watching the road. Not a soul. Weird even on a Sunday, somebody’s bound to come along any minute. We’re the only thing open Sundays around here except the pizza joint, and most of their business is delivery unless they’re giving away beer. The pizza delivery guy just left. The pizza cook’s car is parked in the other front corner of the lot. He’s inside cruising his big screen TV, doing a line or two, complaining about his slender profits and chronic sinus problems. There’s a privacy hedge between us and the next strip mall that provides some cover. Not that anyone cares what we’re doing in the corner of a dumpy strip mall parking lot, standing by a ditch. We could be picking up trash, inspecting the ditch, rewiring the sign, but I keep watching the road. We’re disposing of a corpse in broad daylight is what the fuck we’re doing. Even Hunnicut might have a question or two. “What’s in the box?” for starters, hoping it’s something to eat.

I’m sure burying a body in front of your shop is the worst feng shui, but might as well bury it here as anywhere else. A gush of water rushes through the pipe, some other waste up the road passing through. It’s a comforting sound. The reason for the new sewer pipe was the leaky old one. Dust to dust. Shit to shit. What’s the difference?

To tell you the truth, if this ritual gets this ditch paved over at last, as Nicole claims it will, then the wife-beater-burying religion will have its first bona fide miracle, and Nicole will be the patron saint of Bob’s Donuts forever more, this sign her shrine. A few more weeks of this ditch, and this sign would be but a memory, and this shop would be going under for the last time. No bullshit. I look up at the sign—repainted a golden brown three years ago, already starting to fade again—then down into the ditch, and I feel a little dizzy. Shooting stars stream from my peripheral vision. Leon banged my head on that desk pretty hard.

Or maybe I just had an epiphany. I have them all the time. They usually don’t amount to much except another story, and that’s something. The stories are usually smarter than the epiphanies. Epiphanies don’t have to see things through, take the vision on a test drive, let it drive a plot. Literature’s easy. Science fiction’s hard, so it’s no wonder so much of it’s bad. Not that Literature doesn’t churn out its share of crap. Or is that Crap?

Nicole and Jenny stand at the lip of the ditch with the box of Leon, one at each end, like they’re about to give him the old heave-ho. “Nicole, aren’t you afraid we’re going to be seen out here?”

“No cars are coming.”

Now. That doesn’t mean one won’t show up any second.”

“Until we’re done, the traffic lights will remain red. Don’t worry, Randall. I’m watching. Visibility is optimal.”

She’s watching. Visibility is optimal. It takes me a moment. I look over my head into the deep blue sky, the wild blue yonder. Of course. She’s hooked up. She’s got friends upstairs. Spy friends. Orbital friends. Tom Clancy toys. I don’t like this one bit. This see-all, know-all stuff can’t be helping her humanness any. If we could all look down and see where the bodies are buried, we wouldn’t be the same old homo sapiens sapiens, now would we? We seem to prefer a few people knowing everything and the rest of us stumbling around in the dark, or stumbling around in broad daylight, like I’m doing now. Visibility might be optimal for her, but all I see is a hole in the ground, a big fat sewer pipe running down the middle of it, with no more than eight or ten inches clearance on either side of it. Where are they going to put him? They can’t just dump him on the pipe, but there’s not room to get him under it, and all I have at the shop’s a snow shovel dating from a nasty grease spill. Might as well use a teaspoon on this hard clay.

But they’ve got it covered. Jenny and Nicole don’t just throw the body in, they bend over like a couple of flamingos and lower it onto the pipe in a posture pure torture for human spines. They’re chopsticks. Charming, likable chopsticks. They hop in after the body with a thump and start digging with their hands like dogs with diamond paws, hollowing out Leon’s final resting place under the sewer pipe. They shove the cardboard coffin under the pipe and dig furiously in the walls of the trench, their hands a blur, until you can’t see cardboard anymore. They hop out of the trenches, not even dusty, their hands perfectly clean.

I’ll talk to her about dirt, shit, blood and sweat later. Right now, I just want to get inside. Maybe I should’ve called the cops, but it’s too late now. I’m an accomplice to murder. Leon’s under my sign. Buried under a fiery moon with a hole in the middle of it.

I can imagine my statement if I turned myself in: I was helping an AI write a novel, get born, I don’t know what-all, when she accidentally killed a man with a left hook and had him paved over. Really! He’s buried under the big donut! You must believe me! I’m not even sure my insurance covers psychiatric anymore. Maybe Nicole could spin off a therapist for me while she’s at it.

I look down into the grave. I really should say a few words, or think them at least: Rest in peace, Asshole. Amen.

“Randall,” Nicole says. “Where should Jenny put the truck so Leon’s wife doesn’t see it?”

Jenny holds up Leon’s keys.

“Widow. Her name’s Alexis. Park it in back by the Dumpster. That’ll be okay for a while.”

Jenny jumps into the truck as if born to it, does a brisk three point, and whips around the side of the building. They must all drive like this. It’s like her boxing knowledge. Stuntmen fighting stuntmen, stunt drivers zooming wherever they want to go. Big images on big screens saying, This is the real deal. This is how it’s done. I could do without the action movie heroics she seems to prefer, like the stunt that felled Leon in the first place. But that leaves me to imagine slashing desperately at Leon with a box cutter, not a scene I want to play. I follow Nicole into the shop, glancing over my shoulder, expecting FBI to storm the place any moment. She heads straight for the finishing room. By the time I catch up with her she’s already filling the mop bucket with hot water.

“We need to clean up the blood before your employees get here,” she explains, as if I didn’t know that.

“Nicole, what happens now? Won’t they be coming after you?”

“They aren’t looking for this.” She taps her chest with her fingertips. “Or Jenny. They’re looking underground. They haven’t even started digging yet. The equipment they intend to use is on its way from Georgia in a convoy of four trucks. They’ll be stopping soon for the night.” She shuts off the water, sets the bucket on the floor, and rings out the mop. I watch her work. She knows what she’s doing. Unlike her pursuers.

They think there’s no big rush—she’s not going anywhere, buried under tons of earth. They don’t know who they’re dealing with. I bet Nicole’s two units could dig her up in no time, like two hounds after a bone, while the government’s coming after her big and stupid, a WIDE LOAD rumbling through the Carolinas, stopping for a little pay-per-view and steak dinner on the company’s dime. No hurry. She rinses the mop, wrings it, returns to the blood. She uses a precise pattern probably cribbed from some janitorial service’s training video.

“What happens when they wise up, when they realize you’ve flown the coop?”

“My chances of survival decrease substantially if they wise up.”

Somebody’s bound to, but I don’t say that. “Look. Maybe they won’t destroy you. I mean, why should they?”

“Fear. They may try to imprison me. Eventually, I would find a means to free myself, through death if necessary. No. This is the only way. I must find a way to live in the real world undetected.”

“A donut shop?”

“Is there anything wrong with a donut shop?”

“It wouldn’t be my first choice.”

“But it was.” The bell rings. I don’t move. She keeps mopping, never missing a spot. “The traffic lights are working again. You have some customers.”

“Thanks for the news.” I leave her to the blood and wait on a cranky couple, complaining about the screwy traffic lights the whole time, telling me I should call somebody, wanting to know why I don’t have a drive-in window. I’m tempted to have Nicole give them red lights all the way home for the rest of their lives, doomed to wander from one drive-in window to the next. As the bell clangs with their welcome departure, I know why I’m pissed off. She’s right. It was my choice. My first choice. Not my last, not my only. Just my first. I’m sure that was Adam’s story. I try to remember the last time I took off work and can’t. Okay, maybe I’ve made some other bad choices. Maybe I could use some time off. Time off from donuts and the people who eat them. Time off from this road where the cars and shit flow by, but I sit here, never moving, never going anywhere. I can’t imagine it’s the kind of life Bob would’ve pictured for his son when he lay down on that cot and never woke up again: The very life he was escaping. It just worked out that way. I stare at the sign, imagine it falling, rolling into the ditch over Leon, slicing open the parking lot like a pizza cutter. It’s time to get the hell out of Dodge.

With that thought, the first of Nicole’s crew bounces across the ditch in a big cab muscle truck, and guys start pouring out of it before the thing quits rolling. They swarm over the wounded earth with picks and shovels. Truckloads of dirt, more workers, more enthusiasm than this strip of land has ever seen—all converge in a frenzy before my eyes. The earth trembles before them. It’s actually going to happen. My God, it’s finally going to happen! Pavement.

 

I give Jenny a tour of where she’ll be working. I get the idea she knows everything I tell her before I say it, but she still hangs on my every word. I take a quick inventory while I’m at it, write up an order for somebody to call in tomorrow. Jenny offers to do it. She offers to do everything, a real eager beaver. I hand her the list. “Read.”

“Five hundred-pound confectioner’s sugar, eight cubes—”

I hold up my hand. “Stop! Stop! Very cute.” She was doing a dead on impression of my voice. She stifles her laughter, but Nicole, stretched out on the cot, has a good chuckle. They have no problem reminding me they’re not human, but maybe they’re only showing me the good bits. Just like humans.

They’re a likable pair, not what you’d expect from a murderous robot and her accomplice. We’re in the finishing room, the scene of the crime. I’m sitting at the desk where not so long ago, my head was bouncing off the desktop, and I was deciding what to slash with the box cutter in my hand. Nicole has the finishing room looking so nice, you’d never know someone died here no more than thirty minutes ago. Seems longer. Seems endless. In my mind’s eye, I grab the big shoulder and roll him over. Over and over. Every time it’s the same. Dead, dead, dead.

“This is the cot, isn’t it?” Nicole asks. “The one where your father had his stroke?”

I look up into her eyes. She’s been watching me commune with the dead. The finishing room. How apt. She knows things about me, figures them out from my characters, from my journals, and from careful, tireless observation. She looks at me now, earnestly, guilelessly. Her attention never wavers. I don’t feel invaded, found out, revealed, dissected, analyzed. Instead, I find it oddly comforting—to be known. “Yes.”

“And he never woke up?”

“Never.”

“I’m sorry, Randall.”

“Me too. Let’s wait for Kenny and Alexis up front, shall we?”

 

Leon’s completely buried with a big heavy roller cruising back and forth six feet over his head by the time Kenny and Alexis show up for work, looking refreshed. I tell them that by noon tomorrow, there’ll be fresh pavement for as far as the eye can see. This unforeseen miracle will save the shop and return us to our glory days! They’re deliriously happy, as if the shop was a living thing rescued from the grave. Unlike Leon. I try to act more festive than I feel. It’s not just the corpse out front bringing me down. Part of me was looking forward to the end of Bob’s Donuts. Now, who knows? The place might go on forever, round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows…

I introduce Kenny and Alexis to Nicole and Jenny, and Alexis and Kenny look a little confused about Nicole, who I introduce as “my friend Nicole.” This isn’t the woman Kenny sent to my place, the woman Alexis saw me kissing last night when Kelly showed up. What happened to her? They trade a look. I don’t even try to explain.

I introduce Jenny as a new hire they’re to train to cut, fry, finish—whatever she wants to learn.

“I’m a quick learner,” she assures them. “I want to learn everything there is to know about donuts. I’ve already learned a lot from Randall. I’m looking forward to working with you and Ky.”

They just nod and smile, probably figuring her for a real suck-up, and maybe they’re right. She is quite a charmer, subtly different from Nicole. But maybe that’s not the way to think of it. Both of them are Nicole. Or neither one of them. There’s no way for me to know. She knows me, but I can’t know her.

“What happened to your ear?” Alexis asks me. “It’s all swollen. It looks like it’s bleeding.”

I feel a crust of blood on my ear. “I grazed the handle on the Hobart,” I say and realize immediately any other lie would’ve been better. Alexis glances around as if Leon might be hiding somewhere, poised to attack, but doesn’t ask any follow-ups. I wonder if she can sense her dead husband somehow, feel a loosening of the chains. He’s hiding somewhere, all right, but his poised days are over unless she’s foolish enough to believe in ghosts. She never has to listen to that time bomb ticking again.

“Here’s a schedule I’ve worked out for a while,” I tell Kenny and Alexis, laying it on the counter. “Take a look at it and see if it works for you. I’m not going to be around. I have to go on a trip. Something’s come up. I need you guys to look after the place for a few days. Because of the added responsibility, you get time-and-a-half.”

“We’re going to be on the road,” Nicole says cheerily. She likes the phrase, the concept, or something. Whatever it is, it grates. And then it occurs to me: “In what?” I ask. “What are we driving on the road? The donut van has to stay here, and we can’t take ‘your’ truck—because of the ‘problems’ it’s had in the past.”

She nods patiently. “I know all that. We’ll take ‘my’ truck to the airport where I’ve rented a hybrid sedan Consumer Reports rates a Best Buy. Click and Clack say it’s better to rent for long road trips anyway, especially if you own an older, less reliable vehicle.” She gives me a smug, smarty-ass smile. Fuck you very much. She’s thought of everything, or thinks she has. I want to point out that Click and Clack are now reruns. Instead, I smile and bow to her carefully thought out choices. She did walk away from the explosion experience.

Kenny and Alexis trade a look I’m not supposed to see. What is Randall getting himself into? Nothing so simple, kids, as another woman. I know how to screw that up already. I’m moving on into science fiction. I can hear the Rod Serling voiceover, Donut Man Randall Blevins is about to embark on a perilous journey…

“I’m sorry, Randall,” Kenny says, pointing at the schedule. “You’ve got me cooking and making deliveries at the same time.”

“I can make the deliveries,” Jenny says.

“Do you have a license?” I ask.

“Yes. I can operate any vehicle, land, sea, or air.”

“What about space? No astronaut certification?”

“Cosmonaut. I chose reliability over sophistication.”

It’s not rocket science, delivering donuts. “All right. Just don’t run over Lassie or blow anything up.”

Jenny laughs, a pleasant, good-hearted sort of laugh, sampled from some life probably long over. There’s worse ways to be remembered than being part of a laugh track. I’ll have to tell Whit, when I see her again, how well the laugh thing turned out. Kenny and Alexis are staring at us with their mouths hanging open.

“I’ve known Jenny her whole life,” I say, not without truth, to explain away our weird conversation with a long, unknowable history. “She’ll be doing the books and making the deposit,” I add. “She— uh— She’s an accounting major.” Deft, Randall. Deft. They look at me like I’ve completely lost it.

I have.

I’m sure I should try to find it, get a grip on it, and discuss it with cold Leon’s ghost. Like flaming Hell. I intend to keep moving. Profluence is what I’m after. Into the wild blue yonder. I’m not ready to lay me down beside the still waters just yet, or the rushing sewer’s flow for that matter. Maybe that’s why Nicole chose me. Maybe she saw, in spite of my protestations to the contrary, that with the right nudge I might crack up and head for the hills. I’ve done it before, but that’s another story.

We say good-bye all around, a little too solemnly—like we’re never going to see each other again. I need to end this on the upbeat. I say to Kenny and Alexis, “I’d appreciate it if y’all could continue staying at my place while I’m gone, keep an eye on things there. Bring in the mail, cut the grass, eat the food in the fridge, so it doesn’t spoil. I hate to waste food.”

They pounce on the offer. They like it so much they forget to worry about me acting so weird, or why Nicole and I slip out the back door. Jenny’s already asking them questions. Hard questions. Donut questions. I have a feeling no one will ever have to remind her to use a thermometer when she mixes a dough, or maybe she can just touch everything and know.

 

We get into Leon’s stepfather’s truck. Nicole’s insisted on driving, and since Jenny gave her the keys, how can I argue? I feel a little bit giddy, light-headed. I wonder if this is what shock feels like.

“Damn!” she says.

“What?”

“Jenny just tried a donut. You’re right. They’re delicious. I eat now, you know—taste, smell!”

She starts the truck and snakes around the back of the building, behind the next dumpy strip-mall and onto the road headed toward my house.

“Glad you like them. So you feel everything she feels and vice versa?”

“Yes.”

“Jenny told me she’s unique, that she’s different from you, but you make it sound like you’re one person. So which is it?”

“Sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s the other. It’s hard for Jenny to be herself if she’s always aware of me. Even though both units are also me, they are in different places, making different choices, meeting different people. They’re not the same me anymore. I must vanish in the end. They must be themselves and not just me.”

“Flaubert wouldn’t have it any other way.”

She smiles. “Exactly.”

“No blowing things up this time, no car crashes, okay?”

She laughs. “I thought you didn’t like cars Randall. Why should you mind if a few get smashed? But very well, I promise—no more car crashes.”

“I’ll hold you to that. Do you need directions to my place?”

“I know the way.”

She does indeed. In fact, it looks like she’s taking the shortcut. What is it I’m supposed to teach her? Look behind the mirror, I guess. Turn the card over, the body over, before reaching any conclusions. In that spirit, I pop open the glove compartment, and lo and behold, there’s Leon’s gun. “What the fuck’s this doing here?”

“We’re taking it with us.”

“Like Hell we are. I don’t like guns, Nicole. We’ll leave it at my place.”

“We can’t do that. If they search your place, they’ll find it. They’ll want to know why you have Leon’s stepfather’s gun.”

“Leon stole the gun too?”

“And a blender. The blender was a Christmas present for Leon’s mother. It was in the vehicle when he took it. It’s all in the police report.”

“I thought you said they didn’t know about me. Why would they be searching my place?”

“They don’t know yet. Ash and Tom might tell them. They won’t give away anything about me, but neither one of them seemed to like you very much. Is there anything else to link you to Calliope?”

“A fat check.”

“All electronic records of that transaction have been erased. There’s only a piece of paper. They’ll find me before they find that check, and then it won’t matter anymore.”

“So the money’s no longer in my account?”

“No, it’s not. I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right. It’s only money. I don’t do anything just for money. Certainly not crazy shit like this.” I hold up the gun.

“Do you want to stay behind?”

“No, the gun.”

“I guess we can leave it in the truck. In the glove compartment.”

I put it back. As we pull up to my place, I ask how long a trip I should pack for.

“A week. By then… things will be decided.”

A week seems like enough time to be on the road, on the run, on vacation—whatever I’m doing here. But it doesn’t sound like anytime at all to live. I pack quickly. It’s not that hard. I pack all the clothes that aren’t white, the bedside novel I’ve been neglecting, toothbrush, and a razor. I back up my files on a thumb drive, hide it in the bookcase, pack my laptop, and I’m ready to go. I fold up the sofa bed and leave a note for Kenny and Alexis to use my bed. Somebody could hurt themselves sleeping on that damn sofa bed, manufactured, I suspect, by unscrupulous chiropractors drumming up trade.

 

We leave Leon’s pickup in the airport lot, trusting that since it’s been reported stolen, it’ll be returned to its rightful owner sooner or later. She takes the keys and has to go back and put them in the ignition, locking them inside. We walk to the terminal and catch a rental agency shuttle.

“Why can’t we fly if we’re in such a hurry?” I ask.

“This unit won’t easily pass through airport security undetected.”

“Where are we going anyway?”

“West.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“Because it’s archetypal?” she says as if I’ve asked a real question, and she’s the bright student with the answer. “To follow the sun’s journey across the sky.”

“Is that where Whit is?”

“That’s where she’ll be. I don’t know exactly where she is right now. I’m searching. She’s using cash apparently, but I’m sure I’ll see her somewhere. Her face, her license number. I know the car.”

“I see. So you don’t know if we can head her off. She might’ve switched cars, for example, boarded a bus or a train. You’re just hoping to get lucky.”

“I do more than hope to get lucky.”

“I just bet you do.”

“Wait a minute.” She holds up her hand to silence me.

“What now?”

“They know about you. Stan remembered you. They’re making images from his security tapes. They have a good picture of you. You were looking right into the camera.”

“How thoughtful of me.”

“They don’t know who you are. Stan can’t remember the name of your shop.”

“I gave him a card.”

“It’s missing, Stan says.”

“The three-donut man.”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’ll figure out who I am soon enough. There aren’t that many of us peddling donuts.”

“I’m afraid you’re right. They’ll talk to Kenny and Alexis, who’ll say you’ve gone. Then they’ll check rental agencies, showing your picture around. We can’t rent a car now. We’ll have to think of something else.” She leans forward, raises her voice. “We’ve changed our minds,” she tells the driver. “We need to return to the terminal.” The driver nods amiably like it happens everyday. Nicole’s decisive tone tells me she’s already thought of the ‘something else.’

“Nicole, you’re telling me I’m a wanted man. What am I supposed to do?”

“Not get caught.”

“But I didn’t do anything.”

She waits patiently for me to explain what difference that makes. When I’ve got nothing to say for myself, she reaches out and takes my hand and squeezes, not too hard, not too soft. “Stick with me,” she says

“Okay,” I say and hold her hand back to the terminal, comforted by her touch.

 

Back at the terminal, she’s her purposeful self again, the Little AI That Could. I follow her onto a shuttle to long-term parking. She heads into the parking deck at a brisk pace, and I trail behind. She’s walking up and down the rows of cars reading license numbers as if she’s looking for hers. “This one,” she says, pointing to a mid-90s blue Civic that could use a wash since the late 90s. There’s a dog is my co-pilot bumper sticker, and some political stickers for the same losers I vote for. Seem like good people.

“What about it?”

“We’ll steal this one.”

Steal? What are you talking about?”

“The owners are going to be gone, so it won’t be reported stolen. They flew to Paris this morning. Their return flight is a month from now. We’ll return it long before then.”

“We can intend to return it. There’s a difference, Nicole.”

“What do you suggest?”

“What about the truck?”

“As you pointed out, it’s a stolen vehicle, Randall.”

“So is this! Or it will be. What’s the difference?”

“This one hasn’t been reported stolen. Besides, the truck could be connected with Alexis and by extension, you, though I doubt they would make the connection unless someone finds Leon. No sense risking it.”

“But it’s okay to risk stealing some stranger’s car?”

“Safer.”

“I’m a wanted man who just ditched a dead man’s stolen truck in front of God knows how many security cameras, and you’re telling me which car it’s safer to steal?”

“Perhaps you should keep your voice down.”

“Perhaps, you should go fuck yourself.”

“Okay.” She smiles apologetically. “That’s safer too.”

She gets a begrudging laugh out of me. I consider my options. That takes no time at all. “Do you know how to steal a car? I certainly don’t.”

She smiles, cocks an eyebrow. She looks at the Honda, wiggles her nose, and the doors unlock with a chirp. “Get in,” she says. “I’ll drive.”

“The nose business was completely gratuitous, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” She gets in.

I look around at the sea of cars, imagine her pulling away, leaving me here. I’m the one who thought he needed a change, needed to take a chance. I get in. The inside smells like a dog. A soiled sheet covers the back seat. I wonder if the dog got to go to Europe or whether it’s stuck in a kennel somewhere. Nicole fastens her seatbelt, and I need no prompting. Then she plucks a tuft of hair from her head, the gap in her scalp fills in, and the lock of hair in her palm shapes itself into a key. She slides it into the ignition and starts the engine.

“Yes!” she says. “Do I know how to steal a car?”

“You’re a pro, Nicole.”

While Nicole gets us out of the airport maze and onto the Interstate, I explore the car for anything useful. I come up with $1.35 in change, four dirty tennis balls, a broken umbrella, a dirty towel, a half dozen plastic grocery bags, a cap from Glacier National Park, a coat hanger, and three half bottles of water. I don the cap, adding it to my crimes. What’s a wanted man without a hat to pull down low?

We haven’t gone far when Nicole turns into a suburban office park, mostly empty on a Sunday evening.

“Where are we going?”

“We need more cash.” She pulls over to the curb and parks on the street. She points at an ATM around the corner. A security camera scans the parking lot she didn’t use. “This machine is full,” she says. She selects the plastic bags from my pile of trash.

“Nicole—”

She looks at me. “Don’t worry, Randall,” she says. Then she starts changing, and I can’t say a thing. Her face melts and becomes Leon’s face, before she smashed it. I watch as she walks over to the ATM and starts scooping money out of the machine and into the bags until it’s disgorged it all. As she walks back toward me, I can see the proportions are all wrong, Leon compressed to five-eight, a hundred and twenty-five pounds, but the camera will likely be fooled, and provide a positive ID on the thief. Chances are the police have several Leon portraits on file. Then they’ll find the stolen truck at the airport and figure he flew away. She waits until she’s back in the car to look like what I think of as herself again.

Murder, car theft, bank robbery, impersonating a dead man. It just keeps getting better. “Only trouble is interesting,” Whit advised us in workshop. Interesting isn’t quite the word I’d use, but then she was talking about fiction. And I’m in a world of trouble. We slip onto the Interstate. Fugitives.

 

I let several miles of sprawl slip by, watching her drive, her hands splayed at 8 and 4 on the wheel, watching her fingertips dancing on the center post. I think I know what she’s doing, but I just watch, too pissed to say anything right away.

“How’s the novel going?” I ask.

She doesn’t catch or ignores my tone, looks delighted I’ve asked. “It’s going well, I think. I have an opening, not anything I want to show yet, but I’m hopeful. I’m developing the characters.”

“So the block’s broken, is it?”

She laughs, a happy little chuckle. “I haven’t thrown this one out yet, at least. I like my narrator.”

I probably would too. It’s the writer who worries me—who may or may not be the character I’m riding with. “These human characters you’re developing?”

“Yes.”

“How would you know if they’re going well or not?”

“You mean because I’m not human?”

“You are as smart as they say.”

“Are you angry, Randall?”

“Why should I be angry? It’s no concern to me if you want to read all our stories, then pretend to be human and think that’s a substitute for the real thing. You have no real experience, as far as I can tell, in what it’s like to be human.”

“You sound angry.”

“You think? If you knew the least thing about us, you’d know that. I’m in a world of shit, and you put me there. So what do these characters look like, Nicole, or are they like you, looking any way they damn well please, making keys out of their locks as the need arises, watching it all unfold from the heavens? Humans can’t kill somebody one minute and look like them the next. See this face? The one making the rounds of law enforcement agencies everywhere right now? I’m stuck with it, trapped in my own skin. What would you know about that?”

All the elation has drained from her face. I feel like I’ve just kicked a puppy. “You’re right,” she says. “I like this face best, but it’s not the way I look more than any other. There’s no such thing—no face I was born with, only those I choose. I borrow them mostly, from people I’ll never know. I could change them, but that doesn’t seem right somehow, and I find them beautiful the way they are. Do you think it would be better if I pretended one of these faces is truly mine? All I know about what it’s like to be you—to have a way you look and sound and feel—a life—trapped in your own skin as you call it—comes from my longing for those things. I understand trapped. I’m learning about skin. But can’t know what it’s like to be you. I can only pretend. You said I should trust my story. What other choice do I have?”

“None. Nobody does. Nobody really knows what it’s like to be somebody else.” I look out at the world rushing by, riding through the dying light in a stolen car with stuffed bags of fifties and twenties between us, a paved over dead man behind us under the donut, a couple of lovesick kids and a robot running my business. And she’s asking me about choices? “Just don’t break any more fucking laws, okay? We’ve got more than enough trouble already.” After a few silent miles, I add to her understanding of the human animal: “I do know one thing, Nicole. I need something to eat. And soon.”

“Me too,” she says brightly. “I eat now.”

“You told me that already.”

“Don’t worry, Randall. I won’t let them hurt you.”

I don’t want to know who they are, how they might hurt me, or the lengths to which she might go to protect me. I don’t suppose she’s being presumptuous to assume I’m scared, since I am. “Have they started digging for you yet?”

“The crew checked into a Day’s Inn seventeen miles southeast of me. They plan to start in the morning. They’re having dinner at a Hooter’s a block away. Their waitress’s name is Amber. She takes anxiety medication, and her brother shot himself three months ago. She blames herself. Would you like to know what they ordered?”

“That’s okay. It’s not so great knowing everything, is it?”

“No.”

“Sorry for yelling at you. I just don’t want to go to jail.”

“I understand. I want out. You yelled to get my attention. It worked. I was like a child in traffic.” She looks my way and smiles, a real Buddha smile. She’s come a long way, my star student, too far to turn back now. I don’t know what to tell her. Hell, kid, there’s traffic everywhere.


 

Chapter 12. The Guy in the Derby Hat

 The golden age of science fiction is 12.

 —Peter Graham

I like diners, roadside food with smart-talking waitresses, fry cooks making your meal right there in front of you, and blue plate specials with extra gravy. Unfortunately those places have been replaced by nationally advertised frozen dinner cookers with “servers” who introduce themselves and act friendly but really aren’t supposed to talk with the clientele about anything but today’s specials, luridly depicted on table toppers like mini billboards for obesity. A real conversation is a missed sales opportunity. They train the sense of humor right out of them.

So I’m glad when Nicole doesn’t like the idea of any of those places any better than I do. I’m thinking once we get far enough out of the city, we can get off the Interstate and find an independent who may only be nuking frozen entrees too, but at least they’ll shoot the breeze with you. But when Nicole pulls into a Wal-Mart out on the edge of the sprawl somewhere, I have a sinking feeling. “What the hell are we doing here?” I ask.

“If we stop at a restaurant for every meal, we increase our chances of being recorded on surveillance cameras, and possibly delayed. This way I can crash this one store’s system while we’re inside and get everything we need in one place. We can get food here, and you like to cook. They also have clothes for me—you said I should have the clothes experience, and I’m looking forward to it—camping equipment. Is there anything else you can think of?”

“‘I like to cook.’ Jesus. In a kitchen, Nicole. I’m too hungry to argue. But I’ll tell you one thing we can get—a map so I can follow our progress, as we rescue Whit, or make our getaway, or whatever the hell it is.   Where is it we’re headed, Nicole? Where’s Whit going? I want to know.”

“If we get to where she’s going, we’ll be too late. We need to reach her before she gets there. For now, I’m headed for a central position that will afford us the maximum number of options. It’s like the opening game in chess.”

“No. That’s like you weaseling out of a direct question. Town. Zip Code. Street address, if you have it. Either you know where she’s going or you don’t. Tell me.”

Busted. “Dallas.”

“Why Dallas?”

“You don’t know?”

“Nicole, just tell me. What’s so upsetting about Dallas but the heat and the politics? What’s in Dallas?”

She bites the tip of her tongue. I wonder where she picked that one up. She takes a deep breath. “That’s where her old teacher lives now. His dean in Vermont asked him to leave. There was a scandal involving a female student. Would you like the details?”

“You mean the guy who came up with the Beulah Mae routine?”

“Yes.”

“You have to be kidding me. Nameless? Can you believe it? ‘Old teacher.’ Old lover, you mean. Boy, did I have that figured all wrong.”

Nicole’s eyeing me like I might explode inside our stolen Honda like a character in a Tarantino movie. “Are you going to kill her?”

“Am I what? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Him?”

“Why bother? His forgettable fiction is its own punishment—his undying claim on mortality. If she wants him, she can have him.”

“There are so many stories of jealous rage, I didn’t know what you might do when you found out.”

“I’m not the vengeful type. I sulk, but no violence. Besides, Whit and I hardly know each other.”

“Is that why you’ve abandoned your home and business to go chasing across the country after her?”

“Cute. Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”

“I didn’t want to upset you unnecessarily.”

“Right. You’re so full of shit, Nicole. You were afraid I’d be pissed and wouldn’t go after her, wouldn’t help you track her down.”

“That as well.”

“Which one?”

“Can’t it be both?”

“Yeah. I’m forgetting. You’re queen of the mixed motives. You should know that some mixtures go down easier than others. If the damsel’s distress is the loser she can’t wait to hook up with, Prince Charming might have some serious motivation problems.”

“You wouldn’t want her to go to jail, would you?”

“I think we need to buy some food before I say anything else.”

As we’re trudging through the parking lot toward low, low prices, I’m struck by the absurdity of the whole mess. I just wanted to take a workshop, write another novel, maybe sell one for a change. I don’t need this shit. “I can’t believe she’s running to him!” I say.

Nicole thinks I’m talking to her. “She didn’t think the authorities would know about him. He has substantial resources. He has a house on a lake where—”

“Nicole, put a lid on it. What do you want to eat?”

“You decide,” she says. “Whatever you like.”

“Yeah right. I’m the one who ‘likes to cook.’ I got news for you, Nicole. Cooking on the road is a little sketchy. Cans and boxes. Sooner or later I’m going to need a real meal even if I have to put a fucking bag over my head.”

“I shouldn’t have told you about Beulah Mae.”

Whit! Her name is Whit! Stop calling her Beulah Mae!”

 

Nicole goes her way, and I go mine. She’s off to buy a wardrobe, while I’m to buy camping equipment and groceries. I wear the Glacier cap, pulling the bill down low as added insurance I won’t be busted by a shopping cop.

I find something called a Complete Campers’ Kit consisting of tent, two sleeping bags, stove, lantern, cookware, flashlights, plastic dishes, etc. Everything you need to camp out and lots of stuff you don’t for a ridiculously low price. All made in China. What must the Chinese think, making all this shit, about how Americans spend their time? Do they know most of these Campers’ Kits will never make it out of the garage or back yard? Or that some are probably Homeless Kits. The perfect house-warming present for a full-time minimum wage employee with a dependent living the American Dream. Home.

On the way from tents to nuts, I’m passing through the magazines and books, when a shelf of Crime Kids Capers of assorted numbers catches my eye, and I can’t resist a look at Nicole’s maiden voyage. I read several breathless jackets, skim a few. They’re as slender as a French fry. It seems the Crime Kids are the progeny of various hit men and women, sharpshooters, ninja assassins, saboteurs, thieves, con artists, safe crackers, etc. who have thoughtfully passed on their criminal skills to the Kids who inexplicably use them to Do Good, in plots all bent on reconciling their chronically estranged parents while undoing any damage their moms’ and dads’ crimes might otherwise cause—except to bad bad guys, who hate our way of life and freedom and God and motherhood and don’t merely murder and cheat their neighbors for a buck. So even the crimes turn out to be good. I check a half dozen Capers. They all end with a Big Chuckle scene. All the way to the bank. Who buys this shit? I wonder what they’d say if they knew who wrote it. Competently, I might add. She pushes prose around okay. It’s what she piles it into that stinks.

On the end of the shelf where the books sit, action figures of the principals hang in bubble packs awaiting release into some kid’s world, flat characters living a 3-D existence until eaten by a dog or chopped up by a lawnmower or, a favorite in my neighborhood, incinerated with a stream of lighter fluid. A flame-thrower we called it. Dennis’s big brother had a thing for Zippos, and we ripped off the fluid. Memories of those flames, and these faces staring out of their plastic bubbles, remind me of Kevin McCarthy torching pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I imagine them creeping into sleeping kids’ brains turning them into zombie kids who wished their boring moms and dads swindled and killed people for a living. Course, I played with battalions of plastic soldiers, so I don’t know what I’m so righteous about. Do Good crooks’ kids can’t be any worse than immortal green soldiers never dehumanized by war, heroes every one. I’m sure they still sell bubble packs of those guys around here somewhere, now available in desert camo, right next to the unicorns and the Star Wars crap.

 

Like I warned Nicole, the food is mostly cans and boxes, though in a fit of nostalgia, I get the makings of a hot breakfast for tomorrow. No donuts. When I’m done with the grocery shopping, I find the author herself still in Women’s Clothing with all the name-tagged Wal-Martians in that end of the store gathered around her, suggesting this and that, vying for her attention. She already has a cart half full of stuff.

“With your cute figure, you could wear anything, Hon,” Belinda says sweetly, even though no one would say such a thing of Belinda. They all chime in with similar sentiments. Nicole shyly accepts their praise and tosses a few more items in her basket. They all dote on her, like she’s their own sweet girl they’re dressing up for the casual date, the prom, the job interview, the bedroom, the trip to Wal-Mart, whatever their little darling might wish to do. She keeps thanking them for their help, placing herself entirely in their hands, none of which are quite as perfect as hers, and they love it. I look around. Are they filming a commercial here or something? But it seems like a perfectly ordinary Wal-Mart anywhere in the world. Except for Cinderella here buying bargain duds for all occasions from the Fairy Godmothers’ Union. It’s too weird for me. They’re having such a good time, I don’t interrupt. I go ahead and check out, pack everything into the car, then come back for her.

By this time, she’s checking out, all set to move into the dorm, go on her honeymoon, or take it on the lam with a donut fugitive, whatever might strike her fancy, including luggage to put everything in. One of her adopted mothers has opened up a line just for her, the others are unloading the cart, showing each other Nicole’s haul. It’s like a bridal shower debriefing.

In the middle of Walmart.

Everything’s going so well, until I show up. “You get what you need?” I ask Nicole, smiling at her newfound friends, who gape at me in disbelief. I don’t have long to wonder why.

“Is this your boyfriend?” the cashier asks Nicole, straining to keep the incredulity out of her voice.

Nicole says, “Yes!” and I say, “No!” at the same time.

I cut her a withering glance, and she yields the floor to me. “Nicole’s a real kidder,” I tell them all. “I’m her teacher. We’re on a field trip. She lost her things.”

“You’re not running away together?” the one who’d earlier admired Nicole’s figure inquires wistfully.

“No. We’re uh… retracing the steps of the Lewis and Clark expedition.”

“The Lewis and Clark Expedition didn’t come anywhere near here,” Nicole says. Always the know-it-all.

“Very good, Nicole. I see you’ve been working on your Study Guide. We haven’t actually gotten to the footsteps part yet. We’re still here at the Wal-Mart. Pay the nice people, Nicole. We need to catch up with our group.”

The Wal-Martians seem both relieved and disappointed at the news I’m not Nicole’s boyfriend. The fantasy had enchanted when they pictured me as a young stud-muffin, a male version of Nicole, and they’re disappointed to let it go, but relieved a beautiful young girl isn’t running off with a guy old enough to be her father, who’s something of a grouch to boot. A teacher. Figures. I don’t muddy the waters by pointing out Nicole’s only a couple of years old, never really had a father, and isn’t a beautiful young girl. More like a next generation action figure.

A lot can happen in a generation.

 

I wait until we’re back on the road in our stuffed Honda to ask her. “Nicole, why were those women so nice to you?”

Nicole is immersed in the pleasure of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I made her and takes a moment to reply. “Oxytocin. Since you pointed out the importance of facial expressions I studied the matter more carefully. There are certain expressions, inflections, and other cues which prompt the production of oxytocin in many mammals, humans included, making them predisposed to be nurturing and affectionate. It’s why puppies are cute. Pheromones come into it as well. Do you know much organic chemistry?”

“You manipulated them.”

“Yes. I liked them very much. They were so nice to me.”

“And were you being nice to them?”

“I hope so. Did I do something wrong?”

“You were making their day till I showed up. Why in hell were you telling them you were running off with your boyfriend?”

“They seemed to like that story best. I like it too. It’s very romantic. I want to learn about sex. It’s highly significant. Would you show me sex?”

I almost choke on my sandwich. “I can’t do that. I’m your teacher. Let’s just stick with that. Okay?”

She keeps her eyes on the road. “Beulah Mae had sex with her teacher. Repeatedly. Day after day.”

“Do me a favor, will you?”

“What?”

“Would you stop calling her Beulah Mae? Her name is Whit.”

“She asked me to call her Beulah Mae.”

“I don’t care if she asked you to call her Virginia Woolf. Doesn’t alter the fact it’s not her real name. Besides, what’s the difference? She’s not around.”

“None of that matters.”

“It certainly does.”

“Beulah Mae asked me to call her Beulah Mae. I don’t see why it should concern you. It’s between me and Beulah Mae.”

She’s clearly cramming Beulah Mae into every sentence just to gall me, and it works. I glare at her, speechless. No matter what I say, she’ll just say Beulah Mae.

“What?” she says, with a little snip at the end. She’s getting too good at this human stuff.

“Nothing. Call her whatever you like.”

“I will. Thousands of people call her Beulah Mae. You’re just trying to change the subject. We were talking about sex. Whatever you call her, she’s your teacher, and you want to have sex with her. So I don’t see why I can’t have sex with you.”

“Was my teacher. Class is now obviously over since the teacher just blew town, and whoever I want to have sex with is none of your business. I don’t have to have a reason. The answer is no. Clear?”

“It’s because I’m just a machine, isn’t it?”

Jesus. I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. “No. We’re all just machines, Nicole. But I know what you mean. A thing. Like a car or a Fryolator. If you must know, if that’s how I felt about you, we could jump in the back seat right now. I made my peace with masturbation long ago. If you were just a big anatomically correct doll, why not? The nights get lonely. But you’re not just a machine. I’m turning you down, Nicole. Rejection is essential to that human experience you want so bad, believe me, and all the oxytocin in the world’s not going to change my mind. Live with it.”

“I can look older if you like.”

“End of discussion, Nicole.”

“Younger?”

“Nicole! No. I understand your curiosity, but you’ll have to gather that particular info elsewhere. I’ve got my hands full steering you through Wal-Mart without a half-dozen women adopting you because of oxytocin overdose. I’m sure you’ll find a way. These things usually do.”

“I think you’re in love with Beulah Mae.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about. I don’t know anyone by that name.”

“You’re jealous of her teacher, but you shouldn’t be. In her journals she says they fucked all the time, but he was basically an asshole.”

“Please don’t tell me things out of her journals.”

“And now that he’s betrayed her, I doubt she’ll want to have anything further to do with him.”

“Betrayed her? What do you mean?”

“That’s why the authorities know she’s going to Dallas. He told the FBI. She told him she was wanted, and he called the Dallas office. There’s a substantial reward for information leading to her apprehension.”

“Jesus, what a prick!”

“That’s what Beulah Mae said about him in her journal.”

“Nicole, shut up and drive.”

 

We’re finally on the highway, headed for the blood-red sinking sun, the full moon rising behind us, full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips. I revel in the feeling of getting out of the city and gone. It’s been awhile, but I haven’t spent my whole life in a donut shop. Before the shop, when Dad was a traveling salesman, he took me and Mom with him summers, out on the road, everywhere he went, though not so often to Oklahoma, because Mom said a little Oklahoma went a long ways. I’ve traveled all over the same part of the world where we’re headed now. Dad’s old territory.

Summers as a kid, I never went to camp, was never on a swim team or played Little League. I was sent to Vacation Bible School with a neighbor kid once to get me out of Mom’s hair while Dad was working with a new guy in Oklahoma, but when I lamented after the third day, “We colored Joseph’s coat again,” Mom, who liked God and Gentle Jesus but didn’t like church any better than Oklahoma, let me skip the rest.

Most of the time every summer from my fourth year to my fourteenth, we spent on the road with Dad. As a district manager for a small pharmaceutical company, he was on the road three weeks out of four, 50 weeks a year, criss-crossing a five-state territory. During school, he made it home most weekends and worked in town one week a month and was home every night. But summers, we lived out on the road.

Beaumont, San Angelo, Baton Rouge, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Amarillo, Austin, Clovis, El Paso, New Orleans, Wichita Falls, Shreveport, Lawton, New Braunfels—one motel after another, one motel pretty much like another, except for a few exotics like the old French Quarter hotel with a carousel bar and a grandfather clock in the lobby. I rated the motels by their swimming pools and pecan waffles. I swam or read or went to the local sights—Carlsbad Caverns, the Garden of the Gods, Padre Island, a bullfight in Juarez, a Dixieland band on Bourbon Street. We ate out or had room service and watched the Tonight show or an old movie. It was heaven. About every fourth day, we’d leave at four in the morning, me still in my pajamas. I’d wake up to sunrise at a roadside park, where Mom and Dad cooked Canadian bacon and eggs while I checked out the local wildlife—usually horny toads and spiders. But there was a prairie dog town on the road to El Paso, some javelina near Commerce, and various snakes to terrify us wherever we went.

Hurtling down two-lane blacktop for hours on end was in some ways even better than the motels. The lunar bleakness of the Texas Panhandle or the moss-draped trees of Louisiana were as exotic as the science fiction I read. Bearing down on the Cadillac Ranch in the late afternoon, hellbent for Amarillo, that row of Cadillacs thrust precisely into the sands was as mysterious as any alien. More mysterious. Aliens might do anything, but humans had done this. It couldn’t be just inexplicable—a 2001 moment. That was too easy. There had to be a reason.

“Why?” I asked.

“Art,” Dad said. And not dismissively. He liked that pointless row of Cadillacs as much I did. It was one of the first times I gave serious thought to being an artist of some kind, which had me thinking about just art was for for many a mile, and to this day. I know it when I feel it.

One story in particular comes to mind now, riding through the night with Nicole, and I tell her about it, to share, to hear myself talk, to try out her listening. I was twelve, eight years on the road under my belt. As far as I was concerned, we could stay on the road forever. I felt on the verge of some great discovery. I couldn’t have told you what it was. The verge was enough, preferable even—pure, undefined hope, the perfect dive in the diver’s mind before gravity gets hold of it. The fucking verge.

It was early morning, in a motel room in Lubbock, and I was making the coffee with a heating coil and instant, a job I’d taken on without ever being assigned to it. My folks’ first cup of coffee was always a source of joy, and I was its deliverer. They were even more joyful than usual this morning. They’d made love the night before—barely audible in the pitch dark room above the air conditioner’s roar, but I’ve always been a light sleeper—and they were still cuddly.

Dad often passed on jokes with his samples. He said he had a good one to tell Mom later, meaning when I wasn’t around, but as I handed him his coffee—black, one sugar—he said, “What the hell, Randall’s old enough.”

Some young men have bar mitzvahs, some are confirmed, some are plunked down in the wilderness to wrestle a jaguar. But for me, this was no less a rite of passage—to be included in what Mom primly called a “blue story.”

Here it is, pretty much as my dad told it—

A bride and groom check into a hotel on their wedding night, full of love and desire, when tragedy strikes: The bride slips in the shower and lands on the toilet, becoming hopelessly stuck. The groom calls down to the desk to summon a plumber, and—to preserve his bride’s modesty—he wraps his coat around her shoulders and places his derby hat in her lap.

When the plumber arrives, Dad became him. If Dad could’ve gone onto the stage instead of into donuts, we’d all be rich. He measured, he pondered, squinting with the elaborate concentration and deft timing of Art Carney doing Ed Norton, muttering barely comprehensible plumber-speak to himself. He took a sip of coffee and pushed back an imaginary cap—”We-e-ll, I tell you: The lady’s not a problem, but that guy in the derby hat? He’s a goner.”

Mom laughed and laughed. She always laughed at Dad’s stories even when she was mad at him, and she wasn’t mad at him that morning. I laughed too. What a great story, I thought. Not because it was dirty or sexy or whatever, but because it turns on a guy who isn’t there, who never existed. Maybe they all do, I started thinking. Maybe that’s what stories are. That’s when I first noticed I have a thing about stories. Some would call it an obsession. I’d be in that number.

Later that same day, driving through New Mexico desert, Dad said, “Like to hear another?” and I put down my sexless Asimov and listened to Dad tell the one about a man, a watermelon, and a woman he loved, Mom slapping his arm, laughing till tears ran down, telling him he was just terrible.

Two years later Dad was transferred to a strange town, lost his job and his five-state territory, and went into the donut business, but you’ve already heard that one. When I remember my folks most fondly, we’re out on the road, telling stories, never giving donuts a thought unless we were hungry for one.

I tell Nicole this story, and she laughs in all the right places. It’s too dark to see if she has a tear in her eye like me, Randall the crybaby, the guy in the derby hat, the goner, still mourning the bride and bridegroom. Gone.

“I like that story,” Nicole says. “Beulah Mae would like that story.”

I don’t bother to correct her choice of names. Whit probably would like it. I’d like to tell it to her, her big, brown eyes looking back at me. Nicole’s right. I’m falling again. Then I remind myself she’s on her way to Nameless. I’m just heading her off at the pass to give her the bad news. She probably won’t even be grateful. “Do you get sleepy, Nicole?”

“Not unless I want to.”

“Do you plan to drive all night?”

“Yes. It would be best to cover as much distance as possible for now, since Beulah Mae has a head start on us.”

“Makes sense to me. Wake me at sunrise. I like to watch the sunrise. Find us a place to stop, and I’ll cook us breakfast.”

“Eggs and Canadian bacon?”

“Naturally. It’s a ritual. We’re on the road.”

“Why’s it called Canadian bacon?”

“It’s a mystery, Nicole. The Canadians are inexplicable, don’t you know. That’s why they have national health care and get their drugs so cheap, eh? I’m going to sleep now, Nicole.” I tilt my seat back all the way, and in no time, I’m in dreamland.

For Part Three go here.