Still, He's someone we love. And, in truth, we love few.
Early the morning after our practice run, we met again at the Safeway. Canoe brought a thermos of coffee and we stood drinking from our styrofoam cups in the early cold as if at a tailgate. It did seem a game, the weather, football weather, changeable, ominous, geese honking overhead, flying elsewhere. A strong wind set loose shopping carts in random directions, as if they were being pushed by the ghosts of shoppers past. Coupon offers and flyers of various sorts blew about as well. Canoe suggested coffee cake, but we declined. We were, on the whole, nervous. We enjoyed our weekly stocking up at the Safeway; we kept lists. But to linger in its parking lot felt just shy of delinquency and a long way from Canoe's swimming pool and Ricardo's languid strokes. When we finally spotted Pips Phelp's Buick turning in, our spirits had undeniably flagged.
Pips didn't seem to notice. "Ladies," he said, slamming the door, getting out. "Top of the morning!"
Was this man always working from some sort of script?
"Why the long faces?" he said.
"They'll get over it," Canoe said. She dropped her styrofoam cup to the asphalt and crushed it, twisting her flat as if to stub out a cigarette butt. We watched, riveted. You do not need to tell us we were stalling. Canoe got into her Jeep and rolled down the window. "Understand," she told him, "they're not used to unpleasantness."
We have seen a lot, it's true, but know so little. How were we to learn? Years ago we were led down the primrose lane, then abandoned somewhere near the carp pond. Suffice it to say there is little nourishment here and the carp have grown strange cancers. When we look in their pond we see them beneath our own watery faces.
But think of the consequence: His disappearance.
We piled in as instructed. We buckled our safety belts. We turned to Pips Phelp, who stood in salute, and waved. Canoe gunned the Jeep. "Hi-ho, Silver," she said, and we were off, the plan to find Him come hell or high water, to drive to the limits of our town, to cover His turf. We watched Pips Phelp trail us in his Buick, his flaccid pink face in the rearview. We weren't nice. We made fun. We said how ordinary was Pips, how completely known. We said how He could flatten Pips Phelp with one fist.
"Kaboom!" Barbara shouted. And she meant it. "Kaboom! Kaboom!" She raised her fist and punched the air.
"Why the anger?" Mimi Klondike asked, as if intervention were catching.
Barbara shrugged. "Felt like it?" she said.
Esther, we noticed, didn't speak. She wasn't often of late among us, and now she might as well not have been. She sat in the back of the Jeep staring out the window, some kind of smock we wouldn't be caught dead in spread over her legs. She had letters in her pockets to people we had never met; her hair seemed unwashed.
"Esther?" Mimi Klondike said. "Why the long face?" Barbara smirked, but Esther simply turned toward us. She might have been smiling, or this might have been her natural expression. Beyond her, our country -- changing maples, stone walls, gravel drives, newly washed automobiles, children, horses, dogs -- passed. But we were looking at Esther.
"I was thinking how strange," she finally said. "I was thinking how strange to be alive." Then she turned away. We drove in silence; what else was there to do? Time passed and we thought our thoughts; we thought of Him. How He held a flashlight to our souls, our basements. How He checked for dry rot, carpenter ants, the carcasses of flying insects. In the darkness we saw Him searching, and we yelled down, Do you need a hand?
"Bingo!" Canoe shouted. She slammed the Jeep brake. "Bingo bango!"
We leaned in, looking. "What?" we said. "Him?"
Yes, there: Pinned to Louise Cooper's chemicled lawn, the sign: SOLD REALTORS, freshly hammered into the ground. Beside it his BMW, forest green, buffed as his nails, stood idle in Louise's drive, arriving or leaving impossible to say. Henry Cooper, on early retirement, had recently dropped dead putting the eighteenth green. We knew Louise had thoughts of moving to Captiva. Still, we felt the jealousy of His transferred affections. Louise? we thought. Her?
Copyright © 2004 by Kate Walbert
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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