"Keep calm!" Canoe shouted, veering in. Our hands were in our laps, our feet pushed against the carpeted floor, braking. Mimi and Barbara ducked on impulse. The rest of us sat stock-still. We knew the plan: Pips Phelp would stay behind, at a distance, there if needed, ready to follow in his car to the Center, to do the necessary paperwork to check Him in. The approvals had been given, the gears were in motion.
Canoe parked the Jeep, jerked the emergency brake. This a stroke of luck, really. We might have found Him nowhere. We might have been too late. Now here we were -- sitting and listening to the ticking engine, watching the steam rise off the hood. The day seemed warmer, the gray breaking into blue, the sun a sudden glare. It shone off the chrome of His BMW, flashed in our eyes as if a badge He held up for protection. Was He there? Did we see Him?
Canoe got out. She slammed the front door and sauntered over. She strode, Canoe, the toughest among us. We kept quiet. We waited for the signal: two coughs followed by a hand clap. This would mean He was in the vehicle and we should proceed as rehearsed. Mimi, still ducking, rolled down her window so we could hear better, but what we heard was an ordinary day: a dog barking, crickets, a siren at the far edge of town. In it Canoe's boots crunched gravel; Canoe knocked.
It should be said that in recent months He had acquired a new BMW. The latest model. Understand Him as a leaser. In His profession, the importance of the vehicle is not to be underestimated. Every year He trades up. Still, the license plate remains: SOLD. The color, forest green. This one, however, has been slightly altered -- the windows blackened, as if a rebuke to our constant attentions.
But He cannot escape us. We know His comings and goings, His ring size. We know at the Stone Barn He orders Manhattan clam chowder, a cup, and a grilled cheese for lunch. We know His difficulty with languages, His general insecurity in all things pertaining to math. We know as a boy He watched the mayor hide the golden Easter egg then blatantly pretended to find it. We know He dreams of killing. We know He scratches himself in ugly places and picks His nose; that His breath is rank in the morning and He scissors black hairs from His ears and plucks His eyebrows.
We know this and more: His bad back, His quenchless thirst. He is our faithless husband, our poor father. He is our bad son, our schemer, our rogue. He is our coward in the conflict, our liar. He has betrayed all He has promised.
Still, we love Him.
"Must be in the house," Canoe shouts back to us. "Come on."
We go. We fan out. Our hearts taut drums. Our feet heavy. Canoe crouches ahead, then rounds the bend, breaking away from the cul-de-sac. We run after her and line up on either side -- Barbara at the far end, Mimi, the near. We cross our arms over our chests and wait. Canoe tries the front door. It's open. She pushes through. It is Louise Cooper's house, but it may as well be our own -- the powder room off the foyer, Louise's monogrammed hand towels. There's Ivory soap in the shape of shells, dirtied from her gardener's hands. There's a chandelier that's dusty, unused; unpaid bills on the secretary. A needlepoint giraffe, weighted with sand, holds the den door open. Here we'd find Louise's real life: her TV Guides, her tarnished tennis trophies, framed photographs of her children with outdated hairstyles. But we're not going there. We pause, instead, in the empty foyer. What are we listening for? What do we want?
And then we hear Him. He is speaking in a low voice, a whisper. It is a sound we'd recognize anywhere: the sound of Him prospecting. A cold call. Like the slap of waves in our ocean, like a salt cure. He wants something. He is asking. To all of us He has spoken in such a manner, kissed our fingers. He has guided us through our living rooms, His hand on the small of our backs.
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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