This is a story about loss. Something we all deal with, in our individual ways, every day. It’s hard not to think of loss in these times with so much of it around: Japan, Alabama, Louisiana, Joplin, recession, joblessness, Oprah Winfrey. Watching the HBO movie Too Big To Fail last night gave the word a whole new slant. Loss. Change the last letter to a “t” and you have a completely different word with an almost hauntingly identical meaning.
They say “every time you lose something, you gain something.” So why then does it—sometimes—hurt so much? Death is the elephant in the room here. Death of a family member, death of a close friend, death of a marriage—those are supposed to be the Big Three. I’ve experienced all in the exact reverse order, the last as recently as this week—a decades old friend with whom I shared both the love of art and the eccentricities of our entwining careers. I cannot imagine not hearing his voice ever again, his laugh, his laments, his ingeniously idiosyncratic mind. Who will I turn to now for that part of me that was him? Yet isn’t my own passing as inevitable as his? These bodies are but borrowed, these surrounding hovels as temporary as the next great wind. Why do we cling to both as if they were timeless, adamantine? Under it all aren’t we as nakedly finite as the stars that made us? Or as Updike, in one of his last novels, Villages, put it far more eloquently: “It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness—to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperatives into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within.” One of our great writers…now one of our greatest losses.
Losing a premature baby was my first great loss and without a doubt the worst. I wept for weeks. It turned me inside out. I thought the agony would never end. So traumatized was I, that when my wife again became pregnant (a risky one) I honestly believed I wouldn’t make it to full term. But the baby, a beautiful boy, was born—not without incident—happy and healthy and in every way perfect. I knew it was our last child and was surprised to find a measure of relief in that. I’d never have to go through the awful fear of that kind of loss again.
Except the one thing you can be sure about life is: you can never be sure about any of it.
One sunny day when my boy was five, we drove to a favorite beach in Ventura County to stroll the shops and take the sea air. There was a small emporium containing an indoor carousel and snack bar I thought my son might enjoy. I put him on one of the wooden horses, watched him laugh and wave round and round, then took him to the snack bar for popcorn. There was some protracted problem about the right change that is no longer clearly memorable to me. What is indelibly memorable is my turning around, popcorn in hand, to find my son—ten seconds ago at my side—gone.
The terror comes in building stages. At first you realize, hey, he was just here, couldn’t have gone far, must be over by the carousel watching the horses. Then, finding he is not there or anywhere else in the emporium, you think (panic rising but still manageable) he must have stepped outside: it’s been less than a minute. The all-out terror comes when you search around the building still not finding him, start searching the concourse and find that too is empty, and it hits you that someone that small could not possibly have gotten so far away: unless he was taken.
The thing I remember most? The look on an elderly lady’s face when I accosted her on the concourse in a state of deteriorating frenzy. “Have you seen a little boy?” I asked. Maybe it was the sound of my own voice or the look on my face, but to this day I can still hear with clear distinction every syllable of her reply: “Oh, no!” That single “no” has followed me down the years, ever just at my shoulder, followed by my own thoughts: Stupid, stupid, stupid! Bad father!
I had never spanked my boy in his life. But when I came back through the emporium door, drained and dazed, looked up and saw my son ease smiling from behind the wooden snack counter, spanking and spanking him very hard was exactly what I intended as I rushed toward him. Instead, of course, I swept him into my arms, hugged him till he yelped and muttered, choking against him: “Don’t ever do that again!”
Years older now, he doesn’t even recall an event I know will live forever within me. Every grueling second of it.
Of all my stories the one that follows is—for the most part, at least—probably the most autobiographic. The ending’s pure fiction, of course, although that too, I suppose, might someday become an eventuality. In the meantime, maybe, like Robert Wilkes, you’ve had–weaving life’s ever surprising obstacle course–a similar experience while playing
THE WAITING GAME
ROBERT Wilkes pushed through lethargic exit doors into chill December night, sucking the cold into his lungs with a gasp.
“Jesus, it’s freezing out here!”
His wife burrowed deeper in her fur-trimmed coat, hunched lower with a trembling nod. “Amen.”
Her way of reminding him not to take certain individuals name’s in vain so close to the season. They walked briskly across the parking lot, tracking through icy rivers of slush–filthy from endless parades of chained tires–squinting against sudden rude blasts of stinging wind. “Holiday spirit or no holiday spirit,” he grunted, “I’m glad that’s over with. Christmas is for the young, the very young.” He shifted heavy store packages in his arms.
She turned abruptly, made a stricken face. “Damn!”
He stopped, icy vapor fluttering, dread building. “What is it?”
She gave him that look he dreaded most at times like this, one of sheepish apology. “I forgot someone!”
“Oh, Lindy, no!” His toes were already beginning to lose feeling.
“It’s Kim Jameson down the block! She gave us that beautiful dish last year, we can’t just forget her!”
He groaned, cast his eyes heavenward. “I can!”
“You go on to the car,” she told him, shivering violently. “You can turn on the heater, I’ll only be a few minutes.”
He looked down the long, darkened parking lot and shook his head. “We’re almost out of gas and you won’t be a few minutes, you’ll be tied up forever in line with other last minute Yule-tiders brimming with holiday spirit.” And sighing regret: “I’d better go with you.”
A gust of wind pushed them back the way they’d come. He held her arm, guiding her around frozen lakes and pot holes, asking himself for the hundredth time that evening why in hell he didn’t do his Christmas shopping in August. It was the same thing every year, as if he deliberately planned this agony for himself—some guilt-edged form of self-punishment. For sleeping late on Sundays, he thought; this is the way I do penance with the Lord.
For a moment, the warm rush of store air from within was a relief as they reentered the stampede, but within the space of two minutes someone jabbed him hard in the ribs, a child stepped on his already screaming toes, and the all-too familiar din of scurrying humanity gave new life to his once-fading headache. He heaved resigned breath as they approached the cattle chute at the escalator. If you squint your eyes, he thought, it’s like that scene from the silent classic Metropolis: soulless workers trudging to mechanized doom.
His wife must have seen the look on his face. “There’s no need for you to fight this, honey,” she said with endearing sympathy. “Somewhere there’s a book department on this floor, why don’t you browse around there while I look upstairs for Kim’s present? It’ll give you a chance to put the packages down.”
He had to love her. “What if we get lost?”
“We won’t. You just stay with the books. I’ll finish up and come to you!”
And he had to admit it sounded good. Better than watching her search through feminine apparel or dishware or whatever she was after. Christ. He didn’t even like Kim’s husband. “All right. Make it quick as you can though, huh Lindy?”
She gave his arm a patient squeeze, proffered that smile that said I love you despite all this mess. Just before she got to the escalator, he saw her point across the store expansively, silently mouth: Books—that way! Then the crowd swallowed her like a living thing.
He strained above the sea of bobbing heads to see where she’d indicated, saw only more bobbing heads, shrugged and struck off in what he hoped was the general direction.
Somewhere above the shuffling turmoil overhead speakers broadcast an ancient rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by an Irish tenor whose name he couldn’t recall, though he’d heard the song a thousand times over the years. Christmas classics. Right. The old speakers—or maybe the undulant crowd—made the song sound tinny. The way his brother used to tell him he sounded at choir practice. He chuckled under his breath. It was impossible to think of those days without a little rush of nostalgic warmth. And with it, an edge of guilt. Where along the way had he managed to lose his faith? The dealership? The mortgage? No…long before that. Maybe around the time he knew his wife knew they weren’t going to be rich after all…
His faith. His church. He could still see his father’s powerful frame from where he, as a child, had sat in the front row of pew, gazing with unending awe and fascination at the strong hands gripping the pulpit, listening with unswerving love and reverence to the voice that drove out all fear and worry. And later, that same commanding voice, reduced to a gargled whisper by the cancer eating his throat, instructing him from the strange-smelling death bed to take care of Mommy and little brother Jim. He’d prayed to God that night with all his might not to take his father away, not to leave him alone with those terrible responsibilities, the dark, featureless future. But God, it seemed, wasn’t home that night. In the pale stillness of early morning light his father had slipped away…and with him taken the church…
A line of squirming children and bored mothers blocked his path. His weary eyes followed them down the aisle to the bright, hand-painted sign hanging above: Toyland—Visit Santa Here! He shook his head and skirted the slow-trudging line and zombie faces, picturing in his mind this year’s version of Santa: another sad-eyed old man in a padded suit of crimson and white trim, dutifully hoisting each recalcitrant youngster to his lap for $3.50 an hour, hiding, no doubt, a fifth of bourbon somewhere in the cardboard workshop behind him.
Just after entering Sporting Goods his nose was assaulted by a sudden noxious odor. Good Christ, he thought, what in the world…?
He made a face, craned about for the source. Did some kid vomit? Crap his little skivvies? The whole department reeked. He pushed past a burly, blue-haired woman and hurried to get out of there, watching where he stepped as best he could.
He rounded a corner and found himself in Hardware. He hesitated, looked right and left. “Books, books,” he mumbled, “where the hell do they keep the damn books…” The packages were becoming lead in his arms. A growing numbness crept to his left shoulder. Heart attack. Nice.
Then he saw the sign: Books—Stationery.
He grunted satisfaction and moved ahead, forging path like a wide receiver.
In twenty minutes he’d seen all the books he wanted to see.
He found himself leaning against a table heaped high with remainder volumes, packages at his feet, arms folded, back muscles resenting him, listening to—how many times was it now?—God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The Muzak loop must have been stuck. Or maybe the store was just too cheap this season to up the variety. Right now he’d settle for six straight renditions of Jingle Bell Rock. Maybe even a chorus or two of Little Drummer Boy. Yeah, he thought, shifting his weight to his other aching arch, and a partridge in a pear tree.
He consulted his watch. It had been an hour since he’d left his wife at the escalator. Where the hell was she? Come on, Lindy, I’m slipping away here…
A woman shoved by and kicked the packages at his feet. Merry Christmas and fuck you very much.
He was hot under the heavy coat, had been hot for over half an hour now with no way to remove it. Should have left it in the damn car. Should have stayed in the damn car as Lindy had suggested. He knew she’d be late, they both had known she’d be late, she’d been trying to warn him. Shit.
He shifted his weight to the other leg, sighed. Wondered how many times he’s sighed that night. Why do people sigh, anyway? Just boredom or some necessary bodily function? Hadn’t he read somewhere it was caused by improper breathing or posture? That, by sighing, your body saturated the lungs with oxygen and thereby helped clear the brain. But was it voluntary or involuntary? Hadn’t he seen something on TV where–
–oh who the hell cares! Think about something else. Like a nice cold beer. Or six.
He glanced down at his watch again. It was exactly a minute and six seconds later than the last time he’d looked.
He closed his eyes there against the wooden counter. Please don’t start that damn song again. Please.
For a moment he thought he could almost fall asleep on his feet that way. Horses did it, why not humans? His uncle Allen had a horse once. Kept it in his back pasture. He remembered riding it a few times when he was very young. His Uncle told him once the crazy nag was always jumping the fence, running down the middle of the road, him chasing and cursing it. Funny image. What was that horse’s name, anyway? Angie? Agnus? Mr. Ed? Something. What if he opened his eyes right now and the whole crowd just disappeared. Wouldn’t that be cool? Maybe if he wished hard enough…
The crowd was still there. All but his wife.
Why were women always late? It wasn’t just a double standard, you know, they really were always late. Always. Lousy drivers, too. It was true. Always tell when you get behind some broad. Specially in traffic. Like they waited until you were sure they were going to make that red light, then slammed on their brakes in front of you. Lousy drivers and always late, habitually, every girl he’d ever known, Lindy one of the worst. It was a thing between them. He detested waiting for people, prided himself on his punctuality. She didn’t know the meaning of the word. Women. Great legs, though, had to give his Lindy that. Boobs could have been bigger, sure, but so what, at least they were real. But those legs. Especially before the kids came, remember that? Not an ounce of fat on her. Buns like apples. Guys used to stare at her when they passed on the sidewalk. He didn’t care, didn’t blame them. Let ‘em stare. He got to go home with—
–oh, shit…here came the song again.
He started to look down at his watch again, caught himself, jammed his hand into his coat pocket instead. A watched pot never boiled. Who comes up with crap like that anyway? And who cared? Useless information; his brain was full of it. Some truth to it, though. Glancing at his watch would only make it seem longer. Jesus but his back was killing him!
What was she doing up there for chrissake!
Maybe she was almost through. Maybe she’d found a gift and was standing at the head of the long check-out line, handing her plastic to the girl, or lady or whoever. He pictured the girl handing her back her card, smiling a Merry Christmas, saw his wife move back through the crowd with her package to the escalator, step on it, ride it down…cross the aisle to the book department. She’d be here any minute, any second…the next person to come into view—
He turned expectantly, seeing her smile in his mind’s eye, her waving arm. He scanned the myriad faces of strangers anxiously, searching, searching. Any second now, any second! The very next face would be hers—
He ground his teeth. Now I’m getting mad, damn it! Now I’m really getting teed! There was no earthly excuse for this! It had been the better part of two hours now! She dawdling around up there picking out just the right color of this or that, him down here with spikes through his back, arches on fire! Well, just wait till he saw her! He’d give her a piece of his mind all right, yes even in the middle of a department store! Not that the oblivious ignoramuses around him would notice! But he’d let her have it good, goddamnit, she deserved it! “And make it quick,” he’d told her! Right! She knew how exhausted he already was, the trouble he had with his feet! He’d offered to come back here to the store with her! He’d—
–an attractive girl came out of the sea of bodies and stopped to look at a book near him. She was slim and stately, really quite beautiful. Her swelling breasts strained against a yellow sweater, yellow like the waterfall of curls that fell to her small shoulders. My God; she could be a model. Easily. Maybe was a model. There was a time when girls her age used to look at him, used to notice him all the time, give him the eye. And not so long ago, either. He’d been something of a looker himself in his day. Damn straight. The chicks had dug him, no question about it. Even that teacher in high school that–
The girl looked up and caught him staring. He looked away quickly, pretended to be interested in one of the sale books. In a moment she’d crossed over closer to him. Picked up a book of her own, paged it, put it back. Crossed over closer to him. Right next to him, actually.
What was this? Was she interested? In me? Guy my age? Is she making a play here?
From the corner of his eye he could see the globes of her breasts move when she sighed boredom, turned a page. She wasn’t wearing a bra! Was she–?
He shifted his position again, cleared his throat nervously. What now? She was obviously inviting conversation. He was supposed to say something now, break the ice. But what? He was out of practice. He found himself craning around with a sudden hooded look of fear; of course Kim would show up now!
But she didn’t. And the girl inched closer. He could smell the oil in her hair…
He pictured himself turning to her, smiling, asking innocently about the book she was reading. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with conversing with someone while he was waiting around here, no law against that. Just a quick word to open the conversation. He glanced askance quickly and thought he caught her smiling. She was interested! Never mind why, this absolutely beautiful knock-out doll was without a doubt coming on to him! Next thing he knew he’d be buying that book for her, escorting her to the exit door. Then a quick hamburger somewhere, if she wanted it, back to her apartment, a drink or two, and wham–into the old sack. He saw them heaving feverishly across the bed, bodies locked, her long nails digging his back, round hips bucking up to him, lovely mouth opening as she cried out in writhing orga—
The girl was gone.
He blinked once. Craned around. She was gone.
Jerk. Standing here in the middle of a neighborhood department store the night before Christmas Eve fantasizing about ravaging some poor innocent girl young enough to be your…
He looked at his watch. It was over two hours now. This was beyond ridiculous! Where was his wife!
A sudden chill found him. Wait a sec! What if she’d run into some kind of trouble? What if she couldn’t get to him? It had never occurred to him. He stood there trying to imagine what kind of trouble she might be in–couldn’t think of anything. Still, you never knew; this was an incredibly long time to wait. No check-out line was that long…
No. Something must have happened. This was serious. Two hours! Better go check on her, he thought, picking up the packages, better go see what’s wrong…
Then the thought: but what if she came down while he was going up? If he missed her now it would only delay things further. “You just stay with the books,” she’d said, “I’ll come find you.” Fine, but what if she had run into trouble, was in some kind of difficulty? He’d never forgive himself for just standing around doing nothing while she suffered.
He grimaced frustration. Lindy, Lindy! Why do you do these things to me?
But, hold on! His packages! If he left his packages here with a check-out girl, his wife might recognize them—a signal to wait for him to come back. Also, he wouldn’t have to worry about lugging them upstairs through that mob. Yes. That’s it, leave the packages down here.
“I was wondering if I could leave these with you for a few minutes?”
The ‘girl’ at the cash register was a fat, middle-aged woman with doughy face, blank expression, and red-rimmed eyes with no remaining patience in them.
“Someone’s supposed to meet me and I thought she might come by here and see the packages. I have to leave for a few minutes. Would you mind?”
“You want me to watch yer packages, mister?” flatly, drily.
“If it wouldn’t be inconvenient.”
She lowered her fat neck slowly to the presents in his arms. Arched a dubious brow. “Well, I can’t be held responsible–”
“Of course not. Just keep one eye open, that’s all!”
“Please. It’s important.”
“Okay. Fine. Leave ‘em. But I don’t get the blame if they ain’t here when you come back.”
He lifted the gifts to the counter and pushed them to one side out of the way. She regarded them with lifted nose as if they were wrapped excrement. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, leaving them with this moron. Well, too late now.
He turned and struck off for the escalator.
* * *
He searched the entire second floor for Women’s Apparel. He couldn’t find it.
By then he was furious. With her, with himself, with the whole night, the whole stupid season. I’ll wring her neck, by God, I’ll wring her neck!
He began pushing angrily into the crowd again, not apologizing when he lurched into someone. It had become a separate entity, the crowd, a mini-Tsunami washing against him, blocking his path, crushing him against a shore of others. His head was pounding with every step, every jolting shove. The store was suffocating, reaching down and pulling him inside out. He longed now for the chilly blasts of wind in the parking lot, would have emptied his wallet for one quick breeze.
“Is there a lingerie department on this floor?”
The simpering high school girl behind the counter shrugged her small shoulders, snapped gum. “I’m not sure, sir, I’m just Christmas help.”
He clenched his fists until the nails dug into his palms. Was there no end to this madness? He stood glaring at the girl, hating her. “Well, is there someone who might know?”
She pointed a skinny arm without looking. “Miss Chadwick, next aisle over.” Thanks a holly jolly bunch, bitch!
He stopped short suddenly in the middle of the aisle.
Who said his wife was in lingerie anyway? He’d said it—he’d assumed it—not her! Christ, she could be on the third floor or the fourth, in dishware or chocolates! Anywhere in the damn store!
He hissed a curse under his breath. He’d spent twenty minutes up here, wandering around like a lunatic drug dog, while his wife was probably waiting downstairs for him right now, standing next to that obnoxious pig “guarding” his packages. Or no! Not at that counter! Lindy was waiting for him at the book department!
He rushed for the escalator. That’s where she was all right, he could just feel it, waiting downstairs for him in Books, craning about worriedly, wondering where in hell he was. He was a fool to ever leave the book department. He pushed onto the silvery moving stairs, waited impotently for the slow, mechanical descent. Please, he begged unseen forces, please don’t let her leave! Let her stay with the books until I get there!
Robert Wilkes jumped from the last step back into the first floor melee.
But which way? His head jerked about randomly. He turned a tight circle. Everything looked unfamiliar.
Goddamnit now, you were just here minutes ago! How could you forget so fast! His eyes fell on the glass-encased directory beside the escalator. “You see,” he told himself, breathing funny, “no need to panic. Try using your brain once in a while.” He quickly combed the list of departments here on the first floor. There was no book department listed.
He stepped back, wiping at his forehead. “What the hell is this!”
A pungent smell rolled over him suddenly. That same sickly odor again. Enough to make you gag. Where was it coming from?
Someone banged into his shoulder, spinning him lazily in place. He felt dizzy, light-headed. He couldn’t take much more of this, he needed to get out of here, to breathe! He shuffled off, directionless, trying to distance himself from the awful smell. It seemed he’d encountered that odor once before. Where? He got a quick flash of dun landscape at night…couldn’t expand on it…
He found himself wandering aimlessly in the music department, hollow eyes searching listlessly ahead for the overhanging sign that read, Books—Stationery. You’ll find it, you’ll find it, just don’t fly off the handle. It’s got to be here somewhere. Right around the next corner, it’ll be right around the next corner.
Five corners later he was totally lost.
He stood in the middle of Household Appliances, a whine building in his throat. This isn’t happening. This is a dream, a nightmare. He crossed on trembling legs to the nearest check-out station. The girl looked seasoned, sharp. Good! She would know where he was.
“Books!” he repeated above the din. “The book and stationery department. Can you tell me which way it is!”
“I’m sorry, we don’t have a book department in this store.”
He stared sightlessly at her. “But I was just there!”
She shook her head. “Must be confusing it with another store, sir.”
“I’m telling you—“
“Sir, I’ve been working here for six years now, and we’ve never had any kind of books. Ever.”
He became aware his mouth was hanging open. “…but I…was just…”
She turned away to take someone’s money. He felt the crowd around him, eyes staring at him.
“God rest ye merry gentleman, let nothing you dismay…” The music rang dully from the ceiling speaker above him. Through him. Stabbing into his brain. He stumbled numbly down the aisle, bumping off people like a pinball. “…remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day…”
A fat man banged into him, jarring his teeth, almost knocking him over. “Sorry, buddy.” He looked up helplessly at the bright sprawl of Christmas decorations festooning the walls, the ceiling. He tried to think. The decorations swam.
And then it came to him—where his wife would be. The car! Sure! She’d gotten tired of waiting for him in the store and gone to sit in the car, get off her feet! She had her own set of keys—it was where she’d expect him to look for her!
He pushed with renewed will to the first exit he saw, a wave of relief sweeping him. It was almost over now. Soon he’d be beside her in the car, putting it in gear, backing out of the congested lot. Tomorrow they would laugh at this! The packages? She’d probably picked them up herself. And that girl at the other check-out station was off her nut—no book department indeed! He’d been there, hadn’t he?
He wormed through the exit doors into sharp winter air again, basking in the cold wind, hurried across the dark, icy lot as fast as his legs would carry him. Even his headache didn’t seem so bad now. He grinned. It was going to be okay. He could feel the bed under him, the heating pad across his back…
He couldn’t find the car.
He combed the freezing lot twice, carefully checking every vehicle, shaking his head in bewilderment. Nowhere among them was his yellow Tempo.
He looked at the watch with giddy panic. It was almost ten. Over three hours now. The store would close in a few minutes. He started back across the big lot a third time. Please…please…
Then it struck him. She’d left! Something had happened and she’d driven on home! Probably she’d looked for him at Books, failed to find him and couldn’t wait around. He hurried back to the store, heart pounding. Why in hell had he not brought his cellular? Got to get to a pay phone, call home, before they close!
A picture of his child flashed before his eyes. Something had happened to Lonnie! The bath tub? The sitter had called the store, had them paged, but he couldn’t hear it in all the bustle! But Lindy had heard, and had left without him!
Dimly at first, he became aware it felt warmer outside. He was actually sweating under his heavy coat and his breath wasn’t making vapor anymore. My God, the temperature must have risen thirty degrees! Then the awful smell washed over him again. Even out here?
He gagged. What was that reek? A restaurant garbage dump? It was nearly unbearable.
He reentered the store and quickly found his way to a pay phone. He punched his number with shaking fingers, waited for the ring tone. Waited. It never came. An operator came on instead.
“What number are you dialing, please?”
Now what? his mind cried. He gave her the number, voice shaking.
“One moment, please…”
He clutched the receiver tightly. Please God, why are you punishing me?
“I’m sorry, there is no listing for that number. Would you care to check the number and have me try again?”
“Operator, that’s my home number, I think I know it!”
“One moment, please…”
He waited in agony. Above him the song started again. “God rest ye merry gentlemen…”
Shut up! His mind screamed. Shut up! SHUT UP!
“I’m sorry, sir, but there is no listing for—“
“Operator for the love of God!”
“Sir, do you wish me to try another number?”
“No, I wish you to do your job you moronic bitch!” He slammed the receiver into the cradle. He stood shaking uncontrollably. I’m sick. I’m sick, that must be it. The flu or something. After a moment he lifted his head, lifted the phone again, punched in his number.
“What number are you dialing, please?”
He replaced the receiver slowly, gently. Stood for several seconds staring quietly at it. It looked like an alien thing. “It’s the store,” he muttered aloud, “the store hates me…the store is trying to get me…” It was alarming how real the idea seemed. He could feel his heart laboring painfully in his chest, his breath whistling.
He took the receiver again and dialed information. “May I have the number of the nearest cab company in the Shadybrook area?”
The cab arrived in front of the store in ten minutes.
Robert Wilkes rushed outside and jumped into the back seat, slamming the door behind him. He was dripping sweat. It was almost humid outside.
“Where to, Mac?”
“Ninety-seven twenty-three Maple Drive.” He felt himself pushed back against the seat cushion as the cab accelerated. A few more minutes now and it would all be over, the whole horrible night would all be over.
The smell assaulted him again through the cracked window. He could hardly take a breath. “Where’s it coming from?” he asked the driver.
“What that, Mac?”
“That odor, that smell?”
“Can’t smell a thing, pal, got a head cold.”
He sat in silence the rest of the way. All he wanted was to get home and find out what was happening—put an end to this hideous evening. Until he did, he didn’t want to think about smells or phone numbers or book departments or anything. Those things could wait; right now the sole occupant of his thoughts was his wife. He shivered once spastically. Somewhere deep within him, he’d begun to fight the insane notion he’d never see her again…
The tires made a crisp sound on the pavement as the cab turned onto his street. He watched the familiar line of his neighbors’ houses passing by. The homes on either side were butted together in an unbroken line: welcome to suburbia. Welcome home.
His house was not among them.
He couldn’t seem to find his voice.
”Which one is yours, Mac?”
He blinked out at the night. “Are…are you sure we’re on the right street?”
“This is the only Maple Drive in this burg, pal,” and the driver set the brake.
Wilkes opened the door carefully and stepped into the street, staring intently at the line of homes. There could be no mistaking it. This was his street all right. He just didn’t live here anymore.
A horn blared behind him. “Hey, buddy! You payin’ tonight or what!”
He fished bills from his wallet, handed them absently to the cabby. The taxi jerked away in a cloud of fumes. Silence settled around the man on the empty street. He came to the sidewalk, stepped up on the curb, stared numbly at the houses before him.
He closed his eyes and felt a sob break in his chest. God help me…I’m losing my mind!
He felt a wave of suffocating heat wash over him. A fever? Something he’d eaten earlier? Sweat ran in rivers under his clothes. He opened his eyes and stumbled backward in shock.
The line of houses in front of him was gone. Replaced by a broken landscape of charred rubble, little islands of dirty, drifting smoke.
He turned with a gasp and began running blindly down the steaming sidewalk. As far as his fevered eyes could see, the neighborhood was leveled; an endless black field of twisted, gutted frames canted in terrible contrast before a glowing cyclorama of orange sky. Everywhere was devastation and ruin.
And the smell was overpowering.
He recognized it now; it was the same odor he’d encountered in Iraq. The odor of decaying flesh.
His shoe caught on a piece of shattered concrete and he twisted, pin-wheeled and crashed to the pavement. He winced pain, stared down with unbelieving eyes at the burns on his body, his wasted flesh, ribs jutting white under dust-smudged, shredded clothing. He tried to push up again, but the effort sent slivers of pain through his leg. He seemed to have no strength at all.
* * *
He sat alone in the center of the rubble-strewn remains of what had once been a church.
Above him, the poisonous red clouds boiled together and sent a light curtain of rain hissing across the parched earth. The sound it produced was the only sound against the night, save the occasional rumble of thunder.
Robert Wilkes heard none of this. Nor saw the glowing holocaust around him. Nor felt the stifling heat. He braced himself against the frigid blasts of December wind as he and Lindy struggled across the slush-strewn parking lot to the department store entrance. Once again he regarded with irritation the seething mob of last-minute shoppers.
For the eighth time that day, Robert Wilkes relived the same endless dream kept alive by a single thread of sanity still pulsing feebly within his mangled mind. All alone among the crumbling rubble, rocking gently to and fro, he crooned softly to the radiation-choked heavens above.
“God rest ye merry gentleman,” he sang, “let nothing you dismay…”
Copyright 2011 Bruce Jones Associates, Inc.