The last photo in the row of photos in cardboard frames on the windowsill was face-down on the sill and he wondered if this meant something or if the wind had done it, despite the fact that the window, for as long as she’d been living here, had never been open. The air was piped-in like music. He checked the seam between the lower half of the window and the track it was in and confirmed his suspicion that it was thickly painted shut, thick as a welding seam, seafoam green like a jail. Through the blinds the janitor, the Latino, was visible down there with his obscenely oiled hair dumping suds on a drain in the parking lot. Making even that look furtive.
Richly colored Penthouse tear-outs pasted all over the boiler is what Dominic pictured. Ripe-mouthed deposit bottles in a discreet cache behind a seatless toilet in a magic kingdom of pipes and pilot lights and pagan practices. He set the photo upright again and saw that it was his mother looking prettier than any girlfriend he’d ever had. No way would you correctly identify the woman in that picture now.
He’s thinking: when they’re young and valuable you build a citadel around them with a fence, big dogs, an armed response insignia. When they lose their value the security drops off considerably. Anybody could walk in here. But who would want to? He looks at his mother and then that picture again and scratches his neck. He could probably spirit the picture to safety without her noticing.
She’d given up the theater after his father died under what an expert called ambiguous circumstances and the chore of paying attention to her had fallen to Dominic’s twin brother, Dean, by default, for some reason, but Dean balked after a few years and they worked out a schedule. Dominic had her on Sundays and national holidays including Thanksgiving and Christmas, making that long drive into the city from Lake Zurich in the light morning traffic with a jumbo thermos of good coffee and a beachbook and whatever paperwork.
He’s thinking she looks mauled by the feral dogs of time. This life is a peach something / eats from within ‘til the taste of the peach turns / distasteful is a piece of a poem he remembers she wrote before even half of the depredations to come. It literally looks like whatever it was chewed her awhile and spit her out again twitching. As Deano once put it: Jesus Dom it’s like she bet God a hundred bucks he couldn’t fuck her up.
Dominic winks and uses the graying good looks of his last-chance middle-aged boyishness to reassure her. The old her wouldn’t have been so easily reassured. The version he feared and loved. He opens the blinds to let more light in and sees the janitor is now propped up on a mop handle, his chin on his hands on the handle’s tip, chatting with the colored security guard and casting a very short shadow. She is no longer the brave, honest, wisecracking cynic he always knew but has become prayerful and humbly positive-minded after the first operation and this is upsetting.
Why does this upset him? Because he loosely based his life on her example but then it comes down to the nitty-gritty and she does a one-eighty in the direction of Disneyland? No. It’s more about the howling terror he smells under this happy new mask of acceptance. Right under the surface of the so-called serenity of her badly lopsided smile. She’s like a hostage reading from the kidnapper’s prepared script. She has a wound on her right ankle due to poor circulation that keeps opening, with the leg swelling off and on. She’s had multiple pelvic and spinal fractures due to thinning bones. She was diagnosed with NPH and NPH is diagnosed with a lumbar tap and they had difficulty doing it so she was stuck repeatedly. They took her to surgery and had to shave the right side of her head and place a shunt from the right side of the head to the right side of the abdomen for absorption of the excess fluid.
She gazes upon the magazine he brought her from the rack on Evie’s side of the bed and singsongs androgynous hairstyles are “in” again, I see, with affectionate irony, pretending to dwell on a page she simply can’t turn because her fingers are too cramped and distorted with pain. Like a collection of useless quotation marks bunched in her lap.
Dominic says if Evie came home with a cut like that I’d divorce her. But he’s smiling. Pretending to smile. Pretending to wink. He peers through the blinds, talking away from her:
“I can’t say I like the look of your janitor.”
“Don’t be a racist, Dominic.”
“Whoa. Is ‘janitor’ a race?”
Dom’s thinking how safe it is up in Lake Zurich: no gangs or wild animals and even the few teenagers haunting the mall are girls and rarely gather in groups larger than three. The boys are neatly dressed loners and won’t become dangerous until well into middle age. It’s a suburb of middle-managers and their lotioned toddlers and the Guatemalan nanny is their minority group. People have the common courtesy to move out before their kids hit puberty. Dom likes the alpine allusions of the name and the name figured prominently in his decision to move up there and also in the ease with which he’d persuaded Evie, sight unseen. He liked how he might be backed up in traffic on a rusted and unpredictable side-street in Chicago with the air conditioning off so he could hear things, taking his life in his hands, yet soothe his jumpy soul with visualizations of Switzerland. The Alps.
Dom says, “I used to call Dean Dom, secretly, and he called me Dean. For most of our childhood. He never told you that?”
Luis says, “That’s just between you and me and the mosquitoes, man,” and gives Milton one of his long custodial looks and pats the ass pocket of his overalls for that book of matches his kid gave him sometime during the last sleep-over. The Museum of Science and Industry. For some reason the kid is under the impression he collects matchbooks. Milton lights up and takes a few puffs before committing himself to a reaction.
“But you saw all this.”
“No man. I told you. The lady of which I speak saw it and she told me about it in convincing detail. And now I’m relating it to you instead of more or less eating my lunch.”
“And she wasn’t on drugs.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“And you come to me.”
“Well, unless I’m sadly mistaken.”
“You’re saying I have a reputation as somewhat of a… ”
“I’m saying take it as a compliment.”
“I’m saying have a look for yourself.”
“You’re saying drive out there… ”
Luis does a little move with the mop at arm’s length and brings the hardwood tip of the handle back to his mouth like a microphone. He’s uncomfortable in Milton’s presence because he doesn’t want to stare so he fidgets. He says, “I’m saying investigate the site first hand and come to your own conclusions. You of all people.”
“Because of a so-called reputation.”
“What can I say? People notice. A man reads a certain kind of books… ”
“You’re saying it sets him apart.”
“For better or worse.”
“And we’re taking your car?”
“If I had a car would I be asking?”
“Man, I was having a perfectly average day until you… damn. Damn. Okay. From my perspective?”
“You know what I’m saying.”
“I’m just saying that what we call the supernatural… ”
“… is another word for the unexplained.”
“I think we’re seeing eye to eye on this, Milton.”
“But phase two of this conversation is called gas money.”
Luis gestures politely for one last puff on Milton’s lucky. Milton shades his eyes from the sun and frowns with patience as Luis sucks the life-giving smoke all in. Milton is thinking how a middle-aged Catholic gets divorced and suddenly he’s the prey of every emotionally disturb 17-year-old girl who looks at him. Still, he’s flattered that Luis should approach him as some kind of expert in the mysteries of life. He thinks of himself as tuned into the highly unusual. He maintains an open channel on the wavelength of the ain’t-necessarily-so.
It was one of those uncomfortable summer days in Chicago that mellows into a bearable late afternoon. Dominic was out in the parking lot feeling estranged from his late model Ford, staring at the keys in the ignition through the glass of the passenger-side window. His mother was just then going through her physical rehabilitation routine with a woman in a powder-blue pantsuit from Manila and he didn’t want to interrupt things in order to use her telephone. Neither did he have what he calls a toy phone on his person.
The nearest phone booth was probably a forty minute walk and covered in gang graffiti and reeking of piss and the chances that it would actually work after he went through all that were slim. People in phone booths are usually shouting. Dom tapped the glass. He yanked on the door handle one more time for magical reasons. If his mother lived in a conventional nursing home there’d be an office with a flirtatious not-bad secretary in it to ask about using the phone but the suggestion had time and again been stubbornly resisted. Dean says we’re paying nursing home prices for fraternity house conditions but she says the point is the lock I have on that door. Dom questions the concept of privacy when nothing you’ve got is what anybody is interested in seeing. She absorbs the comment with that Helen Keller smile that drives him up the wall. For magical reasons he yanked the handle again.
A reconditioned black Buick Roadmaster with RKO starlet curves and a big chrome sneer of a grill pulled into the lot like a death barge and emitted a passenger at the far end of the otherwise empty lot, motor running. Dom recognized the emitted passenger as the janitor and tried and failed to make eye contact with the man as he jogged into the building in his street clothes. Instead Dom strolled towards the Buick. He’d grown up in an integrated area of Chicago and was cautious but not afraid.
When the driver leaned over and cranked the passenger-side window down so they could interact Dom smiled and said, “Anybody in here capable of getting into my locked car without setting the alarm off?” He framed it as a joke, being that the only person in the car beside the black driver was a very pretty white girl on the back seat. Couldn’t have been older than twenty. She looked like a girl Dom had dated about thirty years ago called Toni.
The driver said, “Lock yourself out of your car on the Fourth of July weekend…that’s pretty rough,” and Dom was embarrassed at how well-spoken the man was. His English had a commiserating quality categorically alien to car thieves. Dom turned and the janitor was walking towards him with the duffel bag of dirty uniforms he’d forgotten.
“You’re 212’s son, right?”
They shook hands. “Yeah. I locked myself out of my car.”
“Can we give you a ride somewhere?”
“My brother lives in Elm Park.”
“By all means hop in.”
As a container of people the car is something other than its stated purpose of transport, thought Dom. There’s an intimate mood that’s fully visible to the public. People sleep, eat Ramen noodles and do whatever in their cars. He’d peered into many a car in the long commute from Lake Zurich and taken note of every possible contingency. You look into cars and see alternative selves driving by. Take away the motion and what you have is suspense: four people waiting for something to happen. There were books and magazines at the toes of his boots on the floor under the seat in front of him and he could see that one of the yellowing paperbacks was called The Book of the Damned. As a young man Dom had often participated in mixed-nut selections of automobile passengers like this. You get older and the variations tend to tone down regarding class and race and profession.
They drove without music or conversation by a long series of modest lawns behind hurricane fences. On each lawn was the curved sword of a sprinkler jet chopping the air. The girl, who hadn’t been introduced or as yet spoken a word, said, “You’re a Leo.”
“That’s correct,” said Dom. He responded without sizing her up, not being sure which, if either, of the men sitting on the front seat of the car she belonged to. He looked past her through the window on her side of the seat behind the driver and pretended to focus on a shirtless black boy with an eye-patch steering no-handed on a brand new bicycle falling gracefully behind.
“Luis is a Leo,” she added. “I’m sensing an illness in your immediate family.”
“An illness in your family. Someone close. I’m sensing.”
“Well,” laughed Dom, “That’s a pretty safe bet considering that you picked me up in the parking lot of an elder care facility.”
Everyone chuckled, including the girl herself. Dom went further and sort of took in all the passengers in the Buick and said, “I’m sensing a conflict with your father,” and got a much bigger laugh.
Milton said, in a spooky-wise tone of voice, “15,000 kids disappear every year, man. Where do you think they go to?” and for whatever reason Dom felt that a UFO conversation was trying to assert itself. It’s like Rod Serling dies and you have a sudden intense interest in his reruns again, looking for clues.
“Matter can neither be created or destroyed, am I right?”
Dom was thinking: she’s so turned on with three guys in this car and she’s the only female she’s about to slide off that hot vinyl seat. A Puerto Rican, a black and an assimilated Mick: exactly the kind of dirty joke my old man would tell at the airport. Back when there were lots of propellers and you could talk as loud as you wanted and say pretty much anything. Do I really want to be dropped off at Dean’s? On the other hand do I want to start a race riot on wheels. The pros and cons have to be weighed against the irresistible force and divided by the immovable object. How would Sun Tzu handle this? Slyly, he said,
“Luis, we got any possibility of some music up there?”
Milton said, “Got an AM radio.”
Dom said, “I won’t say no to that. How do you feel about oldies?”
Milton said, “I’m gonna say a word, okay, and you respond with the first thing that comes into your consciousness and that’s the process by which we will determine whether or not we think the same type of thing by which we mean ‘oldies’.”
Milton was grinning at Dom in the rearview yet beside him Luis Reyes had grown enigmatically stiff-necked; stiff-necked and coiled as he sat there in front of Dom on the passenger side, reading Dom’s mind with the back of his head. The thing of significance was between the girl and this janitor called Luis.
Dom liked taking tests. Milton put his eyes back on the road and allowed the intervening silence to develop. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Beach Boys.”
Everyone laughed except Luis and the girl and Milton saluted without looking and announced, “You passed it, guy.”
He reached and twisted at the radio in a bird-like fashion and for the first time Dom noticed that Milton only had two fingers and a thumb on the right hand. It looked less like a wound than a birth defect. In other words if you didn’t know what a hand looked like it looked fine. There was a tinny, vintage speaker mounted in the upholstered surface behind the back seat where the rear window sloped towards the trunk and right behind Dom’s head there rose, like the sonic equivalent of a Persian miniature, Gypsy Woman, by The Impressions, on exactly the type of speaker the song had been engineered to sound best on.
With that lofty white male edge to his voice Dom said “Nineteen hundred and sixty three…” but the girl reached over and slapped her hand over his mouth to literally save his life.