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Detainee 717

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Chapter 20

The underground parking lot has the dinghy hue of a tornado as it subsides, when it slows in midair and disrobes, letting its gray spiralling skirt of dust and debris and dirt slip off, drift down to the ground. Gray and flexed with the massive triceps of support columns, four broad and sweeping levels of concrete stack the space beneath the mall for customer parking. The structure’s lighting burns blunt and exhaust fumes pestle the underground air, concoting a thin twilight. Brake lights of cars in front of K13 are the only sources of vivid color, rectangles and oblongs staring at him with bloodshot intensity. As he follows the sloping descent to lower levels the cars in front bank recklessly right, left, tires skidding on banana peels of loud-as-yellow echo – he actually sees this image, and this is unusual, since if asked he would say that his visual imagination is virtually nonexistent. No one asks, or is likely to ask. Horns erupt with a lava of anger as full-size sedans and SUVs stubbornly attempt to nose into slots designated for compact cars. He notes that parking lots afford a first-hand study of human greed and acts of cowardly aggression, showcasing how flagrantly ethical and behavioral transgressions parade themselves when motorists, armoured by thousands of pounds of steel, aluminum, plastic and glass, feel free to fly into rages, to threaten, to intimidate, to tyrannize. Considerations of physical size, strength and age that would dissuade strangers from engaging each other face-to-face in bodily confrontation no longer serve as deterrents when tons of metal come between drivers. These observations add nothing new to K13’s fund of knowledge concerning the constitution of his fellows; but to be frequently reminded of what he already knows – that human beings are deservedly cast adrift, irredeemably flawed, inherently guilty – allows him to perform his work more efficiently, overshadowing any temptation to connect emotionally to his subjects. But this entire line of thought is academic. He never feels the inclination to connect emotionally to subjects.

On the lowest level he parks next to the elevator with its stainless steel door like a sterile featureless face and crosses the car-cramped structure to the security headquarters squatting in a far corner, a concrete bunker with walls sprayed in a pebbly textured finish similar to the popcorn ceilings of the 60s, a single wide window in the side wall capturing a full-length, half-width view of the lot. The door is propped open by a folding chair wedged under the doorknob with the stout olive-green hydrant of a crammed duffel bag on the seat to add anchoring weight. The room has the pummeled look of a boxer whose face has taken a beating, swollen with tenderness and imminent defeat. In the back a woman sitting on the tumorous lump of an ancient black Barcalonger that seems to absorb all light in the room is bending to the floor, tending a hot plate that warms a saucepan surfaced with an iridescent oil slick of Campbell’s minestrone soup. As she lifts her head the only reason he feels a whisper of surprise rather than a more dramatic jolt at the sight of the insectile apparatus strapped to her face is that the work he does for the Diplomat has boosted his threshold for disorientation provoked by the unforeseen or the discordant. Her face is obscured by an Israeli 4A1 civilian gas mask, hidden, absorbed into something subterranean and unreachable, like a mountaineer trapped in a deep underground cavern or pinned against a suffocation of rock in a narrowly plunging crevasse, and this seems to K13 to be a telling silent discourse on the problematic nature of identity. She pours the minestrone from the saucepan into a mug and unplugs the hotplate and sets the pan back on the burner’s glowing spiral, and when she glances up at the wall of staticky video monitors she notices him waiting at the doorway. The plexiglass lenses in the black rubber mask, the slightly angled set of the eye holes and the distance between them, suggest the compound eyes of the robber fly, the army ant, the praying mantis. A black tube attached to the water intake port on the side of the mask dangles, a slack antenna. She would have no problem explaining the gas mask as a means of protection against pollutants emitted by cars, she would believe her own explanation, but he knows there are doubtless other reasons she wears it, reasons submerged and dungeonishly Freudian, influences lurking well below the level of language and coherency, where the invisible spiders of unnameable things are always busy spinning webs in the cellar of the psyche, in all the dank coiled places untouched by the sunlight of reason. K13 himself has made the unpleasant discovery that the unmasked face is a hapless disadvantage: its nakedness and mortal vulnerability, its exposure to unlimited open scrutiny, its hymen of easily assailed surface presented without defense to the penetrative world. The face is almost always a misrepresentation at odds with what goes on behind it. He would even say that the face is a killer of truth, but he tends to avoid using the word truth, unless oversimplification is the point.


A small frail-framed woman, the security guard prayerfully clutches the mug in both hands as she stands, the surface gossamer of steam and heat peeling back and drifting up toward her unviewed face, scenting the air with a drift of herbal phantoms, primarily oregano and basil. Poor posture evokes a weeping willow’s rounded crown as she droops herself over the mug. Her mall security uniform is a spew of navy blue, worn for so many consequetive unlaundered days that wrinkles have been absorbed into shiny zones of shapelessness. The weight of the clip-on name tag drags her shirt pocket into a pouting lower lip of fabric, a limp and dilapidated V, a miniscule detail providing an odd accent of alphabetical debasement to her drooping appearance: Janet Mist. Thankfully, she has enough common sense and dignity to exhibit no apparent pride in her appearance or her work, since the work, like all semi and unskilled minimum wage labor, is a cackling belittlement. Yet work falling into the professional category is no better, no less demeaning. He can attest to this due to his position, not so long ago, as a sales information consultant for a national managed care organization, which he has depicted to Lamborghini as his foray into the big business world of ethical malfeaseance justified in the name of the bottom-line. He told her about the thaumaturgic promise of the mission statement, the billion-dollar tax evasion strategies that were just a form of corporate welfare, shallowly disguised as creative accounting by the company’s horde of number-crunching pimps and loophole-lusting attorneys. It disturbs him, in an economy violated by these corporate rapists, that employees are encouraged to display, as he had been, groveling gratitude for any kind of menial, exploitative, soul-numbing employent. If you’re unhappy here, K13 was once told when he questioned an inefficient point of protocol concerning the payment of claims for members, you’re free to seek employment elsewhere. Janet Mist’s pride in, and loyalty to, her employer would be nothing short of pathetic.

She does not remove the gas mask or refer to it. Her voice is closeted, shrunken and dim, but the words manage to be intelligible. “Help you, officer … is it Officer Powers, from yesterday?” Even wearing worn jeans and an old black UWM Badgers football sweatshirt K13 has noticed that the impression he hopes to generate when he dresses casually is invariably overridden, in the minds of observers, by some intangible quality he exudes linking him to officialdom. As in the woman’s assumption that he’s a police officer. Her mistake is oddly fortunate, though, since he’s come to the mall with the intention of impersonating a police officer. He has no idea who Officer Powers is or why he was here, but he easily seques into his own mission of information retrieval by using her confusion of identities to his advantage.

“No, I’m not Officer Powers. He was here yesterday, though, correct?

”Sorry. Thought you were Officer Powers.”

“He was here yesterday,” he repeats carefully. “Is that correct?” She will read his repetition of the question as an indictment for her failure to listen keenly enough. He knows this. And he knows authority that does not subtly intimidate or chip away at the sense of dignity loses its potency, like a drug exceeding by months the expiration date on a prescription bottle. Authority easily shrugged off represents an advantage relinquished, no matter how seemingly insignificant that advantage might be. It seems, though, that something larger than her job has poisoned her esteem for herself, that her defenses have been weakened in a broad and general sense, and so his innuendo has the desired effect that much more quickly: As though K13’s flinty insistence has settled somehow in her throat, she coughs a few times expulsively, in fact guiltily. In a gesture of pulling herself together, collecting herself for a more attentive response, her spine injects its straight line into her posture, inching her up to her full height; but she expends great effort to accomplish this. “Sorry.” What the cloistered voice achieves is the opposite of an echo; it strikes a close rubber wall and flattens lifelessly, like a freshly dead fish slapped down on a cutting board for gutting. “Yes, he came after that trouble in the access corridor with those kids. I should have known you’re not Officer Powers, he was a white gentleman, and you’re … ”

He finishes for her, sparing her the awkward search for the most appropriate and politically correct phrase. “— Not a white gentleman. When I tell Powers someone actually referred to him as a gentlemen, there’s a good chance he’ll burst out laughing.”

“My apologies. Bad eyes,” she says, tapping the plexiglass. “You’re both about the same height. He was really pretty nice, some officers deal with mall security guards don’t treat us with much respect. They look down their nose sometimes.”

“Were you able to help him?”

“I tried, it really didn’t amount to much. Please sit down, Officer …”

He takes three steps forward and slides his hand down the sweatshirt’s neck, producing a police detective badge in a bi-fold black leather ID holder dangling on a beaded nickel plated neck chain. Official identification cards and badges furnished to K13 on as as-needed basis by the Diplomat’s staff always conform to definitive standards of replication and authenticity, wherever the city or state, including any documentation for any agency at any level of the federal government. Licenses, passports, clearances, birth certificates, certifications and registrations, income tax statements, bank statements, investment portfolios, medical histories, work histories, diplomas, military records, family photos, criminal records — all the virally replicating baggage and paraphernalia of the societal self, the self constructed in narrow accordance with bureaucratic circumscription. A self capable of being pinpointed, traced and located. All these documents: Immaculate counterfeits that beguile the eyes with the purity of flawless diamonds, available to him at a moment’s notice. She bows forward from the waist to squint at the ID he holds out. “… Detective Givens. Why don’t you take that seat right there in front of the monitors? Otherwise I’ll have to keep standing, and I need to get off my feet.” Over her shoulder she appears to eye the inertial bloat of the Barcalounger, its bulk a seal sunning on a mossy rock. “Long hours. I’m surprised they put a detective on something like this …”

He waves away her invitation to sit. “This may be linked to something I’m keeping an eye on. I’m not at liberty. What happened yesterday?”

“Officer Powers already took down some information, and he thought …”

“— Forget Powers. Powers is no longer relevant. He’s no longer significant. I can appreciate your focus on Powers. I understand it. He made an ample impression. He frequently does. When he was here he played his brief role admirably, but now I’m here. Now you’r e talking to me. You’ve explained this already, I admit it’s an inconvenience to repeat the process, but I’d like you to focus on the fact that you’re telling me this time, not Powers.”

Slowly lowering herself into the chair with ginger exhaustion, absorbed into the dark mass, she sinks into a sauna of leather and cushioned upholstery, relaxing elaborately, her gratefulness embedded in a sigh. “I got a call from the assistant manager at Riff-Ready Guitar Center yesterday afternoon. He said there was a ruckus in the access corridor, some kids in there where they shouldn’t be in the first place, all of them teasing this other girl, a classmate of theirs. I think one of the boys went to a different high school, though. I said teasing, only it was a little more than teasing.” Eyes float behind the aquarium of the lenses, scan the monitors with weary obligation, shift over to the broad window dingy with exhaust and smudged with dull and inchoate reflections, then sweep the view on the other side of the glass, every inch of parking lot a mattress covered by a lumpy quilt of cars. “They’d ganged up on the poor girl and held her down trying to cut her hair. I guess they managed to cut a lot of it off it with a scissors.”

“The assistant manager reported this to you?”

“The assistant manager at Riff-Ready called me, yes, and said what was going on, and I went over. But by the time I got there, the group of kids was gone.”

“Faded mysteriously into the sunset.”

“Faded into the parking lot behind the service delivery area, yes.” She pauses, then hesitantly offers,

“Do you need some paper to write notes with?

“Or …”

“No. I dislike paper. I despise it. Paper is the bane of our existence. Centruies ago we needed paper. Granted. Our brains were smaller. If not smaller, then less specialized. Now paper has become a crutch that results in the underutilization of the brain’s ability to store information. Paper is bad for the brain.” “Paper, bad for the brain. That would never have occurred to me.”“And who called Officer Powers?”

“We came back here to security. See, the girl who was victimized – there was some confusion about her name, which it turns out is Megan – she didn’t want to report it or anything. She said to just let it go. But and now the other girl with her tried to get Megan – either her real name or nickname being Namaste – to tell the city police and press charges ….”

He waits for the security guard to become aware that she’s stepping into narrative quicksand. The accounting of events is growing clotted, thickening into opacity. 1 … 2 … 3 … 4: … awareness dawns in five seconds. In frustration she draws a deep breath, prepares to make another attempt. Mirroring her frustration the pugnacious echoes of car horns in the parking lot lock briefly in a burst of fierce ram-like entanglement and collision. On a narrow counter surface below the monitors the gnawed barbell of an apple core sits browning with oxidation. Gnats gyroscope above it in a loitering loopy orbit; K13 swats them away when they find the holes in his head and, unavoidable as fate, are blindly drawn to penetrate them. Godforsaken flying specks beelining insanely toward his eyes, ears and mouth as though executing a computer program. Small irritations in his life build the foundation for a kind of aimless and anemic fury, a sense of needed detonation and release, as essential as emptying an overfull bladder. The counter also holds a Dell computer, a small HP laserjet printer, a telephone and an outdated fax machine, a sheaf of papers thick and messy as the stack of a submarine sandwich. The four lockers huddling sullenly against the opposite wall could be an abstract sculpture of delinquents standing together idly in a kind of 1:00 a.m. street-corner aimlessness and desperation disguised as a hard and battered urban camaraderie.

“An employee at Riff Ready, a young lady, was walking through the access corridor on the way to her car after her shift. She saw them trying to cut Megan’s hair and called her boss. He’s the one called me. This Rif-Ready one convinced Megan to let me contact the city police, which I agreed with. Because she made a good point, being that what if Megan got home and found out she was hurt?”

There will be more and he waits for it.

“Without a police report she wouldn’t be able to press charges if she needed to …”

She’s reluctant to push the narrative forward at this point by bringing Powers back and so he prompts her, giving her the go-ahead by mentioning the name himself. “And then Powers was called. Powers arrived, or appeared, in all his splendor.” He has never met the man, knows nothing about him, but finds himself hosting a reasonless contempt for Powers, for the very idea of Powers, for the simple inescapable fact of the man’s existence. Even the name itself is an affront, decoupling itself with an arrogant shrug from any possibility of a first name that could hold its own with equal weight or authority, stand as anything other than paltry or superfluous by comparison. This contempt brings him a sort of misshapen satisfaction and he decides not to curtail it.

“Powers came,” she says, with a level of caution acknowledging the possibility of K13’s gift for entrapment. “It looked like he was taking some kind of notes but the girl, Megan or whatever, Namaste, she knew the kids’ names who harassed her but said she didn’t want to pursue punitive action.” She thinks about this for a moment. “Yes. She was a well-spoken little thing. I felt sorry for her. But then I thought …”

“The young lady in the access corridor who intervened. Her name was what?”

“Can’t remember, I’ll have to look it up. I t’s in the incident report file on the computer.” She struggles to her feet and takes her place at the computer, with K13 standing off to her right with the conspicuoously inconspicuous posture of a Secret Service bodyguard, arms crossed at the solar plexus, indicative of something both casually rigid and vaguely militaristic. The soft Morse code rhythms of fingertips tapping on the keyboard create small cozy bursts of exertion, the tidy sound of plastic rain discreetly falling. Her forward lean centers the crosshairs of a sharp squint on the screen. “Here it is.” One final tap, a small triumphant jab with a single index finger emphasizing the successful completion of a chore. The laserjet discharges intricate whine and the tongue of a three-page report juts out of the printer’s maw. He scoops it out, scans the first page, half of the second page, doesn’t bother with the third. Twists the papers into a tube and slides this in his back pocket.

“Is it what you needed?”

“Last names of the kids etcetera. In the event the gir’s parents decide to follow up with the schools on the reprehensible behavior of the barbers.”

“I made a copy onto a DVD of what camera 12 caught while the kids were in the corridor. I thought Officer Powers might want to take it with him, so I made it for him before he got here, but he said it wasn’t necessary since the girl didn’t press charges.” Under the sheaf of papers next to the computer is a plastic DVD case and she hands it to him. “The angle wasn’t all that good, lighting wasn’t either. But you can take that with you if you want it.”

“You’ve been very helpful. I should let you return to work.”

“This job isn’t good for me. I don’t know why I keep it. Or I do know, but I keep it anyway.”

Janet Mist is sitting in a certain way, her body an angle clinging to the chair’s edge, knees together, fingers interlaced primly in her lap, head bowed, something nun-like in this posture, something prayerlike and eremetic, as though she has risen from a mattress stuffed with straw on the floor of the monasterial cell where she sleeps and now sits with infinite patience, waiting for God to whisper her forward into her day. He falls short of a clearcut interpretation for her bearing, sensing only that their interaction is about to veer down an unexpected path. He does not have the talent Lamborghini seems to have in easy abundance, a precision aptitude that measures fleeting millimeters of body language and allows her to construct from it a suppositional context of meaning. Her facility for penetrating the nuances and subtleties of inflection and diction, for translating behavior into a snapshot glossary that instantly defines core motivations and ulterior intentions. Of course she’s often wrong, but her approach still allows her to wind her way forward. His own aptitude? It lies elsewhere. It may be that there are no words for what his aptitude is. The security guard’s eyes, behind the walleyed lenses, have taken on a hastening look. She’s in retreat from the present moment, eyes hamster-wheeling, fleeing inward.

“Sitting here in this room. In the underground. No real light, no sight of nothing but a sea of cars. Everything’s narrowed down under here.” She tries to explain. Her hands create a weak choreography for a torpid dance troupe of abandoned gestures. “It’s all about what people do for a parking space. Meaning, what they do when they’re trying to get what they want but can’t get it.”

“People are …”

She cuts him off but softly, using a dream machete that descends and severs, but does so without sharpness, accomplishing its purpose with a melting edge. “Two men fighting down here once, over a space. They stood toe to toe and next thing I knew, these two came to blows. Other people standing around watching. A few cheered. I guess if there had been a hotdog stand the vendor would’ve made a mint. People are no good. People deserve to be punished.”

A crawl of silence. The injury of silence crawling on naked hands and knees over a floor pebbled with glass.

He asks with genuine interest, “Do they?”

“They deserve to suffer, yes.”

This is rare: he feels a connection with Janet Mist.

“These people down here … it was one of them. One of them that walked off with Tulip.”

And he waits, readily absorbing whatever it is that the security guard is giving off and feeling no desire to define or classify the destitute cloud of energy she radiates. In this moment she’s become a woman inhabiting a small body with bones light and weightless and elegiac as the carbonated dissolve of foaming surf. Her energy is almost tangible and reminds him of floating night air in the seconds before it descends and delivers rain, when the wind brings its rasping agitation, its shuffle of torn sighs, its murmurs and mufflings. He is, for reasons that elude him, unwilling to play the role of diagnostician, averse to identifying the disease as revealed by the underlying symptoms.

“My sister came up with it: Tulip. At first I thought the name was stupid. It would mark her for life as a girl with crazy people for parents. Maybe ex-hippies parents burned out after decades of dope. Then I thought what would be the true craziness is naming her Marge or Mildred, same as a million other Marge’s and Mildred’s. The name Tulip , she’d be unique. She’d be an actual individual, not an imitation like most people who just run amidst the pack. I just had to convince John. John: see what I’m saying?”

“You could have named her Marge or Mildred, but you didn’t.”

“John’s Tulip’s dad.” She turns away from the computer and looks at K13. Her voice is fighting with the mask, creeping along the inner rim of rubber adhering with the force of insistent suction to the skin of her face, searching for a way out of the humidity, out of the pressure and wilted scent of latexed capture. The mask gives her the stillness of a statue on a pedestal, a motionless quality nullifying any impression of flexibility or spontaneity. “A good man, but …”

“He exemplified the death of the imagination.“

“I don’t know what that means. He thought maybe name her Frances, after his mother. I had to say no to that.”

“And?”

“Tulip came down here on her way home after school sometimes. Sit right in here with me doing homework. She liked to watch the monitors in between her homework spurts. You can zoom or tilt the cameras mounted near the ceiling in the corners of the lot. This way or that or toggle in for a closer look at someone, something suspicious maybe. She liked doing that. To tell the truth when I did it, I did too …”

“The sense of control. The act of control exercised from a distance. A height.”

“I used to want some kind of control. I used to like to think it’s there. But I don’t know if that’s what I really need. What anybody needs.”

 	
Behind the dead gleam of plexiglass her eyes are riveted on K13 and, oddly, the lenses themselves furnish an additional layer of something fixed and staring, a hypnotic overlay that doubles the effect of being held in the handshake grip of a firm focus, and his awareness of being seen in this doppelgangered way is in itself a fact of apperception that supplies yet another layer, a third one, an almost mystical layer standing somehow above all the other layered points of vantage including, inexplicably, his own. “Is it?” he hears her asking him.

She either wants to hear a yes or a no. He has no way of deciding which response she would prefer, or which would be most useful for her. He would like to tell her to remove the mask but the sight of her face might … instead he says, “Someone like Powers would say it is. Needed.”

Janet Mist laughing, the laughter is surprising as the appearance of an unfamiliar face reflected onrushingly in a mirror that you alone are gazing into. Pointed and impactful though muted, insubstantial as the color gray when it attaches itself to joylessness or uncertainty, the laughter could easily bleed over into more sinsister territory, since the mask so strongly suggests that the wearer suffers from a mental state shaped by a ravaged equilibrium. But it does not, does not bleed sinister, though if it had, K13 does not know what his reaction would have been – gratitude or disappointment?

 
“Touche,” she says dully, idly fiddling with the dangling drinking tube, and then wants to know, “but what does touché actually mean? It’s foreign.”

“French.”

“What does it mean in English?”

“Something like, touched.”

“You seemed like a smart one, Detective. I knew you’d know the answer,” she says almost sadly, as when inadvertently some act or event is witnessed that was never intended for display or scrutiny. “So it went like this with my daughter: Someone’d get out of their car, she’d zoom in and make up a story about whoever it was. Like ‘Ma, look at this one ….’ – and she’d name some celebrity or just make up a weird name for them, sometimes a profession – ‘Looks like Donald Trump decided to kick it at the mall today’ – and she’d fix her lips to imitate the guy getting out of the car’s lips that’d be pushed out in the Trump pout. I’d say, but Trump would never shop at the mall with us peasants and she’d adjust it, she’d go ‘Ok, he made a wrong turn on his way to bankruptcy court and ended up down here and decided to get his wig repaired.’ But what made it funny was the guy really did look like Trump, at least in the lips, after she said it. If you rewind it all to before she said it and watch him, you saw he didn’t looked like Trump at that point. Only after. Sometimes she’d evolve out the story and the details just got more hilarious …”

“And your daughter is where?”

“They keep telling me that the longer Tulip stays gone, the less chance it is that she’s still living. And so now it’s been six months now. Six months ago since Tulip was down here with me and I had to leave to take care of something routine and came back maybe 15 minutes later and there’s Tulip, disappeared. Eventually they arrested some guy by the name Jim Stiffer. In court if someone said his name and pronounced it stiff, he would speak out of turn and correct it to sound like the eye infection, sty. Only it was spelled s-t-i-f-f, stiff. They gagged him because he wouldn’t stop correcting his name while court business was going on. He was held in contempt. He got a 200 year sentence. He looked like he didn’t even care.”

Her long pause tunnels deep into silence. The pause is like a prisoner who almost escapes by clawing out a tunnel with her bare hands, dirt and rubble matted beneath screaming fingernails. But when the prisoner breaks through the destination wall, the authorities with their weapons are waiting to apprehend her, the vaulting elongation of their shadows blocking the light of freedom shining from somewhere behind and above them. And so, too, when the security guard’s pause breaks through the other side to what is unbearable, it is apprehended by more words.

“They never found Tulip. Stiffer denied it even though in court the camera up on the north wall in there showed him, not clear but clear enough to be identified, standing by his car pretending to be asking Tulip something, then snatching her wrist and dragging her to his car just a foot away and shoving her down in the front seat and driving off. An 11-year-old can’t fight off a grown man size of Stiffer, I don’t care how many kick boxing classes.”

He’s grateful for these disclosures, these snippets of masked-in monologue that give him time to discover a way to arrange and present himself. Better to stand with a manikin’s self-sufficiency behind a display window of silence, where he can safely offer a lifelike but not wholly accessible image. This, because he doesn’t know how to strike a genuine or even appropriate tone in his responses to her words, words walking an unraveling tightrope of sentences. He’s unable to strike the minor chord of empathy that would put him in harmony with her anguish and gently connect him to it. The connection would prove his worthiness and let her know he could be entrusted with the gift of her demolished humanity. His discomfort stems from the fact that having obtained the report and fulfilled his purpose in coming here, he has no further objective; and without an objective, interactions tend to shift, like this one, to a plane of uncertainly. A plane where he strains to retrieve himself from abandonment in unmapped territorities of feeling. The awareness that the situation with Janet Mist is no different from any of the situations constituting his relationships with others rises to a pronounced but unsustained pitch, and he realizes dimly that all his interactions are not really about other people so much as they are about himself – his needs and aims as they unfold in the taut press and zigzag of the short term, the attempt to control another’s perception of himself, to press all the coded buttons and tweak the levers and ride the faders up or down, presiding over an infinite number of tracks as the master engineer at the twinkling panel of some mixing board of the emotions.

“His plea was not guilty but he was found guilty by a  jury of his peers after just a few hours deliberating.  Judge Mitzui used the term jury of your peers but that was wrong, Stiffer is in a category of human being doesn’t allow for peers.  After four days behind bars somebody said he told his cellmate he came to this state from Wyoming because – why do you think he came to this state from his home state of Wyoming?”

The telephone next to the computer begins to ring. Because the ringing is like a heart bursting open, her hand slowly guides itself to the center of her chest and rests there, holding something down or pressing something in, a delicate and hopeless gesture of reparation and restraint, the telephone in its declarative urgency reminding her of where she inescapably is and where she has arrived and where she can no longer be, and K13 standing self-containedly and watching this and waiting.

“John wants to know, why do I keep working here? My own mama still alive at 87 tells me, why keep on coming here?” She watches the phone but speaks to K13 standing somewhere close but outside her eyes’ angle of inclusion; her voice behind the mask waxes and wanes as it randomly fades from and regains the foreground. “Go ahead,” she invites. “You can say. I won’t break down. I can see you’re a professional and my break down wouldn’t be fair to you. Go on.”

“I can’t say.” Then he adds, “Beyond this being a state where there’s no death penalty.”

“Well, then. Well well well. You said enough. You just said enough.” Her hands seem disconnected from her overall rigidity and float like a cloud of forgetful ether over the keyboard, the fingers drifting down a little to strike the keys but then just hanging there in a pale shroud of paralysis. “Like those guys on television who have that talent, it’s a talent that’s a terrible, terrible gift, how they can think like somebody who carries pure evil in his mind and use it to catch him. You can do that.”

It’s not necessary to respond to a rhetorical question inflected as though it’s an assertion.

“Yes, you can do that, can’t you.”

He can hear himself breathing.

“But my question is how you go about turning something like that off. Can you turn it off at will?” The pause like a snail pulling itself forward. “Stiffer sought out this state and came here to live because there’s no death penalty, that’s right. Don’t you think that’s a form of pre-meditation, Detective Givens?”

“Stiffer’s cellmate made a comment to somebody, you said.” “I’ve been told by somebody works there, a guard who’d lose his job for telling me if anybody found out.”

“This cellmate. Was he an informant?”

The telephone continues to ring. A horn in the parking lot blares, two horns, then there’s a climactic eruption, a tribal consensus encapsulating the long excruciating history of the self in relation to the other. The noise widens hypnotically to afford a glimpse of mass hysteria, the contagion of lunacy multiplying through a crowd at viral speed, and then it ceases suddenly as, at that very moment, a man in his car somewhere thrusts a sheer blade of baritone angst through his windshield into the already murdered air. The cry indicates a depth of frustration unusual in an environment where frustration is the norm; it’s almost a cry of bitter truimph. She stands, lifts herself on tiptoes, adjusts the mask and looks out the window, decides something and sits back down.

“Well Detective, he didn’t say anything about that. Why would it matter enough for you to ask?”

“The law sometimes becomes complicated when informants say things and prosecutors want to use what’s been said in court.”

“Why should Stiffer be allowed not to tell where Tulip is? I know she’s still here, I know it, I know it and I know it and I keep knowing it, couldn’t stop knowing it if my very life depended on it. Why can’t the law help me get my baby back? Sweet Jesus,” she says through the crush and pulver of a single sob, the dust of a single sob, “sweet Jesus, she’s out there somewhere. Do you know my precious girl had leukemia and her spirit was so strong she fought it into remission? Fought it back down to wherever the hell it came from and it went into remission. Had all the treatments without ever feeling pity for herself and was more worried about how I felt day to day than how she felt.”

Her fingers fold together in a fraternity of frustration and her small fist gavels the countertop, once.

“Took the leukemia pill they gave her and it combined with her strength of spirit and it went into remission. We’re just trying to get to the five year mark, five years in remission and you can technically say there’s a cure’s come to pass … and she’s got just one more year. But she needs to be monitored and checked. It was time for her to be monitored and checked … and her medication …” The phone stops ringing, there is silence for 10 seconds, then the ringing resumes. Her hand lightning-streaks to the side and rips the cord from the wall. The tongue on the tab slotting into the wall fixture will have broken off. K13 looks down in time to see the tiny clear plastic rectangle fly out from under the countertop to ricochet off the side of the black thick-soled work boot on her left foot. Immediately her cellphone springs to life, shedding its coat of quiescence, a dog vigorously shaking water off its fur, the ringtone emerging from her pocket with the irritating yap of a hyperactive chihuahua. He wonders why she would choose a tone so many would find obnoxious, what this act of defiance running deeper than an irreverent disregard for social niceities might possibly mean. Clumsily wrestling the phone from her pocket, she almost drops it. Her frustration mounts as she grapples with the device in its slippery percolation, like a soap bar’s foaming fumble, elusive in wet hands. As the phone appears to dance in the air just above her fingertips her breathing becomes a desperate rasp. He places both his hands over her fumbling fingers to cage and tame the phone in its aerial jitter. When her hands are stilled he extracts it slowly and waits for her angry breathing to subside. In his hand the cellphone ceases ringing and he sees this as a source of relief, a small act of mercy. She gavels the countertop with her fist, once. Then he unfolds her fingers and inserts the phone back in her hand. He looks into an epithet of buried eyes, like a gravesite visitor on his knees reading a headstone.

“The reason I don’t quit this place is it’s the last place I saw her.” Staring at him, circling around the angled edges of thought, moving obliquely toward something. “It feels like I belong down here. Like it’s the end of the world down here. Like I can’t leave from down here until she’s back.” Her delivery slows, the sentence slides toward dissolution: “or until I. know something. about. what happened to. her.”

Reaching out and up she cups his right hand in both of hers, just as he had cupped hers to free the cellphone moments ago. His hand is sheathed by the warm wings of an enfolding sentience, a perch for the small weightless bird of her grief. Let her hold it. There are reasons to withdraw the hand but instead of listing them to himself he decides it would be easier to let her hold it.

“She gave me this mask to remind me that this job could kill me with all the fumes, and that I needed to get away from here, look for something else. She said I deserved a job more decent than this. When I was a kid I found a picture of a smoker’s lung in a magazine and my own mother smoked Pall Malls, and I put the picture on the refrigerator door, taped it, trying to get her to stop. It worked.” He points out, “I see you attached the filter on the mask. Once you attach the filter, it’s only good for seven, eight hours.”

“I know that,” she answers quietly. “What I don’t know is why nobody’s been able to do anything to help me and my daughter. He’s in prison yet and still nobody can tell me what happened to her? If you had been here in the beginning, I think you could have helped. Maybe you could have. Maybe that’s something that night’ve become a reality. Thinking that’s not as bad as thinking about what I know didn’t get the chance to happen.” “I don’t know who they are, but the men and women who worked and continue to work on your case were all assigned to it because of their talents and expertise. Their experience, all the impossible things they’ve managed to get done that are a matter of record. These are men and women who have distinguished themselves in their careers. They have to be the best in order to do what they’re expected to do.”

“I know that. They would have to be the best even if they didn’t succeed at doing what they were expected to do, wouldn’t they. It’s just I can see you know how all this works, even when you don’t know anything about it. What that man was thinking when he came here from Wyoming. I know you’re a by-the-book person and it’s not your case. But sometimes you start out as one kind of person and you see there’s a need and that need makes you take a turn onto another path. It almost forces you to. And then you become another person. And that’s true, even if it’s not true 99 oercent of the time, it’s still true.”

She does not release his hand. The importance she attaches to this gesture is almost palpable and, he senses, desperately multifaceted. His hand has not been held in years; perhaps it has never been held, other than by his daughter at the age of five or six. He entertains the possibility that his hand has never in the history of his adult life been held, or if held then not held truly, not properly held. A chapter of emotion opens in a tome with thousands of pages, but the pages shuffle and blur, thumbed by a dark wind, and the text is so small that his eyes would water and dim, and there are so many obstacles that he would be surprised if the desire to see what words were written didn’t fade before his hand could still the page.

When she does finally release his hand, he watches Janet Mist take a step back and pull down the mask, fight to exhume the straps from grave-black hair and free her face, as if it were necessary to resurrect her breath before breathing it, as if breathing could only be accomplished in the wake of a steep and gigantic effort.

Next Chapter

Chapter 21


Article By: dglenn


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