Life is complex, but the rules are simple.
You find things, and you lose things.
Sally had lost Valerie. She blamed me. It wasn’t me. It was just the way life worked, the inevitable ebb and flow, the yin and yang, the ups and downs. She didn’t see it that way. I am constantly dealing with unenlightened people.
When Torey and I came into the kitchen, I could tell it was a delicate situation. Sally stood there like she was in “Lord of the Rings.” Her body language was clear. “You shall not pass.” This could take some skillful negotiating.
“Sal, honey, good to see you. Valerie and I have been meaning to have you over. You’ve been such a help. Take Torey into the living room, will you? He’s got a brand new Playstation and, well, you know I’m all thumbs, Sally. You’re so good with kids and their kind of stuff. I’m sure you could set it up so much faster than I could.” I had one arm around Torey and then one around Sally. Before she knew what hit her, she was in the living room.
“Oh, and he’ll need some blankets and a pillow. Make up the couch for him. Have him brush his teeth, too. God, I don’t know how we’d get along without you.” Torey ripped open the box and unfurled the connectors. Ms. Rosemond stood there open-mouthed. She had something to say, but it would be an hour or so before it would reach fresh air.
“Thank you so much, Sal, old girl.” As I said the last, I closed the bedroom door behind me and went to Valerie.
“Valerie,” I whispered. I didn’t know if she was asleep. I know, that doesn’t make any sense. If she’s asleep and I want to wake her, why whisper? If she’s not asleep and I want to talk to her, why whisper? I don’t know. Perhaps I thought it was a form of respect. Why do you whisper in church when some blue-blazer clad madman is about to out-volume ZZ Top with a Bach tocatta on the giant pipe organ?
“Is that you, Marty?” Of course it was me. Of course she knew it was me. It was a rhetorical question, posed for dramatic effect.
“Yes, it’s me.” Don’t start again.
She grabbed my hand and pulled me down next to her. She snuggled up under my shoulder while I wrapped my arms around her.
My dad used to hug my mom and say, “Put your beautiful head on my manly chest and let my heart beat your brains out.” My mom didn’t get it. She never got it. I did. I thought of it now because, as weird as my mom was, my dad loved her. All the way up to the day he left her. Love is strange, indeed.
“Are you all right? What happened?” That’s when she noticed I looked a little worse for wear. My throat had a big bruise, and I winced when she leaned up against my ribs.
“I’m O.K. now. Are you hurt?” Val cared. Heavenly.
“Only because Sally doesn’t seem to like me,” I said.
Val slapped my chest in fun. That really did hurt.
“What happened? Redlands showed up, didn’t he?”
The fun was over. I thought she would cry. But like I said, the fun was over. She had cried all she was going to cry. Now she was pissed.
“That son-of-a-blue-titted-bitch! Yes, he brought his reeking ass over here. I saw him coming up the steps right after you left. I thought I was going to piss my pants. I didn’t know what to do.” She was hitting me on the chest now. I was in agony, but I didn’t let on. It was her pain, center stage, right now.
“I couldn’t think. I felt like a kid being chased by the fucking bogey man. I ran back into the bedroom and I…motherfucker!” She broke two more of my ribs. I swear.
“What did you do?” I urged her on. It would be bad if her memory needle got stuck in that groove.
She almost laughed suddenly, but her eyes were serious as it replayed in her head. “I hid. All I could think to do was hide.”
“You could have gone out the window.” It might not be the best time for constructive criticism. But I had already said it by the time I realized that.
She slapped me across the face, hard.
“I didn’t think. I opened the window, but I realized I didn’t have a blouse on. Remember? I was wearing jeans and my white lace fucking Victoria’s Secret lift and point bra, you moron! I couldn’t go outside, in public!”
That made sense. It was stupid, but I’d give her a pass on this one.
“I started to go out the window. But then I had a better idea. I hid under the bed.”
I was amazed. Here she was with a murderous armed psychopath forcing his way into her apartment, intent on God only knew what kind of sadistic mayhem, and she had the presence of mind, the cool head, the savvy instincts, to hide under the cocksucking Sealy box spring? She was demented in the true sense of the word, i.e. deprived of reason, insane. (Britannica Dictionary.)
“Fuck me running.” It was all I could think to say. I frequently used the expression when a meaningless obscenity was required.
She hit me again. “I got all the way under just as I heard him open the door. He called my name, and it sounded like he was cursing. I wanted to hold my breath but I couldn’t.” That was good. It’s bad to hold your breath when you’re hiding. I know from experience. Eventually you have to breathe, and you tend to take too big a blow. Slow, even, continuous breathing is the way to go.
“I heard him rip out the phone. He sounded like a Nazi stomping through the kitchen into the living room.” Have I mentioned that Valerie is Jewish? When she says Nazi she uses the term properly. She must have been way past frightened. We’ve turned Nazis into props in an Indiana Jones flick, or buffoons on “Hogan’s Heroes,” or just background noise constantly on the History Channel. They were and are none of those things. They are primal evil. That word should be treated with care.
“He went into the bathroom, and it sounded like he was rummaging through my medicine cabinet. He threw my birth control pills in the toilet bowl. I heard the splash. He came in here….”
It was getting very real for her again.
“I could see his black shoes. The bastard broke my princess phone!” Val’s voice shook with anger. “He went to the window. Then he said, ‘Fuck!’ and ran back through the kitchen. I heard the door slam. I stayed under the bed. I don’t know how long I waited there.”
I just held her then, trying to comfort her.
“I was still under the bed, I don’t know how long, when I heard the knock at the door. I couldn’t move. What if he was back? What if it was a trick? I just didn’t move. I was so very very quiet. I heard the door open again. God, when it opened again, I peed myself.” Now she did laugh.
She sat up and shook me giggling, “I peed myself, Marty. I couldn’t help it. We’d had that coffee. I’d had some wine. I don’t know how long I lay there, and I didn’t even realize how badly I had to go.” She threw herself back on the bed and laughed. “I peed myself!”
“Did he come back? Was it him?”
Still laughing, “When I looked out under the bed I saw those stupid New Balance shoes with ‘Sally R.’ written in Magic Marker on the backs — and her stupid little dingily anklet sock balls. It was Sally!”
So just as I suspected — Sally did have balls.
“I screamed and crawled out from under the bed. Sally helped me, and I just hugged her and hugged her. I was all covered with pee and I got it on her, and I cried and she cried, and she held me and…”
Great, I thought. Sally and Valerie hugging. I should have been happy she was safe, but jealousy had stopped by. Jealousy is a curious thing. You love somebody so much that you would rather see them dead than covering someone else with pee. I like to think I’m beyond such a petty sin but I’m not. When the cute nurse in the home changes my roommate’s colostomy bag, the green-eyed monster will be there.
“Did you call the police?” I didn’t want for them to have been alone for too long.
“You are nuts! A cop holds a gun to my head one night, stalks me, and then breaks into my apartment with God knows what on his fevered little brain, and you think I’ll call the police over to investigate? He is the fucking police.”
“Good point.” It was a good point.
“He took the video tapes.” She was very serious now.
“I know.” Between little jolts of pain, I told her how I had spotted them during my own episode with the industrious policeman. Officer Redlands had been a busy boy. I wondered if he got that much overtime everyday. He was probably saving up for the new nursery. I remembered something. “Did he take that book? The leather book on top of the refrigerator, did he take that, too?”
“I don’t know. I never noticed it. What book is it?”
“Just some poetry.” I thought of Doug again.
“You’re all right?” She checked my face for any other injuries.
“Yeah, and I got these.” I pulled out the videotape — with the good Monsignor’s hammy hand and damning ruby ring on it. “Torey had this.” I tossed it on the bed in front of Val. “I know who he is.”
“Monsignor Shuldik? Well, that was obvious.”
“What do you mean, obvious?”
“My dear boy, you forget. I may have had a rich and maladjusted goy father. I may have passed for Christian at my Stanford sorority. But I also had a great aunt from the old country. My Great Aunt Sophie taught me some Yiddish. Shuldik, Marty. Shuldik means…”
“Valerie, don’t lay your Jewish wisdom on me right now, I don’t have time. And chicken soup won’t help, either.” I was being an asshole.
“You’re such an asshole.”
“You were saying?”
“Shuldik is a Yiddish word that means ‘guilty one.’ Isn’t that perfect.”
I wasn’t amused. I was thinking about what the Monsignor had done. “Fucking perfect.” Val pulled away from me.
“No, I’m sorry. I am sorry. It’s just… I look at Torey… I remember Doug… the tape… I’m spinning here, Val. Then I find out you went through hell and… I’m sorry.” I was an idiot and I was sorry.
Val teetered on the edge of either kissing me or slapping me again. “It’s just ironic, that’s all.”
“I’ve had enough irony today.” I was feeling very tired again.
I cuddled there with Val for about an hour and told her about the rest of my time at work. It’s so important for couples to relate the events of their day, don’t you agree? For instance…
“So what did you do at work today, dear?”
“Ah, it was kind of boring. I fooled around with the smallpox culture all afternoon.”
“Well, we’ve got a strain that thrives in Lunchables. Even the pepperoni won’t kill it. Did you buy those new drapes?”
Even the most banal lives are livable if they are shared.
I’m joking about things now. At the time I was close to crying, like nearly everyone else had that day. But like I’ve said, if I’m going to be sharp, I have to keep the noggin set on smart-ass. I knew I had to keep the edge. My trauma-wired brain was working in the background – figuring out a plan. I wouldn’t fail like Terri had.
The trick was too many people had to be figuring that I was getting ready to squeeze out a plot. If one of them saw me coming, they’d all see me coming. No, I couldn’t be crying. I had to control my attitude. I had to hide the shit. I couldn’t even trust my friends. If you trust people, they’re involved. And I wasn’t about to involve Val – not in what I knew I had to do.
We could hear crashes and sirens from the other room. The sirens made Valerie tense up until I explained about the video game. She hit me again. I told Val all about the reunion with Torey. I told her my reasoning for stealing the Playstation. She said she understood, and then she hit me yet again. I decided not to tell her about the Sebring at the curb outside. I was sore enough.
We got up. It was a slow, laborious process, but we got up and went into the living room. Torey was enraptured by the game. He was apparently in the process of driving some hookers to a big party downtown. He got points or something for every girl he delivered. He was mowing down pedestrians as he went on his frantic rounds. Sally was not amused.
“Why the hell are you giving this little boy a game like this? Can’t you see the sexist lessons it’s teaching?” When she was right, she was right. That didn’t mean I agreed.
“Can’t you see he’s having some fun? He needs some fun tonight. Now lay off!” I was not very nice.
“Children…” Val came between us before I got hurt. “Settle down. Sally, can you make some coffee?”
“Sure, Valerie.” She headed for the kitchen.
I took a shot. “Anything but French Vanilla. I hate French Vanilla,” I called after her. Reverse psychology — nobody falls for that anymore, but what the hell.
“We better call Kim.” There Val went, being logical again. Of course, she was right.
I reached over and grabbed the phone. I handed it to Val. She started to protest, but then she remembered how Kim and I had some small difficulty communicating. She stepped into the bedroom to make the call. It was almost midnight, almost Friday.
Torey was driving a Ferrari Testarosa now. He was good with the stick. He swerved right and ran over an old woman. She left a bloody smear. He swerved left and took out two street punks. I started to think this might be therapeutic after all.
“Huh?” We were communicating now.
“What’s the point of the game?” I wanted to understand his world. I wanted to connect.
“Well…” He looked at me for a quick second to see if I really wanted to know. “You can do stuff for this one bad guy, or you can steal ambulances and stuff, or beat up people. Watch.”
The Testarosa skidded to a stop, and a guy with a club got out. That was Torey’s electronic proxy. He walked over to a man who was standing at a bus stop and started beating him. I felt sorry for the poor mope. Torey clubbed him to the ground. Blood pooled on the street. He hopped back in the car and peeled out through an urban landscape that looked like Miami Beach on steroids.
I wasn’t sure I got it. “So, what’s the point?”
Another quick look and he rolled his eyes. “There is no point, I guess. You just do stuff. Anything you want to do you can do.”
“Can you go over there?” There was a beautiful park, barely visible in the distance. “Can you go up to that park, into the trees, and commune with mother nature? Can you swim out to sea until you reach Europe, and then tour the ruins of Rome?”
No look this time. “That’s out of bounds. The game won’t let you go there.”
It was quite a metaphor.
“Why would you wanna do that anyway?” Torey was laughing at me. I was a little concerned about his future. As I sat and watched the game progress, I grew more concerned each pimp-killing moment. Torey had become a punk named Tommy Vercetti who sounded just like Ray Liotta. He whacked a guy while riding a moped. Then he rifled the corpse’s pockets. All to the music of Wang Chung. I was getting sucked in just watching.
“Is it fun?”
“Yeah.” Torey was totally into electronic autism. “Damn.” A quick flash of emotion.
“Shit — the color’s off on this TV. I just noticed. See that car. It’s not supposed to be lavender. And the water is too blue.” He set the controller down and went to the TV set. “Great, this one has some hue and tint controls.” He fiddled with them. Then satisfied, he jumped back on the couch and locked in on running over a crowd of Japanese tourists.
I just watched him play. I did try to talk to him a couple times. Like, draw him out, as a therapist might say. All I got was grunts and whines. So I just watched, sitting next to him.
Sitting there, I got an idea for a video game. I would call it “Empty World.” It would be a beautifully-rendered 3-D landscape. It would be huge — a giant digital file. You could travel in any direction for miles and miles across grasslands, through woods, up hills, you could swim rivers, climb mountains, you could never get to the end of it. But — and here’s the trick — you are totally alone. There is no one else and nothing happens. Is it heaven or hell? That would be life in my fantasy world.
Val came back in the room. Sally entered from the other direction. In Sally’s head, it would be bad if Val and I were without her for more than a moment. I could see how things were going to be. On the bright side, I could smell French Vanilla coffee. I’d specifically asked Sally not to make French Vanilla. Reverse psychology, draw the lane marker line in a curve into the brick wall. Toons — they fall for it every time.
Sally had a couple mugs full. One for Valerie and one for herself. This was going to be fun.
“When does that vacation of yours start, Sal?” I was in the mood for slapping some sharp knifes.
“Cancelled it. Valerie needs me.” Sally handed Val her coffee.
Val had finished the good news phone call. “Kim was so relieved to hear that you found Torey, Marty. Hey, Torey?”
“Your mom’s on her way to get you.”
“Yeah, O.K.” He wasn’t enthused.
“Father Corleone was with Kim. He’s coming, too. They’ll be here in twenty minutes.” Val seemed relieved. Let me see. She had a boyfriend who was a thief, an alcoholic, a womanizer, a liar, with a meth dealing brother and a traumatized kid. She was, forgive her, glad to think Torey would be gone soon. So when was Sally leaving?
“Damn!” I didn’t mean to, but I said it out loud. If Kim was coming here to get Torey, that meant the media, aka, Liz Nice knew. If Liz Nice knew, then the story would be on TV by now. I couldn’t interrupt Torey’s game to find out for sure, but that meant everybody knew, including Redlands. He’d taken the tapes from Val’s place. He had been sent to get the tapes. God, was I just paranoid? I hoped Father Corleone had been able to keep the cop out of this news loop.
As Charlie Manson once said, “Paranoia is the path to true knowledge.” The Monsignor’s boys had been to Saint Phil’s pretty quick after Doug’s suicide. It was almost like someone downtown had tipped them off. Was Kensington that eager to be Governor? What would he do for politics? And the Diocese? They didn’t want Vandy snooping around. I’d found Torey before they had. I had the tape. They had to know or suspect that I had the tape. My God, Redlands was on the way. I knew it. Coreleone would have tried. I figured he would have done his best. I’d asked him to do the impossible.
I went into the kitchen to get my coffee. My stolen book was still on top of the fridge; “Poetical Works of John Milton,” bound in leather with golden gilt on the page edges. In the harsh fluorescent light, it was beautiful, something to be treasured. I’d sell it next week.
Sally came in to get a refill on the coffee. “What’s that?”
“Just a book.” I turned away quickly, and shoved the book into the big pocket on my Cubs jacket, like I didn’t want Sally to touch it.
“You don’t have to worry. I won’t steal it.”
“Really, Sal. That’s great. I guess I can trust you then. I pulled the book back out of my jacket along with some big balls of pocket-lint and stuff. I set the book back on the top of the refrigerator. “Men — we are so predictable,” I said. It was a private joke between me and Doug Hunter’s ghost about our gender’s skill at hiding things.
“You’re nuts.” Sally spun on her heel and headed back to be with Val.
“You have no idea,” I called after her. I stroked the leather cover wrapped like an old man’s skin around all of Milton’s beautiful words. A picture is worth a thousand words. That’s what they say. But for the pictures of naked Torey, there was only one word.