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Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Other Half - Part One

By Steve Bartholomew

Charlie got out of the Grand Cherokee and with the back of his fist eased the door into its latch. He hustled around to Moira's side in time to open her door because he knew that with her, the small gestures were the ones most likely to pay off later. It was after midnight, and the sharp cold squeezed his skin. What a mastermind, he thought, heading out this afternoon without a jacket. He eyed the parking lot and its surrounding buildings, a sprawling apartment complex of soft-boiled character, its color scheme a beige scale he could imagine being inspired by elevator jazz. The rows of darkened windows were dead still, drawn against the mid-winter frost. No parted blinds or furtive shifting of curtains, nothing telling him they'd been observed.

"You wipe down your side?" he asked. "We might not come back for it."

"Oh, you didn‘t notice me doing it? Wow. That's different."

She had a flair for sounding wounded, and the acid in her tone made his mood sag. Flummoxed, he could feel the plotline unraveling, the story arc he'd intended for the night altered in certain unpromising ways. But recognizing an indictment and possessing the occult knowledge necessary to defend whatever had prompted it were two very different skillsets. And somehow his protests usually ended up sounding self-incriminating anyway, so he mulled over the bullet points of their evening in silence and watched the distance for movement.

The moonless dark hung over the pale domes cast by streetlamps. Moira got out and moved past Charlie, avoiding aye contact. He opened the glovebox and then bent down to check under the seat. He could expect her to bristle any time he visibly doubted her, but the admitted truth was that she had on occasions left behind the sort of items that could become thumbtacks on a field office wall map. She stood behind him in the parking stall he'd left vacant, between the Jeep and a Porsche 928 they‘d stashed there earlier, smoothing invisible wrinkles from her designer jeans. Even narrowed, her eyes were a little too large for her face, a stonewashed blue that in certain light recalled dawn in the Rockies. She was twirling her black hair around one finger, a girlish move reminding Charlie that she'd still been a child a year ago. Legally, anyway. And how that fact sometimes made the dozen years between them seem like forty.

He found a pink lighter, no doubt with her prints on it. She insisted on smoking five or six cigarettes in a given day, a habit he tolerated with a consciously silent, windows-down demeanor. A few concessions were to be expected, he figured, in running with a girl who could have anyone she wanted, token shortcomings he could live with. He palmed the lighter, stood up and closed the door, raking his fingers through his adobe- colored hair. Given that it was his one notable feature, he felt obligated to intervene when his ramen curls strayed near surliness.

He wound his arms around her from behind and pressed his nose against her hair. The French shampoo she made him buy stirred imprecise memories of an exotic fruit, a breakfast side dish offered at one of the hotels they'd lived in. Even in a leather coat as black as her hair, she still looked more wholesome than she ever felt pressed against him.

She shrugged him off and turned to face him. "Don't think I didn't see how much you tipped her."

"We ate--what--three hours ago? You wait ‘til now to say this?"

"It's not just that. I saw the way you talked to her."

"Look, some areas I've been, you tip maybe thirty percent. This is a gesture of appreciation. How you untrivialize a person through their work. Which is, I believe, why it's called a gratuity. Am I at fault here over my savoir faire nature?" He pronounced it "savior," a result of expanding a vocabulary by way of books in prison, where interesting words are seldom spoken.

"You‘re so eloquent," she said, "sometimes it's all I can do to stay dressed. I must have forgotten how right you always are. I mean, I did only have to ask her twice for some goddamn water."

He turned away and feigned vigilance, a ploy to re-center the mood.

He wouldn't live here if you paid him. The place screamed booj-wah from the overwrought dormers down and was even named after some non-existent creek, just to sound precious. Most every balcony sported mountain bikes and a simpy barbecue, even on the ground floor where anybody could peel them.

Charlie was one arguable inch taller than what people consider short, with a head shaped like a botched sculpture of a bullet. He had the nose of a Roman fighter and snuff-brown eyes notched a carnivorous distance apart, traits he may or may not have in common with his birth parents--he had no way to know. Moira said she admired his lack of vanity, but he chalked that up to her figuring out an honest way to compliment his appearance. His interest in attire was as utilitarian as that in his own physique. He liked the inscrutability of generic clothing sized to fool the eye. After all, strength was most impactful when it arrived unannounced. 

When he turned back, she was beaming an untranslatable look at him, a female aggrievement that made him feel dense. If he was ever completely right about these things, it was by accident.

"In all honesty," he said, "it is a common practice."

"I know, in some areas. You already said that. I'm telling you what I saw," she said, circling her open hand in front of his face, "in this area."

"You do realize it's a hot card right? So I dish out a few liberated corporate bucks to some poor girl working a crap job, maybe two. How does this matter, in terms of us, directly?"

"It matters. When you stars at her poor rack, directly, it matters."

"I was trying to read her nametag."

She folded her arms like a model told to look huffy, her high-heeled boots cocked too far apart--a stance that said, You must have lost your sense of who the hell cons whom. Her head began to tilt in a gesture of victory. "Then what's her name?"

He was wary of the setup.

"Just so we‘re clear, you’re saying I should figure my percents to the minimal. Because below fifteen implies a complaint, traditionally speaking. So is, let's say twenty percent, out of the question? And this is hugely if, I'm saying, the service approaches five stars. Hypothetically."

She examined her nails by the chalky lamplight. Bordeaux Rose, he knew this from the half hour he'd spent that morning painting her toenails, a duty he only pretended to begrudge because he secretly felt it gave him partial credit for her overall look. A plush crimson matching her lips. "How'd you feel if it was a guy waiter?" she said, "And I was all flirty, studying up on his hypothetical dick like a dessert menu."

"I suppose it depends whether he has a nametag pinned to it."

He'd wanted to call it "Bordello Rose" while her toes were drying, just for the juvenile thrill of a makeup session in a rented bed afterward.

Charlie didn't know exactly when he'd started referencing his circumstance in terms of her, the octave shift in thinking that runs parallel to a switch in given pronouns--just one day he felt like half an Us. A country of two. Before Moira, he'd hedged his relational bets, because submitting to a breathing source of influence looked from a distance like impairment. Esposas. In Spanish, wives and handcuffs are synonyms. How this lyricized the squeamishness he felt when contemplating dependence. Because the crux of attachment was an indulgent glue, the very stuff that would peel your skin off when things went south. Some risks he could not make himself afford.

But here was someone whose presence or absence could make him physically symptomatic. Watching her sleep or wander ahead in a store was a renewable novelty. She had a way of injecting herself into the moment that made her seem hard-won, becoming passionate about most issues to an ethnic degree, whichever stance she chose, as if her contents were under pressure. He found a perverse delight in the buckling she could cause in him sometimes, like an enigmatic remote control capable of toggling his will to won‘t. Bottom line, he'd decided, was that any girl can make you come. Only one makes you come alive.

He tugged his shirt sleeve over his fingers and opened the back door of the Jeep, grabbed the strap of his go-bag, a backpack with an unlikely number of zippers. Inside it were 19 driver's licenses: a clan of Charlies and Moiras, each with matching credit cards and checkbooks. In another pocket was a Beretta .22 pistol with two extra magazines, in another, twenty six thousand dollars in five bank envelopes, all they had to their names, whichever ones they went by. He opened the door of the Porsche and slung the bag onto the backseat, leaving the door ajar.

He waited for Moira to walk around to the other side, but she stood there looking past him, evidently unimpressed with anything or anyone nearby. Her body English said he still had some work left to do. He shrugged inwardly. Only the chronically whipped need an acquittal every time.

A white SUV entered the parking lot, a side-mounted spotlight shining across them. It approached with practiced aggression, telegraphing the driver's level of interest. Charlie could make out the word "Police" printed along the side of the Blazer before it came to a crisp stop behind the Porsche. The transmission clicked into park and the driver's door opened.

A uniformed patrolman got out and stepped around the front of his vehicle, his large mag light shining in their faces, one than the other. "Evening, folks. Hands where I can see them, please." Charlie raised his hands and thought of all the ways this could go. None would have everyone walking away with fond memories.

"You, sir. Can I see some ID," the cop said in a tone that held more telling than asking.

Charlie thought carefully about which ID's were in the go-bag and which one he could get to first. "Me? My name is Michael. Lewis. And good evening to you as well, sir."

"I need to see some ID, Michael. And you, miss?" The flashlight made her blink hugely and she looked at Charlie for a little too long before answering.

"Maria? Um, Halloway? with two l‘s."

Keep him off the go-bag as long as possible, Charlie thought. He starts searching and it‘s a wrap. Our run is over. He patted his pockets in mock vexation. "Uh, crap. Officer, wou1dn't you know it? I don't have my wallet on me. Jeez, I can't believe I'm out here driving around. Would my birthdate help? I mean, so you know I really have a license?"

He rattled off the appropriate date of birth, something he'd rehearsed for a half dozen identities, because people don't stumble over their own birthdays. He'd urged Moira to do the same but she claimed to have her own method of doing pretty much everything.

The flashlight beam dipped and settled on the locking knife clipped onto the side of Charlie's pants. "Sir. I‘m going to need you to--slowly--remove the knife from your person. Nice and slow. Place it on the roof of the vehicle."

"Okay," Charlie said, complying with bomb-maker deliberation, two-fingered and loose around the eyes. Harmless McWilling, at your service, good sir. He could feel his nervous system pressurizing, primal hormones charging his blood. He recognized us, Charlie thought, this is nothing but stall tactics while backup arrives. No, his gun is still holstered, he doesn't know. Maybe we actually stand a chance of fooling him as a couple, just two people out on a date. But we are wanted as a couple. From lovebirds to jailbirds in the blink of an FBI poster. I should make a ruse to get to the bag and hold court right here. But what about her.

The cop placed his hand on the grip of his holstered pistol, the elbow jutting out at an angle that spoke more of posturing than readiness.

The white noise of thought-cancelling panic.

The flashlight swept across the Porsche. "Whose vehicle is this?"

"My friend Victor's," Charlie said, remembering that Victor was the first name on the registration. "He was kind enough to loan it to me. For the evening. So I could take her out, you know, in style. I own a Tercel."

He side-nodded toward Moira and winked. "Can't expect a girl like that to get too worked up over a Tercel, am I right?"

The cop's features had about them the humorless cast of a possible Tercel owner. 

"Where's Victor right now?"

"Home, I assume. I mean, I do have his car, so."

"I see. Michael, have you ever been arrested before?"

"Why, no sir. I don't break the law, you might say, as a rule."

"Okay, folks. I'm going to need you to remain standing right there, where I can keep an eye on you. Let me call this in real quick. Should have everything sorted out in no time, okay?" Without waiting to find out if this was in fact okay, he stepped briskly to the side of the Blazer and leaned into the open window. He withdrew a radio mic on a long coiled cord and began relaying in crisp bursts of copspeak the pertinent details relating to the incident.

Moira pulled her coat of thin leather tight around herself and shivered, saying, "I'm cold." She sauntered around the front of the Grand Cherokee, opened the driver's door and climbed behind the wheel. She lit a cigarette and, facing forward, took a contemplative drag. A slow exhale through her nose, a lock of hair wound onto one finger.

Charlie glanced at the cop, waiting for the moment he would notice one of them was no longer standing as directed. That would be the last chance to act. Maybe this was what she had in mind, a ploy to draw the cop's attention so Charlie could get to the bag. She was a gifted distractionist, after all. His calf muscle began a leaping disrhythm beneath the skin like it did right before a fight. Years before, a police dog had torn it nearly off the bone, a German Shepherd sent into the bushes after Charlie. A monster in a vest that did not care if he surrendered. He'd had a fear-hate relationship with police and their dogs, any dogs really, ever since. But there was no pause in the Alpha Bravoing of both names given, letter by letter, along with relevant information ciphered into 10-series lingo. In his experience, the law may indeed have a long arm, but its tongue is short.

Charlie stared at the insignia on the side of the patrol unit. Emblazoned around the words "Newbury" and "Police" were the noble verbs "protect" and "serve," decaled in a filigree script meant to look handpainted from a distance. The mark of suburban quaintness falls upon even their finest, be thought. Backup would be here any minute--this late they'd be the only show in town. He rifled through plan after escape plan in rapid fire, each one more skeletal than the lost. Any moment a precinct full of hand-polished units would descend upon them, drawn here from their beats. An eagle-eyed rookie gunning for detective would detect Charlie and Moira's actual identities--maybe recognizing them from their APB's or the news--and he would either gun them down in his zeal, or demand from them unflattering attitudes of surrender on the freezing asphalt. The next steel on Charlie's wrists would last for decades. He weighed this against the abrupt peace of death.

What it means to die under an assumed name. This was not something he could decide for her. He had only ever been secure in the context of their chosen life. And now the immediacy of a terminated history with her felt like a skewer in his aorta.

He let his eyes go soft on the catchlights twinkling along the police-issue pushbars. He stretched languorously, the arch of a stage yawn, and than tried to strike a mundane pose. His mind was lurching nautically, the foam of mental dry heaves. Run. Before the cruiser with a barking demon in the backseat arrives, just run full-out into the night. If he headed for the dark beneath the trees just past the parking lot, no way could that cop catch him. He had one master key in his pocket. Thirty seconds after finding the right make of car, and he could be a ghost. But she was not nearly so fast on her feet. 

And now she was sitting inside the Jeep, turned and looking at him.

The passenger window whirred down an inch. "Are you going to drive, uh, Michael? Or should I?" Her rabbit's foot fob dangled from the ignition.

Charlie glanced at the cop, moving only his eyes, his face averted and slack, dance-floor loose in the shoulders. It occurred to him the cop had only connected them to the Porsche.
The Jeep was just another legally parked vehicle. He was intent upon the clipboard lit by his flashlight, jotting and nodding officiously.

Charlie edged around the Jeep and toward Moira, steadily watching. He channeled the grace of a cat burglar, a methodical waltz in his step. There was no way the cop would fail to notice soon that both his subjects had strayed off. But the radioed conversation continued, a neutered female voice dispatching Oscar Tangoed responses.

Moira scooted over. Charlie ducked down, pulling the door open just far enough, and slipped behind the wheel. He had broken the dome lights out days ago, the first thing he did when he got a vehicle. "Put your seatbelt on and keep your head down," he whispered.

"It's about time." '

He turned the key.

The Grand Cherokee had rolled off the line two years before, loaded with every dealer option available. Topping the sticker was a towing package that included a high output 360 cubic inch V-8 and a feature called Quadra Trac. Full time four-wheel drive. The engine caught and Charlie pulled the shifter into reverse and gunned it. A thirty-foot outburst of clawing tires and pluming exhaust. He locked the brakes and Moira let out a shrill giggle and threw her hand up to cover her mouth.

The cop was pointing the flashlight at them for all he was worth. His face was cadet blank, hovering in the dark like a cantaloupe on a stick. Charlie spun the wheel to the right and Moira said, "Go."

He wasn‘t sure the narrow space between the Blazer and a mailbox cluster was wide enough. The cop stood directly in their path, blocking their only exit. Charlie's flight instinct flared. He could feel their opportunity expiring, but running down a police officer was not within his frame of reference. He could feel the Jeep crouching against its brakes, a mechanical torsion straining to burst free. The cop was fumbling for his sidearm without looking down. "Go," Moira said, bouncing in her seat and clapping twice, "Do it. Now!"

***

It is the cusp of the roaming year, the long-awaited play button of this summer and Char1ie's days are on shuffle, the frontal pulse of breathless sky and sheer vistas giving onto unfurling horizons that soak the eye with enormity and howl at you in ancestral verbs to live all the way, and he's dizzy with it, the giddy warp of being fresh out on the bricks, these six years he‘s just walked off in Walla Walla making even a gas station burger taste of the wild hunt, six years of waiting and imagination making a vent of possibilities billow by a generous power and whoosh down his limbs like he's in free-fall, but even the things that look the same carry with them a concurrent sense of tacked-on time, the dumb ache of facing the workings of an inaccessible history, and what do you know, Charlie‘s still somewhat famous in select circles around town, as in a cardboard cut-out lore pressed mostly out of pulp tales of semi-known and suspected jobs he pulled off in the day, a sphere of unwanted renown based on versions lifted from public print and hearsay with its own lifespan, and sure, the cultured criminati in the scene are making visible space for him, hyping his return exactly one fuck of a lot more than they did his absence, throwing this backyard welcome-out shindig with grilled meats on Styrofoam plates and confetti smiles of the long-lost, where every last one of them seems compelled by a sense of moral failure to ask Charlie if he got the letters that can only be rightly lost or still at the post office, but he is struggling to receive them neutrally, the halting attempts at counterfeit concern by the formerly familiar, a tumble of motley faces he wouldn't choose to remember or give a verified rat‘s ass about either way, and when he spots her standing at a remove from the human clutter milling about, the part of his brain without ambition or information recognizes something about her he could not define well enough to look for, some quality either actual or maybe bled from his own abraded psyche making the whole tableau seem Xeroxed, everyone that is, except for the girl standing offish with crossed feet and empty hands near the weed-tufted margin of a withered garden, a disaffected distance hanging off her like a shawl.

Breathe. Charlie wants to restrain his mind, tries to find the one deep breath that will erase from his aspect any residue of big yard swagger. The air is a heatsoak of singed t-bones and cigarettes. He walks over by her and stops short, an unpresumptuous space between them. His chemicals are haywire from the physical fact of her and he is struggling to stop noticing her particulars.

The gist of conveying casual interest is not lost on him, but the subtleties, the ghost notes of non-verbal harmonizing, these are another matter. This breaching of nerves could be an onset of the freedom bends, he might have surfaced too quickly for his own good. Where to direct his eyes and what is the interval between shifty and staring, how did he ever get this right? Being natural is simply a pose he can no longer strike. Prison has ruined his personal sense of idealized form, leaving him pie-eyed toward the measure of beauty in most instances, but she is clearly outside the lensing effect of his vast loneliness.

He remembers being socially agile, the one with the sort of self-reliant wit around women that others would sometimes envy, but his thoughts so far are a clashing patchwork, and this unbidden awareness of himself is making him feel alien, a stark layer of separateness coating him like an inside-out garment. Being constantly watched, he decides, in no way equates to being seen once.

If only he could stop thinking about the placement and angle of his feet.

Following her cue, he directs his gaze to the incidental crop of wiry grasses reclaiming the rough patch in front of them. He is grateful for the subject matter.

"I think weeds are Mother Nature's graffiti," he says. "How she tags up her own literal turf."

"It‘s a little sad to look at."

"An exhibit you might pay not to see in, let's say, the museum of failed endeavors." -

"The little brass plaque could say: Life size replica of the worst-kept secret in the entire zip code."

"A social comment on modern man's best laid plans," he says, and she looks at him for the first detectable time. She really looks. There is something wary about her, a field of soft caution raised toward him, or maybe, he thinks, she is practiced at warding off walking clichés in general.

He swallows reflexively and adds, "And woman‘s."

She is wearing a short black t-shirt that reads: Two opposable thumbs up for Darwin. Her hair is every color of black and spills straight as ribbons past her shoulders. Conspicuous blue eyes flash up at him like some element fatal to the flesh, giving her look a level of contrast half disruptive to his under-nourished cortex. 

He wonders whether the delicate lure dangling from her belly button justifies his openly admiring it. Her jeans are mischief for the imagination, the high-focus areas faded gloriously and emphasized by a superfluous belt. She has on mismatched Chuck
Taylors: one red, one blue. He notes the silver rings on both thumbs and every finger except the one he checks first.

They watch the rows of sun-dried tomato stakes as if listening to the soup of voices behind them, a lull in the pace he blames on the shorting out of his speakable ideas. The silence between them gains density but he senses a certain economy of word about her. Or maybe he is being wishful, because sometimes silence is misread as disinterest, or worse yet, a personality lapse. He waits for the veer in her bearing, the put-off cues of the easily disenchanted.

She turns fully and, facing him, offers her hand. "I‘m Moira," she says matter-of-factly, with no ado or lying about how nice it is to meet him.

"As in, one of the Fates," he says, shaking her hand. His own is regrettably damp.

"You're the first person ever who knew that," she says with an upturned cotton gaze like a fingertip tracing the button-fly of his soul. "I mean no one, ever. I usually don't even tell people. Because it just sounds corny when I say it."

"I'm fighting the urge to use the word 'poetic' in a sentence for the same reason. Because in all honesty, I almost didn't show up today at all." 

When he tells her his name, she says, "I know."

He studies her over the rim of his ginger ale, inwardly booming like a summer storm.

He is gearing his mind toward surface talk, the middling plane of the noncommittal, because what if she mistakes his lack of reserve for a need to impose his own sense of self onto her. But the wayward current in her voice is an undertow. He wants to ask her a thousand questions about herself, but settles for whether she would like something to drink, a beer maybe. Alcohol, she tells him graciously, only switches on a shame precursor gene she inherited from her Irish grandparents.

She gives off the impression of someone who doesn't want to hear what she already knows. She does not ask the usual situational questions for which he would have to concoct an awkward response, and this deepens his fascination.

He finds himself talking, hears himself speaking maybe too openly of the world he‘s rejoining in progress and it feels oddly intimate in this setting. The word friend has become an unsettling verb while he was away, and he wonders aloud why the permanence of cyber blathering seems to give no one pause. He waits for her to reprove his obsolescence, or worse yet, to ask what it was like inside, which he would be unable to answer without coming off either plaintive or hardened. But instead she says something funny about getting matching MedicA1ert bracelets that say: Do not resuscitate with alcohol or social media. He is unaccustomed to being heard straightforwardly and startled by his inward unwalling. There‘s no telling what she might say next.

Every year, she tells him, she hopes they will give a hurricane her name so that when she watches the news alone, she can pretend the anchors are talking about her. She doesn't drive because other drivers don‘t seem trustworthy, and traffic makes her feel mentally undiagnosed. But she knows her way around a computer, she says, real well. He listens to her with an ease of attention and feels a daft sense of privilege in bearing witness to the matters she is sharing with him.

The day sheds its shadows and someone lights a bonfire.

Charlie can almost feel their personal space contouring, he pictures it anyway as if from a distance, they've become their own subset now, visibly sidelined in a pocket of mutual withdrawal. But he waits for what, a clear signal, because certain discrepancies between inner and outer lives can be embarrassing. Maybe the way she is fingering her hair isn't flirtatious after all. There is a dancerly abandon in her hand gestures, the stray flourish tossed in mid-sentence like a morsel of grace. He looks for a superficial discontent, the press-on angst some girls claw your back with because they think it makes them more interesting. But the thing about her is, she's an unreadable page-turner. She has perfectly crooked incisors, a shy mouth that implies more than she says. The half-bitten thing she does with her lip makes her seem private, even attainable.

She steps in close and approximates a co-conspirator voice. "I heard you held up all fifteen windows at the Reserve bank downtown by yourself, one at a time."

"Allegedly. The jury got hung up on that count. And it was only twelve."

"I remember them calling you the Gentleman Bandit on the news, when they were looking for you. They said you called everyone sir or ma'am and thanked them afterward."

"I just see no need to compound an already dire moment by being rude. I say rob others as you would have them rob you."

"I think that's kind of sweet, in a villainous way. And, I don‘t know, dashing."

"So did the judge."

"That's how old I was then. Twelve. Allegedly."

"Well. No one'd accuse you of being twelve now."

"I could use a ride."

"Where you headed?"

"Away from here, for starters," she says, and he never drops her off.

***

He watches her through the windshield and double panes of commercially tinted plate glass, she is in the bank lobby leveling the scruples of a persnickety teller like a mail-order hypnotist. She has on a pink cotton candy sweeter that fits like gauze, and cheerleader eye shadow. He feels a sinister bloodflow, like he could lose it right there, gripping the steering wheel. He is watching her stroke another man's hindbrain and he knows it's cheap, his creaturely fascination, and not something he‘d admit freely, but it‘s going down with or without him watching and he can't make himself look away.

His nerves thud and thicken maybe vicariously, and maybe it's his voyeur’s vantage making him shudder, the peepshow rush of seeing her take center stage, a mango tease of perk and vamp. He is on fire from tip to tip, in semi-belief at her darling scheme even as it unfolds. She is fingering her pig-tails, and he knows her giggle from behind. The sweetened larceny of nothings for something, lubricated by whatever fiction she is mouthing.

The check could have been written on a coaster.

She bounces onto the passenger seat and licks his earlobe, pressing the envelope thickly into his lap. "See?" she says, and leans her seat back, pulling his hand over by the wrist. "One computer and a pair of these, and you don't need a gun."

***
To be continued.....




Steve Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

1 comment:

cecampbell said...

Wow. Absolutely excellent writing, no matter the website.