An old man discovers that his granddaughter is not quite what she seemed.
|Note ▼ |
Abner Mortensen shuffled into the Primavera Bar and leaned on the door frame to rest. Worry gnawed at his belly and writhed in his mind as he peered around.
It was a yuppie sort of place, the kind his grand-daughter might have liked: brightly lit with emerald wall sconces shaped like seashells and hanging lights of variegated green crystals over each table; comfortable beige upholstered chairs; round tables like lime frisbees on twisted poles; modern art that appeared nothing more than snot smeared on canvas. Please God, may they have seen my Sandy.
Heaving himself away from the door, he plodded to the bar and eased up onto a chair with a sigh, like a piece of old farm machinery chugging into the barn and wheezing to a stop.
Although it was half-full, the bar was surprisingly quiet. Patrons at the tables shared murmured secrets or sorrows over their drinks. The basketball game on the TV was muted. At the far end of the bar, waitresses muttered drink orders to the bartender over the electronic chirps of the till. The hum of traffic outside and the whisper of overhead fans emphasized the silence. The quiet--and the hope that he would learn something about his missing grand-daughter, Sandra--eased the tension in his bones.
The relaxation brought a memory of Sandy. "You're my old basset hound, Papa," she had told him once, not so long ago. It's true, Mortensen smiled in reminiscence: every morning when he shaved, the mirror showed sagging jowls, a pendulous bottom lip, dark bags under sleepy, watery brown eyes with droopy lids, and large ears with floppy, swaying lobes. I'm not the handsomest of men, Lord knows. But bassets are friendly, easygoing, smart, and stubborn. I've been called worse things. I could be worse things.
He swiped at the wispy, lifeless grey hair that struggled vainly to cover a balding scalp and brought his mind to the present.
The bartender--the man he'd come to talk to--was stocky and muscular, approaching middle age but well-preserved. Wavy dark hair and a Fu Manchu moustache sandwiched narrowed black eyes. From a distance, his eyes look mean. Would Sandy have liked him? Oh, I hope not.
Since his target was busy at the till at the far end of the bar, Mortenson eased his sore feet onto the stool's foot-rest and prepared to wait. Waiting was something he'd learned to do well.
Eventually, the bartender came over. "What'll it be, old timer?"
Oh, yes, definitely mean, beady eyes. Mortensen cleared his throat. The name stitched onto the man's apron read 'Lukas'. "Well, Lukas, I'm hoping to talk with you a bit."
"This is a bar, buddy, not a radio talk show. What're you drinking?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Yes. Uh, beer, please. Bud Light."
The bartender stooped into a fridge under the bar, popped the top off the bottle, and set it onto the green tiled bar. He added a glass as an afterthought.
Oh, my, that much? How could Sandy have afforded this? Mortensen fondled a ten out of his wallet and held it up. The barman snatched it and walked off, apparently considering the two dollars change an obligatory tip.
Mortensen sipped his beer, mourning the loss of his change, but enjoying the hiss of bubbles, the froth against his lip, the sour tang on his tongue, the refreshing coolness in his throat. Perhaps I should do this more often. Once a month, maybe. Just to get out a bit. Perhaps Sandra is right, I'm an old stick-in-the-mud.
The bartender was flirting with the waitresses when not running the till, but he finally came over when Mortensen's glass was nearing empty.
"Yes, thank you. But, please, I'm sorry to bother you; I can see that you're a busy man. I do apologize for taking up your time, ...."
"'I'm sorry.' 'I apologize.' Fuck, you are a real sad sack. You're depressing just to be around."
"I know, it's true. Lugubrious, that's what I am. Isn't that a beautiful word, lugubrious?"
"A fuckin' flake, that's what you are. You want another beer or not?
"Yes, thank you. But please, I don't mean to bother you, it's, well, I just need a little of your time, just a couple of questions."
"You got questions, you ask Alexa. I ain't no fuckin' search engine." He opened another bottle, slammed it onto the bar, and held out his hand for money.
"Please, I know it's an imposition, really I do, but I just have to ask. You may have knowledge of something, I know it won't be important to you but, you see, it's terribly important to me. Did a young woman come in two nights ago, and maybe leave with a man? She's my grand-daughter, and she lives with me, but she hasn't come home. It's been two nights now. I'm so worried that something bad may have happened to her."
Lukas laughed. "A young woman comes in here, and she leaves with a guy, and she don't show up at home? Buddy, that movie plays here a few times a night, all week long. It's called Getting Lucky.
"You owe me eight bucks. Pay up."
"I'm so sorry. It's my fault. I was far too vague. Of course, girls come in and leave with men. That's life. I'm not as old as I look, and I do understand that these things happen. Here's her photo. This is my grand-daughter, Sandy. Isn't she beautiful? Please just look and tell me if you've seen her."
The bartender slapped the photo unseen onto the bar and took the lapel of Mortensen's jacket, caressing it as though considering tearing it off. "Listen, Buster, and listen good. Unless you got a subpoena, I don't blab about my customers." He pulled on the lapel, drawing Mortensen almost nose to nose. "Would you like it if some old pervert came in asking if I'd seen you in here and you didn't want it known? On second thought, I don't like you, and I'd tell everything I know. Now pay up, drink your beer, and get lost. Or just fuck off, I don't give a shit."
He released the lapel and Mortensen recovered his balance by pressing on the bar.
"Of course. I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to upset you. I just don't know how to approach people. I guess I rub them the wrong way." He fumbled a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to Lukas, mentally kissing it goodbye and expecting to never see his change. He straightened his clothes, huddled over his beer and wondered, Oh, dear, why is so he angry? I must have said something to upset him. Was Sandy here and he's angry that I asked about her? Now what will I do? Whatever will I do?
In a back corner of the bar, a waitress was taking a break. She was hunched over and rubbing her temples. Ah, do I know from migraines, poor thing. Perhaps she could help. He picked up his beer, eased off the bar stool, and trudged towards the corner.
"Please, miss, may I sit at your table? I'm sorry to intrude, I can see that you're not feeling well, but I'm very worried about my grand-daughter and I hope that perhaps you could help me."
The woman looked up with tears in her eyes. Oh, dear. Headache? Or heartache? She was about Sandy's age, perhaps a few years older, a slender brunette with a narrow face framed with black hair in a pixie cut. A cute girl, despite her pouting lip and running mascara.
He wrung his hands and shifted from foot to foot. His brown summer suit jacket hung baggy and slack from sloping shoulders; the creaseless trousers puddled in waves above his scuffed shoes.
"I've come at a bad time. I can see that. My timing is always poor. I'm so sorry. I know I'm intruding. You probably want privacy, I can understand that. I apologize for my effrontery. That's a good word, effrontery. I'm not usually like this, I assure you, but I'm so worried that I'm not myself. I really am sorry."
She gave him a twisted smile. "You're a walking apology, aren't you? Well, why shouldn't you barge into my life? Join the crowd. Sit."
"Thank you. Oh, you're so kind to help an old man. My name is Abner Mortensen. Call me Abe. I do apologize for imposing at what is clearly a bad time for you. My timing is terrible."
"Yeah, yeah. So what d'ya want?"
"Have you seen this girl?" She took the offered photo from him, and tilted it for a better view under the green table light. Her eyes narrowed and she glared at him.
"You crazy bastard," she hissed. "You pathetic old fool. You wanna get killed? You wanna get me killed? As if I didn't already have enough problems because of this bitch? Take this goddam picture and get the hell out of here before the wrong people find out you been asking questions." She shoved the photo into his hands. "Go! Leave. Now." She leaned her forehead against the table and covered her head with her arms as though to protect herself from assault.
He stumbled to his feet in bewilderment, almost knocking over his chair. Oh, dear. What have I done? What has Sandra done? Sandy isn't what she called her, Sandy's a nice girl. As he turned to leave, he clearly heard her mutter, "Midnight. Parking lot across the street."
His mind numb, he wandered between the tables and out of the bar. He stood in the middle of the sidewalk, dazed and uncertain and a little drunk. People swirled past him, a kaleidoscope of motion and color that left him disoriented and dizzy. Across the street was the dimly-lit parking lot where he was to meet the waitress in two hours.
There was a small park at the end of the block, so he headed that way. Better sit down and rest. Don't need to give myself a heart attack or something. As he approached a bench, a man shouldered him aside and sent him staggering.
"Look where you're going, you old fart!" The man looked young, in his early twenties, short and olive-skinned, handsome, and clean-cut. Abner was still struggling to regain his balance when the youth pushed him again.
"Benj, my man, whatchu got here? Got an old fart to play with?" A black youth had cut behind Abner and pushed him towards the first. A third boy, short and swarthy, joined them. "Yeah, old guy like you, can't walk straight, whatchu doin' out so late?" The three cuffed and pushed Abner, sneering, tormenting him, keeping him staggering off balance while driving him towards a darker corner of the park.
Fear clenched Abner's stomach and bile burned in his throat. Damn you, was a time I'd have wiped the floor with all three of you. Time was..." He realized he was in for a beating, maybe worse. In desperation, he pulled the photo of Sandy out of his pocket and waved it at the first boy, who seemed to be the leader. "Look," he blurted, "My grand-daughter."
Benj grabbed the photo and glared at it. Whipping his cell phone from his back pocket, he used it to light the photo, then looked up at Abner in consternation. "You're The White Shadow's old man? Why dinchu say so?" He pocketed the phone, handed the photo back, then straightened Abners jacket and patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. "Sorry, man. No harm, no foul, right? White Shadow, she's good karma. We're all good, yeah? Fade, guys." The other two boys vanished into the gloom while Benj led Abner to the bench nearest the street light. "You just rest here as long as you want, Gramps. You won't see us, but the Corsairs got your back, long as you need us."
White Shadow? They thought Sandy was this White Shadow? What on earth was Sandy up to? And Corsairs? What was that all about? He slumped on the bench, jacket collar turned up against the growing evening chill, listening to the irregular rhythm of his racing heart as it slowed, and wondering if he really knew his grand-daughter. Perplexing, that's what it is. Perplexing is a fine word for the situation.
He tucked his hands under his armpits and thought of the past few years with Sandy.
"Hey, Papa, can I come to crash with you for a while?" said the bright little-girl voice on the phone. "Things aren't great here since Mom died, and I need to get away." Her mother, Abner's daughter Barbara, had died of a fall down the basement stairs last year.
"How come you don't want to live at home with your dad, Sandy?"
"Reasons. Good reasons. Tell you later, okay? So, can I come?"
He'd sent little gifts at Christmas and birthdays, but hadn't seen her much over the years except for Barbara's funeral. Abe's wife, Sandy's grandma, had died two years ago, a double whammy of wife and daughter, and he was lonely. He had a spare room. He was tempted. "I don't know, Sandy, I'm an old man. You're a kid. We're worlds apart. We might not get along so good, you know? But I guess, you come, we can see. Let me talk to your dad."
Her father had absolutely forbidden the idea. Nonetheless, Sandy had waltzed into his life--no, it was more like a paso doble, full of drama and flair--six years ago, when she was fourteen. She had brought only an oversized purse and a carry-on suitcase off the plane, but bore a presence that filled the concourse and turned heads. She wore a soft, clingy grey spaghetti-strap dress down to mid-thigh, with a black top, black pantyhose, and black sneakers with white laces. Her brilliant smile was her only makeup; her cascade of blonde hair made him think of the Olympic torch. She glowed. Abner had blushed to note how she filled out the dress; she had been flat at her mother's funeral.
He had showed her into the tiny bedroom, bare and undecorated except for two inexpensive stuffed animals he had placed on the bed. What did he know from teenaged girls? "That's all you got for luggage? Never knew a girl to pack so few clothes."
A silver cascade of laughter had greeted his comment. "There's more, Papa, there's more. But one step at a time, yes?" They both smiled when she quoted his own bit of wisdom to him. "I enrolled at Simonson High online, so I'm ready to start classes tomorrow."
"Online? You can start high school online?"
"You can do classes online, Papa, if you want. But I want to go to an actual school, be with real kids, get into real trouble." She winked at him. "So, now that I'm here, I will take care of you, Papa. What can I make you for supper? Let's go check out the kitchen."
They had spaghetti with canned sauce that she dug out of the cupboard. "Not too badly stale dated," she had joked. It was good spaghetti. Not as good as Mama used to make, but better than if I had made it. Nothing stuck together, nothing burnt.
Over the spaghetti, she explained why she had wanted to leave home and her father, Danny. "Ever since I grew boobs, Dad's been a pain. Guy's got too many hands and he wants to put them in all the wrong places."
"Holy sh--, uh, crap. That sleazy bastard. I'll call the cops tomorrow."
"Nah, he's not worth the hassle. He wants to fuck me, I don't want to fuck him, I'm out of there, end of story."
Abner was shocked at her language but had never liked his son-in-law in the first place so made no further complaint. And when the man was run over by a cab a few weeks later, all he thought was Good riddance.
Now, sitting on a park bench in the gathering gloom, he tugged on his pendulous lower lip and wondered. I'm not the world's biggest brain, I know. I'm a bit thick in the head at times. I must be thick, not to have noticed that both her parents died accidentally within the same year. With her coming in the middle. Each death like a parenthesis around her coming. Parenthesis, I like the sound of that word, sounds so much nicer than 'bracket'. But two accidents. Accidents? I wonder. Nah, I'm barking up the wrong fire hydrant.
After the meal she had announced her intention to go for a walk around the 'hood to get oriented.
"I'll come too, Sandy. Not right for a young girl to walk around alone at night."
"Papa, Papa, no offense meant but you walk like an old plow-horse. I'd have to run in circles around you. Besides," she patted her purse as she slung it over her shoulder, "I'm packing."
"You mean a gun? Fourteen years old and you have a gun?"
"Yes, Papa, I have a gun. G'night. Don't wait up." She waggled her fingers at him, flashed her thousand-watt smile, and was gone. Walk like an old plow horse. Phooey. Bemused, he locked the door and watched television until bedtime. He never heard her return.
The next morning, he got up to freshly-brewed coffee and a table setting for one. There was a glass of orange juice. He didn't have OJ on hand; she must have brought it home last night. On the plate was a note. "Off to school, Papa. Hope you slept well--you snore like an old basset hound baying at the moon! I may play sports after school, might not make supper so I put a casserole in the 'fridge for you."
That set the tone for their lives. She was up early, left him a note, left supper if she wasn't coming back early. Occasionally she came home, bringing fresh ingredients, then left after the meal for basketball, or soccer, or whatever. Sometimes she came home a little early, sweaty and flushed; more often, she returned quietly after he was asleep. Only once in a great while did they pop corn and relax on the sofa to watch a movie or game show, or go out to a restaurant.
He noticed that she was always well-dressed, fashionable but never showy, never sexy or revealing like other girls her age that he saw on the streets or in the stores. "You always got nice clothes, Sandy. You doing okay for money?"
"My old man left me enough after the bus hit him. Life insurance and stuff."
"Bus? I thought it was a taxi."
"Whatever. But I'm okay. Thanks for asking."
A nice girl, polite all the time, keeps her room clean and dresses nice. Takes care of me. What more can you ask? So she packs heat, so what?
Thinking about it on the park bench, the circumstances of Dan's death disturbed him. There had been a funeral of some kind, but Sandra had refused to go. No surprise, there. But there had never been any discussion of a will, or probate, or lawyers after her father's death. She had been paying him a little rent, and more than her share of groceries. She always dressed well, had a new cell-phone. He'd seen her taking a cab after supper.
She always had money. In retrospect--there's a good word, looking back--where did the money come from? I may be slow, I know I'm not the sharpest tack in the box, but how is it that for years I didn't question that thing about it coming from Danny? I guess it could have been so, but she was a minor, she couldn't have dealt with lawyers and courts and stuff. Or could she? She always said she was at school but she could have taken time off. Couldn't she? I got no idea how that insurance stuff works, never had any. Maybe I should have a will. But I got nothing to leave.
One afternoon, two years after she'd come to stay with him, Sandra had breezed into the room waving a certificate. "Lookie, lookie, Papa--I am a genuine high school graduate!" He had stared at it in wonder. Something he'd never achieved, yet here she was only 16 and graduated? Wowser, the girl's a mover, she is!
"So, what you going to do now? Find a job? Get married?"
"Ick to both of those. I've already enrolled at State for the summer session. Economics and Political Science. Classes start next week. Let's go out for pizza to celebrate!"
One of the few times we went out to a restaurant together. Fredrico's down the block. I may not have the world's greatest memory, for sure I don't, but I remember that. A pizza place full of people, teen-agers some of them, yet nobody recognized her. So, nobody recognized me, either, so what? I was never in the place before or after. And who looks at a tired old man anyway? Everybody had eyes for Sandy, such a beauty she was. But she'd been coming and going past the place for two years and nobody says, 'Hi, Sandy' or nothing. Like she'd never been in with friends or anything. So, two dozen pizza joints within a few blocks, maybe she was better known in them?
"Here, Papa, I got you a present." She had handed it to him across the pepperoni and mushrooms--a book, A Word a Day. "Improve your vocabulary, Papa. Help keep your mind active. Something to do besides watching TV."
He had been pleased, and learning a new word had become part of each day.
"So, Sandra, good morning. How are classes going?" His prostate had dragged him out of bed early, before Sandra had left for the day.
"Oh, Papa! So early today! Good morning. Classes are good. Tougher than high school, for sure, but interesting." She tore a paper packet, poured the instant cereal into a bowl. "Shall I make you some oatmeal?
"Ach, no, thank you. Toast, please. So how come you never bring books home to do homework? Or study?"
"I've rented a carrel at the college. It's got a lockup, so I can leave all my stuff there where I do my work and studying. Beats carting a load of books and a laptop around. There, two bread in the toaster, butter there, marmalade." She bustled about, pouring hot water into her oatmeal, eating it, setting out a plate and knife, pouring a glass of juice, making him a cup of coffee. He shifted from foot to foot in his worn pyjamas and robe like a toddler needing to pee, rubbing sleep from his eyes and blinking at her energy. With a wave and a smile, she was out the door, and all he could do was stand and blink. The girl is incorrigible. Good word, that.
The waitress scurried across the street to the parking lot, looking left and right for traffic but maybe watching for Abe. He bolted from the bench, almost tripped himself in his haste, then shuffled through the shadows to where she sat in her beige Golf. He heard the locks click as he approached, but she rolled down her window.
"Squat. Get down. Stay low, damn it."
He leaned heavily on the car and got to his knees on the gravel.
"Listen, I gotta be quick. Your Sandy, she's into some heavy shit and she's pissed off some nasty people. They're after her, want her bad, hired killer bad. She's got some friends looking after her, hiding her out, but anybody who might have a clue where she is is gonna be in a world of pain. I just quit my job and I'm headed out of state. Lukas is hitting the road right after he locks up. Go home, old man, forget her, keep your nose out of it."
She peeled out, peppering him with a spray of gravel. He crawled to the nearest car and hauled himself to his feet. Heavy shit? My little Sandy? Hired killer? Ridiculous...he groped for a word...Farcical, yes, a good word, farce. But all those nights away, she said she was at school, or volleyball, or the library. I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. I believed her. Every time. So easy to lie to a stupid old man, feed him supper and pour him orange juice and he'll believe anything you say. Yet even now, tired, angry, half-asleep and feeling two steps from the grave, he wanted to believe in the Sandy of his memories.
He limped across the street. Supporting himself against the wall of the bar, he forced his feet to take him home.
His door was ajar. He knew he had locked it when he left.
His chest locked with a clutch of panic and he struggled to breathe. His legs ached from the walk home. His heart pounded like the drum track from that heavy metal the neighbor kid played too loud all the time.
Fast and low. He'd seen police shows, knew how to do this. He leaned his shoulder into the door and crumpled in a heap in the entryway.
"Oh, Papa, are you all right?"
"Sandy? You're home?" Amazement and relief leavened his fatigue. She and a young man, the Corsair leader--Benjamin?--helped him to his feet and led him to his chair.
"Where have you been, Papa? I've been so worried."
"Looking for you," he wheezed. "Worried me too. Gone two days. Thought you'd been hurt."
"Oh, Papa, I'm so sorry. Bad things are happening. Benj and I have to move, and fast."
She nibbled her lower lip. Her hair was disarrayed and her clothing rumpled. Never seen her so disheveled. Must be really bad.
"Papa, you look terrible. So tired. You look just worn out."
He nodded, his eyes closing in agreement. Yes, Sandy, your old basset hound is one tired puppy.
"And you must miss Mama terribly." He nodded again.
Something cold and hard was pushed into his hand. He felt her move his hand and the cold hard thing wedged under his chin. He struggled to sit up, to see, but Sandra eased him back into the chair.
"It's okay, Papa. These bad people, they're after me, they know I lived here, and they will come for you. Hurt you to make you tell what you know of me. But I'll take care of you. It's okay. It'll be okay. You're tired, so tired, and you know it's time for you to be with Mama."
Wrong about her, so wrong. A man sees what he wants to see. Damn, I'll never know what she really is, who she really is. But yes, it will be fine to be with Mama. His breath, frozen with fear but suddenly freed, went out with a deep sigh, and he bowed his head in acquiescence.
She wrapped her warm hand around his cold, gnarled fingers and squeezed the trigger.