She closed the door quietly behind her. Even so, easing it shut by inches, the latch bolt clicked loudly into place, at least to her. She stood there a moment, very still, ear to the cold, blue plywood door listening for any inside sound. Nothing. She turned then, hitched her tote bag higher up on the shoulder and set out down the landing, careful to step quietly.
The sun had yet to rise, but the sky had begun to blush in the east; she could make out the contours of the city. The morning air was cool but smelled of gasoline. She had forty-five minutes to get to the corner of Santa Monica and Vermont where Kathy's friend would be waiting in a blue pickup. Once she reached the sidewalk she turned right and began walking in earnest.
The blue pickup was there. As she walked toward it she realized she didn't know his name. Kathy never mentioned it. But this was the right guy. He was the only blue pickup around, and she was the only red sweater and black tote bag, Kathy's instructions. His engine was running. She could see the mist of exhaust, orange in the street light like some sort of fruit bleeding. There was no mistaking each other. She came around the passenger side. He leaned over and opened the door and she climbed in. The car was smaller on the inside than she had imagined. The door wouldn't shut.
“You have to slam it,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
She let it out a bit and pulled hard. It sprang shut with a squeak and for just a shadow she feared she might have woken him up. “That's the way,” said Kathy's friend as he put the truck in gear.
She had no idea what Kathy had told this guy, but she was grateful for whatever it was. He did not try to make her talk. He drove, eyes ahead, Santa Monica east and onto the Hollywood Freeway south. Traffic already, but not bad. She leaned back against the head rest and tried to feel that immense relief she had planned just about now, but it didn't come. She was sitting in a car going south towards downtown and she did not feel like an eagle just let free, not like a prisoner just escaped, not like that suddenly grownup woman she was supposed to feel like just about now. She closed her eyes and heard the engine and the wheels on the concrete hitting the joints - tedan, tedan, tedan, tedan - and all she felt was the motion - tedan, tedan, tedan - and she was still her daddy's girl. Kathy's friend remained silent. Eyes ahead.
They turned east on the San Bernardino Freeway and the sun came up. Already, thousands of cars were going the other way, to work. A glittering snake unsure whether to move.
Trick to driving in L.A., Dad always said, is going in the right direction. Dad. He's right though. They were doing seventy at least, the others stop and go at ten, at best. He would be up now, worried. He was putting it together. It wasn't just that she'd been out all night and hadn't come home yet, he had seen her come in last night, had said good night. Later, he had hesitated outside her door, about to come and tuck her in. About to, but hadn't when he remembered she didn't want him to anymore. He would realize by now, by all the stuff gone from her side of the bathroom shelf: makeup, toothbrush, paste, perfume. Her tote bag gone. Her bed cold by the time he thought of checking. She had left. Well, she had told him, warned him. He would know by now what he was seeing was true. She was not missing by accident. She had up and gone on purpose. He would know that by now.
She saw him, unshaven, unable to sit down when he is nervous or unsure, walking around from her room to his, to the front room to the kitchen, back to her room trying to make sense of no her. Walking around and around the apartment like the poor animal in its cage in that clip of the Tasmanian wolf. Black and white clip, old, scratchy. The last one, said the commentator, the very last one of its kind. It is now extinct. Round and round its cage. Did it know it was the last one, the very last one. Not even a mate around to at least try with. Or perhaps it knew where its mate was, but they wouldn't let him out. Did he realize that with him they would be gone, his race of wolves? The very last mate-less one, round and round the cage, round and round the apartment trying, and trying, but unable to really believe she had. Just up and left. He would think about calling Mom, but he wouldn't. Just think about it walking round and round, the last of the species. No, he wouldn't call her, not yet, not for hours, maybe not for a day or two. Hoping she would come back. But she wouldn't. She would not. She had warned him.
They reached San Bernardino on a total of nine words: eight for him, one for her. Then the tenth.
“Hungry?” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
“How about breakfast, then. Drive-thru or sit-down?”
“Let's go in somewhere.”
He spotted a Denny’s and pulled in. They found a window table and sat down. Ordered. The guy looked out the window, and now she was wondering what on earth Kathy could have told him about her. To keep him this quiet.
“How long have you known Kathy?” she asked.
He turned from the window and faced her. First good look at him. Not handsome, not ugly. Looked tired. Acne. Greasy hair. Twenty something.
“Oh, a few years.”
“You from Pennsylvania too?”
Their order arrived. He was starving. She could not remember ever seeing anyone eat food at quite that speed. It wasn't eating, it was obliterating. He looked up halfway through, just a quick glance, and she actually said, “Sorry”, meaning about staring at him. He did not acknowledge that at all, more like didn't hear it at all, for he was back into act two with a vengeance, and then he was washing it down with coffee and she had barely touched her scrambled eggs.
“Gonna eat all of those?” he said.
“Actually, yes,” she answered. “But I'll be sure to let you know if I change my mind.”
He didn't pick up on the sarcasm. “Great,” he said.
She ate all of it and at least he didn't look disappointed. He was looking out the window again.
“Kathy be in Vegas when we get there, then?” she asked.
“Her mom's okay on me coming? You know?”
“Yup, you know, or yup, she's okay?”
“She's okay. They've made a room ready for you.”
A room ready for her? Now she wondered what Kathy could have told her mom.
She sipped her coffee and her dad returned. Still walking the apartment. Sit down, please Dad. Please. Sorry, hun. And he'd sit down for one minute, perhaps two, and then simply had to get up. He just could not explain it, he said. Just couldn't think sitting down, he said. Lately he had been sitting down mostly, though. No need to think. Job going well, he said. Money's coming in. Current on the rent. Here's an extra twenty for you, hun. Thanks, Dad, as if twenty was money. He sure wouldn't be sitting still now though, thinking, thinking.
Back in the truck, heading east for Vegas. No joints here in the tarmac. Wheels rolling smoothly, humming. She was tired but didn't want to close her eyes, didn't want to see her dad, round and round.
“And you?” he asked.
“How long have you known Kathy?”
“Oh, about two years.”
“Kathy's in school?”
“Not anymore. Community college two years ago. Same class.”
“She's something, isn't she?”
“I like her a lot.”
He didn't answer that, returned to only driving. Eyes ahead.
He would have to get to work by now. Couldn't call in sick. Not since the warning. He'd probably forget to shave. Not that it mattered much. Nobody really cares what a cook looks like back there in the kitchen, on his feet all day, running around stirring soups. I'm on my feet all day, that's how I think, he said. Just can't sit down and think.
Round and round. He'd remember at the last minute that he had to get to work. Panicked, rushed, any clothes would do, he had a locker at the restaurant with his cook stuff, shower too, fortunately. Hope the car starts okay, the night had been kind of cool. Don't think then, Dad. Christ. Just sit down. And he'd look at her, worry all over him, dripping from him, and he would actually sit down, she would see the determination on his face, the effort it took him to force that body down, down into the chair, legs close together, hands knotted into one, but sitting, and she loved him for it, and she hated him for it.
She had never liked Las Vegas. Not that she'd been here a lot, only a couple of times with Kathy. Too hot, too hyped. Nothing here was in the least real. It was a mammoth version of The Emperor's New Clothes. “But he hasn't got anything on,” a little child said. And the entire town goes, “We know!” And we don't care. How could they possibly not see. All these guys going here all the time, all these conventions. So fake. But Kathy's mom lived here, made good money at one of the hotels as a dealer, and Kathy liked it okay, came to visit a lot. And now they were getting a room ready for her. What could she possibly have told her mother?
Dad would be 'at the soups,' as he likes to call it, by now. He was very good at soups. Could make soups out of almost nothing, and sometimes had to. But mostly he made soups out of potatoes, leaks, onion, garlic, carrots, coconuts, yes, coconuts, spices, he knew spices Dad did, mango, squash, tomato, he'd use anything that was in season. Only buy vegetables in season, he'd say. But everything is in season somewhere, she answered. Locally, he added. It's a Zen thing, she said. It's a cook thing, he said. He knew soups. Not women, though. Why he married Mom, he could never figure out. It had been up to her, as they put it, at the divorce, and she didn't hesitate for a second, she'd stay with him, which mom has never forgiven her, and even less forgiven him, although how could that be his fault, she wondered.
They pulled up to the house. There were no lawns out here, just large fields of sand. She wondered where they got the water from. The city always grew. Always new hotels, always new houses for people to work the always new hotels. Always more, and more, and flashier, and more, and fake. Kathy's mom came out to greet them. Lisa. They stepped out of the car, into an oven. The air conditioning had been on, she hadn't even noticed. She remembered to slam the door.
“Kathy's not here yet,” she said. “Got tied up at work. She'll come tonight.”She came over to hug her, and she hugged her hard. What on earth had Kathy told her? Lisa opened the door and they stepped into a fridge.
“We've made up the den for you,” she said. Proudly. And she showed the way. She followed and was impressed, remembered the room as a dump, a sort of rumpus and storage room, it looked great now.
“Wow,” she said. “Very nice.”
“Kathy insisted,” Lisa said. She wasn't sure how to take that, but Lisa was smiling, a real smile, not Vegas, so she figured to take it well.
“You know where the kitchen is, and the fridge. You wanna freshen up? Robert!” she said then to Kathy's friend, following us around the house, as if she noticed him for the first time. “How was the drive? Wanna beer?”
“T'was okay. And, yes. Please.”
“What about you, hun? Wanna beer?”
“No thanks. Thanks, though.”
She opened the fridge, took out one beer, and gave it to Robert. So that was his name. He drank beer the way he ate. Lisa must have been used to it for she didn't stare.
“Thanks, Lisa,” said Robert. “Gotta get going.” Then looking at her, he said, “See ya,” and was off.
“He's a darling,” said Lisa. “Known Kathy since grade school. Think he's got a crush on her, but she doesn't give him the time of day, not in those terms, if you know what I mean.”
“I do,” she said.
“So, listen, hun. Make yourself at home. I have to get ready, and in to work. Kathy should be here before I'm back. If you find it, it's yours, eat it,” she said. She left a few minutes later in her dealer’s costume. Long legs, dark hose. Looked good.
She watched her car back out of the driveway and take off down the street. Dust cloud trailing. Then it was only her in an empty house. She sat down to think, to look for that free thing. Couldn't find it. She stood up and walked around the den, looking at the strange little paintings of ducks on the walls. Lisa was a duck person, ducks all over her bedroom, ducks on the towels in the kitchen, duck salt and pepper shakers, duck pitcher for lemonade in the fridge. She caught herself walking round and round the empty house looking for ducks, not thinking, and forced herself to sit down.
She closed her eyes and tried not to see him at the soups, and fell asleep.
It was morning and he was making sure she was up before he left.
She didn't answer. He would stand there though until she did, and she knew it.
Oh, hell. She opened her eyes and there was Kathy.
“Cindy. Girl, you were really sleeping.”
And this was Las Vegas, not Hollywood. Lisa's house, not the apartment.
She tried to get up but her legs were all lumpy from sleep and wouldn't obey. Kathy put her bag on the sofa and sat down.
“You did it, huh?”
“Don't worry. It's the right thing. You can stay here as long as you want.”
“Thanks, Kathy. It's amazing what you've done with the den.”
“Isn't it? It needed cleaning anyway.”
It was late afternoon. She had slept all day. He would be back by now, back in the empty apartment, round and round, thinking, closing and opening his hands, closing and opening. Dad, please, for Christ's sake, sit down. Take it easy. Sorry, hun. Kathy was talking.
Kathy looked at her for a little while. Then said it again. “Wanna go out for a bite?”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
In the car, Kathy said, “Wanna talk about it?”
She did want to talk about it, but didn't as well. “No.”
“How're you doing for money?”
“I've got some.”
“Mom can probably get you a job if you want.”
Working in Vegas? “I might need one. That would be great.”
“Cleaning, that kinda stuff.”
Kathy pulled in to a diner-type place. Still on the outskirts, not so fake. Slot machines though. Two to your left just as you came in. Unbelievable.
She was starving.
“I really…” she started. Kathy looked up from her steak. “I really appreciate your help, Kathy. You, and your mom both.”
Kathy smiled that half-smile of hers that made her eyes glitter, and talked while chewing. “Stay as long as you like.”
“I know. You guys are great.”
He'd be hearing her voice by now, telling him for Christ's sake sit down, and he would, just for a moment. Forcing himself into the armchair, or onto the kitchen chair. Knees together. Stiff as a board. Sitting. Like, look hun, I'm sitting. Yes, Dad. Well done. But not funny. Not at all. She could almost count the seconds, fifty, hundred. Never a hundred, never once a hundred when he was worried. He'd be up again, at the soups I can think. I can't think sitting down, hun. And there was nothing she could think of doing, other than telling him for Christ's sake sit down, Dad.
Kathy was watching her. Not chewing. “You all right?”
“Yes. Just a little worried about him.”
“No, he will. I'm sure.”
She nodded but didn't answer. Kathy said, “He'll get over it.”
“I should have left him a note.”
“Why didn't you?”
Oh, God. No. She couldn't call him. Couldn't keep him alive. Keep her alive for him. He'd never sit down again. Better to let him get used to it. Her missing. “I can't.”
“You've got to tell him why you left.”
“I've told him a thousand times. He should know.”
“Perhaps. You've got to make sure though. He deserves that.”
He deserves that. She looked up at Kathy. She sounded so certain. But she was right. He deserved that.
“I'll call tonight.”
Kathy smiled her half-smile again, and continued eating.
But she didn't call. Just didn't know what to say. Couldn't bring herself to. Kathy was tired and left her alone to grapple with it, though she did remind her where the phone was before she went to bed. But she couldn't call. Instead she was lying awake in her new bed, in Las Vegas, trying to make out the ceiling and thinking about wolves and calling, not calling.
She heard Lisa come back. It was late. Too late to call now. He would not be asleep though, would not be able to sleep. But she had warned him. Many times. Dad, it is my life, I can wash my own clothes, I can operate an alarm clock. He was concerned, making up for Mom, she knew that but whether you suffocate from hate or kindness, you suffocate nonetheless, and she could not breathe. Coming home to find all her underwear and socks clean and neatly folded in her middle drawer she felt invaded, even if by kindness. He cooked, cleaned, shopped, still wanted to tuck her in, for crying out loud. And she had warned him. Dad, let me be. Let me take care of myself. I know you love me. And he would understand, he said, would back off, he said, and never, never did. And she could not be mad at him, it was like he had an illness, couldn't help himself. Had to take care of her, but he was killing her. Smothering her.
Dad, I'm in Las Vegas with Kathy and I'm not coming home. Dad, I'm living my own life now. Time and time again. Dad, I'll wash my own clothes and I'm looking forward to it. Dad, I'll cook my own food, and I know I'll enjoy it. But she didn't make it to the phone, only the rehearsal. Then she drifted off.
She woke up before daybreak. Knew she was elsewhere only not exactly where. Then she recognized the ducks on the predawn walls. And the next thing she saw was the wolf, watching him, not just thinking she was. The Tasmanian wolf, round and round the cage trying to understand, trying to think, not a thought of sitting down, round and round, bedroom, her room, front room, kitchen, bedroom, her room, through the night. He looked devastated, chewing the inside of his mouth until it bled, stained Kleenex in the kitchen trash. He had been up all night, the endangered wolf, her dad.
She watched him for quite some time, round and round, while the dawn seeped into the den. Watched him love her so badly he could not sleep. And then she knew she had it all wrong. It wasn't his way of taking care of her at all, it was her way of taking care of him.
She closed the door quietly behind her. Even so, easing it shut by inches, the latch bolt clicked loudly into place, at least to her. She stood there a moment, very still, ear to the warm, brown wood listening for any inside sound. Nothing. She turned then, hitched her tote bag higher up on the shoulder and set out down the driveway, careful to step quietly. The sun had yet to rise, but the sky had begun to blush in the east; she could make out the casinos and hotels downtown. The morning air was warm and smelled of sand. She would hitch a ride back to L.A. The interstate wasn't all that far, she knew how to get there. Don't worry Dad. You can sit down again. I'm coming.
Copyright © Ulf Wolf 2002. Title graphic: "Vegas" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2002.