RYAN GOT UP to answer the phone Monday morning. It wasn’t quite seven.
He had been lying in bed thinking. He should have called Mr. Perez Friday or Saturday. Sunday had been all right to let go by. But he had to tell Mr. Perez something today. Either say it was hopeless and he was quitting, or give Mr. Perez Denise’s address and stop worrying about her. Those were his options. He had to make a decision and quit thinking.
But when Mr. Perez said, “How you this morning?” Ryan started thinking again, trying to talk and sound pleasant.
“I didn’t get back to you last week.”
“Yes, I know you didn’t.” Mr. Perez sounded patient, as though he didn’t mind.
“I wanted to,” Ryan said. “I was pretty much on the go all day.”
There was a silence.
“What I think I hear,” Mr. Perez said, “are words. What’re you trying to tell me?”
“I’m saying there’s only one way to find out if she’s around, and that’s to keep at it.” Ryan managed a good straightforward sound.
There was a silence again. Ryan waited.
“I hope,” Mr. Perez said, “you’re not making plans of your own.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Feel you don’t need me, can handle this yourself.”
“Well, I don’t see how I could do that.”
“I don’t either,” Mr. Perez said, “but you still might be considering it, thinking maybe she knows about the stock, heard the name of it one time.”
“She hasn’t even claimed his body.”
“I mean, if you were to bring it up, poke at her memory a little bit. If you’ve got something like that in mind,” Mr. Perez said, “I’d suggest you forget it. After all the work and effort I go to compiling a list, it wouldn’t be fair of you to steal one of my names, would it?”
“No, it wouldn’t,” Ryan said. He hadn’t even thought of the possibility before.
“It not only wouldn’t be fair, it would be poor judgment on your part. If you understand me.”
“I’m working for you,” Ryan said. “I’m not interested in your business. I don’t know anything about stock, I wouldn’t know how to go about anything like this.”
“It is tricky,” Mr. Perez said. “You’d be much happier in what you’re doing.”
“No, I’m not for getting into anything over my head,” Ryan said. But why hadn’t he at least thought of it? “You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I’m not going to,” Mr. Perez said. “I’m not going to worry one bit.”
“You want to give me a few more days, then? See if I can find her?”
“Yeah, you may as well. I’ve dug up the names of a couple more lost souls that might live in the area, so you keep at what you’re doing,” Mr. Perez said. “I’ll be here waiting.”
And watching. He didn’t say it, but that’s what Ryan felt. Mr. Perez on one side. Virgil Royal somewhere on the other. While he stood in the middle with Denise Leary, playing games.
Monday evening Ryan drove to Rochester to pick up Denise. She was living in a colonial complex of red-brick apartment buildings. He didn’t go in. She came out when he buzzed, and they went to a meeting at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal in Drayton Plains.
At the table Denise told about a new experience she’d discovered and was enjoying. Eating breakfast in the morning. Cereal, eggs, toast, the whole thing. Unbelievable. Instead of throwing up and having a few glasses of wine and trying to remember what had happened the night before. She told them today was her first day on a new job, checkout girl at a supermarket. She was amazed how friendly and willing to talk most people were. She said she had a strange feeling, as though four or five years had been taken out of her life and she was starting over. Each day was new and interesting, whether anything interesting happened or not. She said, “God, I sound like Little Mary Sunshine, don’t I? But I can’t help it, it’s how I feel. I hope I don’t get used to it or find out it’s a phase you go through.” She looked at Ryan across the table from her. “I like feeling good. I like being excited again about little things and wondering what’s going to happen next, without being afraid.”
Outside, after the meeting, Ryan said, “Aren’t you a little tired of Uncle Ben’s? It’s so bright in there.”
“I’m tired of drinking coffee more than anything,” Denise said. “Is that all right to say?”
“What we should do, go to a nice dim lounge with a cocktail piano. Order Shirley Temples on the rocks.”
“Or go back to my house,” Denise said. “If you like red pop or tea.”
“I’d even drink coffee at your place,” Ryan said.
Tunafish wished he knew what the fuck the man was doing. One night he goes to the hospital. Look at this, Virgil. Next two nights he goes to church, different churches. Saturday night, nothing. He doesn’t even go out. Then on Sunday he doesn’t go to church, he goes to a building says local 614. Monday night he goes to church again.
Tunafish wrote it down in the notebook he’d show to Virgil. Time to move. He gave the man a good lead and followed his taillights east toward Rochester.
There were killer whales in Puget Sound and a sperm chasing a school of salmon in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Ryan could make out the shapes, dark shadows in the misty blue. The specks of silver and yellow must be the salmon.
“They’re both oils,” Denise said, “from memory. Not very good, either. I mean the technique or the memory. I’ve got to loosen up more, I’m stiff.”
“You like whales, huh?”
“I love whales.”
Ryan hadn’t thought much about whales, but he said, “I can see where they’d be good to paint.”
“During one summer I trailed a herd of gray whales from Vancouver Island down the coast to Ensenada, in Baja. I must’ve made a hundred and fifty sketches.”
“You still have them?”
“No. Some are at home, if my mother kept them. The rest were lost, thrown away.” She was staring at the two unframed canvases propped against the wall. “These are the first things I’ve done in about three years.”
She moved away now, going into the kitchen that was separated from the living room by a bar-high counter with two stools. She called it part of the hot-setup contemporary decor. The place, she’d found out, was full of young swingies who turned their hi-fis up in the evening and invited each other in for cocktails and sangría at their studio bars. She had gone to one party and sipped coffee and the swingies had lost interest. It had been fun watching, though, she said. Like amateur night.
Ryan looked around the room again before going over to the counter. The place was freshly painted white and didn’t feel lived in. There wasn’t any worn-out furniture, things that had been handed down or bought at garage sales. There was beige carpeting and an Indian-looking rug. There were no curtains: a limp plant hung in the window. What dominated the room was a drawing board tilted up, with a straight chair, and a table littered with tubes of paint and brushes, a few ceramic pots, coffee mugs, and a full ashtray. There was an aluminum floor lamp that looked new, and a pair of director’s chairs with bright-yellow canvas. Most of the wall area was bare and stark white except for a number of black-and-white sketches of whales above the drawing board, stuck to the wall with pieces of masking tape. There were the two blue-looking finished canvases and a word, Kujira, painted on the wall in thin, flowing black letters that seemed more a delicate design than a word. Ryan didn’t know what to say when they came in and Denise turned on the floor lamp and he stood looking around. He said, “Did you do all this?” He studied the oils, not knowing what they were until she told him whales. The design on the wall, Kujira, was the Japanese word for whale, and the technique, the flowing, stiff-armed brushstrokes of ink, was called sumi. Denise said she was thinking about doing No More Bullshit in sumi. Ryan said it was a nice place. Clean. Denise said it was funny, she never thought of a place that way, being clean or dirty.
Leaning on the counter, he watched her as she put a kettle on to boil and dropped tea bags into blue ceramic cups.
“You mentioned, I think it was at that Saint Joseph meeting, you almost went home. Where’s that, your home?” He had to think before he spoke and not refer to anything about her he had learned on his own.
“Bad Axe,” Denise said. “You know where it is?”
“Everybody knows where Bad Axe is. Why didn’t you go there?” He was interested. He was also groping, looking for a way to ease into telling her what was going on. Relieve his own mind without disturbing hers. Maybe if they got talking about real feelings and were honest with each other…
“I almost did,” Denise said, “I guess, wanting to feel protected. But when I’m home, I’m not ever really me, I’m somebody or whatever my mother expects me to be. You know what I mean? I have to pretend I’m still her little girl and, oh gee, is it nice to be home, it’s so good to see you, Mom, and all that shit. I love her, I really do, but I can’t be honest with her and tell her how I feel. She wouldn’t understand. She’s full of shoulds and shouldn’ts and she’s not going to change now. So I thought, why get into all that? I’ve got enough of a problem getting myself straight without worrying about offending good old Mom. In her own way, she’s as unreal and fucked-up as I am. But she doesn’t know it and that makes a difference.”
Denise looked at him as she turned and placed the mugs of tea on the counter. “That’s a habit I’m going to have to break.”
“Talking dirty. I always said ‘fuck’ a lot when I was drinking.”
“It’s okay as long as you smile.”
“The past year, I don’t remember having much to smile about.” She looked at him again. “Does that sound like ‘poor me’?”
“Maybe a little,” Ryan said, “even if it’s true.” He wanted to lead her along, get her to talk about herself. “How come you didn’t paint?”
“I was too busy drinking.”
“I asked you one time,” Ryan said and stopped. “No, I guess I didn’t.”
“When you started drinking.”
“At State, I guess. I went to East Lansing, did the wine and pot thing. I guess I drank quite a bit, but I didn’t worry about it then. Everybody got high or stoned, one way or another.”
“Then you went to-what, art school?”
“Detroit Arts and Crafts. Did I tell you that?”
“Yeah, I guess. Or else I just assumed you studied somewhere.”
“It has a different name now,” Denise said, “like the Creative Center or something, and a new building. I went there three years, got very involved in fine art, mostly oils and acrylics. Then, well, I was living in the art center area, you know? around Wayne and the art museum, the main library-”
Ryan nodded. About ten blocks from where he had found her in the Cass Avenue bar, the Good Times.
“-and I felt I was into real life, there was so much going on around there. Sort of a Left Bank atmosphere with the art and the freaky students at Wayne and the inner-city stuff, the hookers and pimps in their wild outfits, all sort of mixed together. At the time I thought, wow, beautiful. Or bizarro, if it was a little kinky. That was one of the words. Or something would berserk you out, like a wine and pot party in a sauna. You see, I was very arty and open-minded, I mean as a life-style, not just on weekends playing dress-up. I was going around with a couple of black guys most of the time…” She paused.
“Yeah? You trying to find out if I’m prejudiced?”
“No, I was thinking, if I’d ever told my mother, God. Maybe that’s what I should do sometime, say, okay, here’s your little girl, and unload everything I’ve done. If she survives, fine. If she doesn’t…”
“Well, it would be her problem, wouldn’t it?”
“I don’t think you’d be unloading,” Ryan said. “I think you’d be dumping on her, paying her back. You don’t have to do that.”
“No, I guess not. I keep looking for reasons, how I got here.”
“We can save guilt and resentment,” Ryan said, “if you want to keep it light.”
“And my Higher Power, God Honey,” Denise said. “I’m having a little trouble with that, too. I’ve got a long way to go, but already I feel good. I say it at a meeting and try to describe it, the feeling, but I don’t tell everything I feel. I don’t want to name names and put anybody on the spot.” She was looking directly at him now. Her eyes were brown. She was in there feeling good things about him, letting him know.
“I don’t think anybody tells everything,” Ryan said, “at a meeting.”
“Can I tell you?”
“If you want to.”
“Maybe I’d better wait,” she said. “Everything’s working out, then I begin to worry maybe it’s a false high. I get up there and find out it isn’t real but an induced feeling, or else something happens.”
“Were you on drugs,” Ryan asked her, “when you were doing the arty thing?”
“No, downers once in a while when my nerves were bad, but that was part of the drinking. I smoked, there was always grass, but I never cared much for the smell. What I liked to do best was drink.”
“The two, you mentioned a couple of black guys, did they get you going?”
“No, I didn’t need help, I sort of went that way naturally. They didn’t care. Then-well, I started drinking more and more until I was at it most of the day. It was what I did in life.”
“Was there a reason? I mean at first, were you depressed or just out for a good time?”
“Both, I suppose. I used it either way.” She hesitated and looked thoughtful as she fooled with her tea bag. “I got into a bad situation. I was married…”
Ryan waited. He wasn’t sure if he wanted her to go on.
“… in fact, I still am. We’re separated now, we haven’t been together in-I haven’t seen him in months. I don’t even know where he is.” She paused, holding her tea bag, and looked at Ryan. “Bobby was black, too.”
Ryan hesitated because she was waiting for him and he didn’t know what to say. He said, “Yeah?” And then he said, “Leary. It doesn’t sound like a name, you know, a colored guy would have.” Ryan froze, realizing his mistake. She had told him her name was Denise Watson. Not Leary.
But she was looking at the tea bag again, lifting it and letting it settle. “We weren’t together much. He was in and out of… mental hospitals most of the time. That’s not why I drank, I was drinking before that, but I guess it was a good poor-me excuse. Right?”
“It sounds as good as any,” Ryan said.
“Why we got married-I don’t know, maybe as you said before, to pay back my mother, if you want to get into all that, look for a subconscious reason. I don’t know, maybe I was punishing myself or I saw it as a challenge and thought I could save him from… the way he was, the kind of person. Or, shit, I was attracted to him physically, the cool, hard dude-I mean, talk about cool, Christ-he scared me to death. I wanted to paint him, too.” She paused, thoughtful again. “But I never did. Now-I hope I never see him, but I suppose I’ll have to. I want to get a divorce started and out of the way and I think that, getting it off my mind, will help a lot.” She looked up at Ryan. “Maybe you’ll serve the papers. Wouldn’t that be something?”
“If you file in Oakland County…”
He didn’t know what he was starting to say. She hadn’t asked a question that required an answer; he could duck around it. But he was sitting three feet away from her across the counter, looking at her face, her eyes…
“I do some work out here,” Ryan said, “and in Detroit, Wayne County. I like to move around.”
“Do you ever get into any weird situations,” she asked him, “where the people don’t want to be served?”
You bet he did, like serving a rock and roll band in front of thousands of screaming fans, walking right out on the stage…
There, they were off of it.
They talked about Ryan for a while, about serving papers and how he got into it, and about working in the cucumber fields north of Bad Axe. They talked about Denise’s new job at the A&P and almost got into it again.
She told him she was using her maiden name, Denise Watson, because it was on her social security card. Trying to steer away, Ryan said, You like it, huh, the job? She said it was a new experience. It was funny to hear people calling her by her first name again, Denise. She hadn’t been called that in years. Ryan said he thought it was a nice name. And hoped that would end it.
She told him, then, she had done something dumb: applied for a driver’s license in Pontiac and put down the Pancake House as her address. She hadn’t found the apartment yet, she was staying at a motel, didn’t have a permanent address; and going to the Pancake House after meetings she had felt good there, comfortable.
“Have you gotten the license yet?”
“I’m afraid to ask if it came.”
“Well, why did I use their address? I’d have to explain all that. They might think I’m doing something, you know, illegal.”
“Not intentionally. I think the best thing, I’ll apply for another one and do it right.”
“Let’s see what I can do first,” Ryan said, now protective, wanting to help her, wanting to tell her, right now, who he was, but still holding back.
What was he doing? Playing with her, drawing out information, then ducking when his poor sensitive guilty awareness felt she might tell him too much. Then playing safe with a little how’s-work chitchat. Then feeling sorry for her-no, not sorry-feeling close to her and wanting to touch her because she was a winner, a good-looking winner with nice clean-looking hair and eyes that held his while he sat there hiding everything, afraid to tell her. A soft, smiling expression in her eyes…
Afraid of what? Well, afraid she might not understand, get the wrong idea and start drinking again. Trusting somebody and seeing it blow up. Afraid of what she’d think of him, sneaking around, playing games. She’d ask why, and the wrong answer would be there before he could explain it.
For the money.
That’s what she’d naturally think, that he’d slipped in snug and close so he’d be here when the money came in.
Picture it, when she found out he knew all the time. Her eyes holding his…
Try convincing her eyes the money didn’t have anything to do with it. He’d been looking for her, yes, he’d admit that. But he hadn’t gone to the meeting to find her. That was an accident. She could be someone else, he’d still be here…
But why go into all that if he didn’t have to? At least not yet. He’d tell her sooner or later, naturally, but not just yet, okay?
The manager of the Pancake House didn’t remember Ryan. He said, “Yeah, it came yesterday as a matter of fact. I called the Pontiac Police, and they said call the Sheriff’s Department. I called them and they said they’d send somebody over.”
“Oh, here,” Ryan said. He took out his wallet and showed the manager his official Oakland County Constable star.
“I thought you’d be here yesterday,” the manager said. He lifted the change drawer in the cash register and handed Ryan the Department of State window envelope addressed to Denise Watson.
“Thanks a lot,” Ryan said.