10. Rich Boy Blues
I couldn’t tell which was clenched tighter: Michael’s teeth, or his hands on the steering wheel. He’d been like when we pulled away from the restaurant; when we got stuck for an hour in a construction zone midway around the bypass; and when we eventually left the interstate on the other side of the city and stopped for gas again. Michael got out without a word to handle the fill-up, moving like a jointed doll with overtight strings. I stayed in my seat, hemmed in by the broken passenger door, and plotted out our route to the coordinates on the back of my envelope. Judging by its weight, there weren’t that many pages inside – more than a dozen, less than twenty. That in itself was reassuring; the more information they gave us, the better we could plan and the less things tended to go south in a hurry.
The van drank its fill and Michael climbed back up behind the wheel. We turned right onto the main road, headed west, but after about a hundred yards Michael made another, sharper right onto a narrow access road and rode it to the empty parking lot at its end. The only building within shouting distance was an empty strip mall, shadowed storefronts squatting behind square concrete pillars and a faded “For Lease” banner. With the van fully parked, with the engine grumbling behind the brittle plastic dashboard, it took a full fifteen seconds for him to relax enough to lower his arms and turn in his seat to talk to me. “Okay,” he said, and took a slow breath before continuing. “When’s the next turn?”
“Not for a while.” I compared the instructions on the envelope to the map that lay partially unfolded across my knees. “Two towns from here on the state road, then a right and we head north.” I traced the route with my finger to show him. “And then we should end up ... here. East of God-Help-Us and south of The Sticks.” I frowned. “What the hell are we -- am I supposed to do in the middle of a bunch of empty fields?”
Michael drummed his fingers on the gear shift. “I don’t know,” he said, staring at the odometer. It read thirty thousand and something, but only because there wasn’t a sixth dial for the one at the front. “I honestly don’t know.”
He sat like that for close to a minute, gnawing the inside of his lip and frowning like someone trying to calculate a tip without writing anything down. I decided that was boring to watch. “You need to move the stick until the little letter D lights up,” I said, pointing to the indicator on the dashboard. “And then you push on the long skinny pedal and the engine goes vroom-vroom-vroom and we can get this done and I can go home.”
Michael glared at me from the corner of his eye, then put both hands at the top of the steering wheel and rested his forehead on them. He could have been sleeping if it weren’t for the tendons standing out like guy wires at the base of his neck. Then he sat up, swore violently under his breath in Vietnamese (Colin’s legacy with the team, summed up right there in a single profane moment) and said, “Rosemarie’s in China because they would have frozen her out otherwise.”
Here we go. “Who’s ‘they’?” I asked, a formality to keep the discussion going. I already knew the answer.
“Funny.” Michael thumbed at a divot in the cheap molded vinyl of the steering wheel. “AGATE’s been everything since I was ten years old,” he said, dodging to the side instead of addressing things head-on. Typical Michael. “And I mean everything. Rosie and me, we didn’t even go to regular school. We had tutors and we hung out at the office all day, or we rode along on deliveries and stuff in the area. Fourteen years old, and I’d rather sit in on a planning meeting than go see a movie.” He laughed a little, and dug his nail into the vinyl. “That’s why we went to a state university instead of some private east coast campus -- Dad threatened to kick us out to fend for ourselves unless we could prove we made some friends on our own, outside our usual circles.” The digging became a gouge, carving out a trench that matched the furrow between his eyebrows. “And we wound up here, instead. You wound up here. You, and -- ” He choked, and stopped.
The cavernous back section of the van yawned behind us, carrying only empty seats and a bank of cold screens and quiet speakers. Without looking, I could tell you every button and switch, every coffee stain and rip in the upholstery, every notch in the paint where I kept score in whatever game we happened to be playing that week. I could tell you the exact blue and white bicycle pattern on the five of hearts glued to the back left window. “Hey,” I offered softly. “It wasn’t all bad.”
“Fifteen years!” he shouted, making me jump. “Almost two fucking decades I’ve been wanting to do exactly what I’m doing right now, I did everything right, I worked my ass off, all so I could sit in this stupid fucking van and watch everything and everyone I touch get broken.” His face was drained and white except for two red spots high on his cheekbones. A detached part of my brain noted that Rosemarie did the same thing when she got upset. The rest of my brain was emphatic that this was not the time for a study in shared traits. Michael pulled off his glasses with his right hand, ground the knuckles of his left into his forehead and shouted again, edging toward a scream: “Fuck!”
I had never before heard him speak that strongly in his native tongue, and it hit me like a punch to the sternum. Around us, last year’s dead, knee-high weeds marched in single file along the weathered cracks in the asphalt, paying little attention to the faded yellow grid laid out for them. Beneath the overhang, one of the storefronts had faded brown paper taped over its floor-to-ceiling windows. Somehow, that was more unsettling than the empty plate glass on either side.
The map slid off my knees and nestled between my feet like an animal. I ignored it. “Parker told me things were changing, but he didn’t say how,” I said, carefully monitoring Michael’s reaction as I spoke. He didn’t say anything, just nodded behind his hand, his elbow planted at the bottom of the driver’s side window. I stepped carefully and proceeded. “He didn’t say what kind of changes.”
Michael looked out from underneath his wrist, but not at me. I picked up the map, folded it crisply along its predefined creases and put it away neatly in the glove box. The red envelope stuck up from the console between us. I folded my hands atop its manila cousin in my lap and settled myself for a story.