Repo man

My husband left me and our children at least a dozen times. He was never around for the middle-of-the-night fevers or Christmas concerts. But when I needed him the most, he materialized -- with a bolt cutter.

Published September 15, 2003 2:59PM (EDT)

I exhausted all the other options before calling my husband.

First, I called the police in several states, the FBI, the federal highway commission, the Department of Transportation, the Better Business Bureau and the American Movers Association. Each conversation was exactly like the one before.

"You say you hired these people over the Internet? And then you just sent your house keys down to a P.O. box in Florida?"

I would sigh. "Yes."

"Well, who came to look at your things and give you the estimate?"

"No one. I did it all, um, online. There was a pdf file, a form I filled out that was supposed to calculate how much furniture I had to move."

"And you said you're a professor?" There was always a chuckle here.

"Visiting professor," I clarified. "Not full."

Eventually, each call veered back to the problem of geography. "OK, so what's happening now?" the voice on the other end of the line would ask. "Where's your stuff?"

"I have no idea. First, they told me it was in storage in Ohio. Then they said Arkansas."

A long pause.

"So how do you know they won't deliver, eventually? Maybe you're just going to have to be patient."

How to explain? It was the tone, the canned words of the person from the moving company whose accent was sometimes Middle Eastern and then something like Chinese, then moved in a rushing wave of words that grew stronger and harsher and more obscene. There was the fact that his name kept changing even though it seemed to be the same man every time. The last time we spoke, he had said, "Fuck you, lady, we got your stuff and the price is $9,000."

"They say they will. But the price keeps going up and I just don't think ..." I can lecture for an hour on a single line of prose: form, structure, syntax, metaphor. Yet I couldn't find the words to tell all the nuances of this particular story.

"So pay them. Later, you can take them to court, hash it all out there." It always came down to this, except with the woman from the highway commission. She had known plenty of other people in my situation and was curt but sympathetic. "Don't you send them a dime," she warned me. "They'll take it and then you'll be out your goods plus the money. It's how the scam works."

Finally, I dug through the papers I'd brought with me: closing papers from the house I'd sold in Iowa, bank statements I'd not had time to reconcile, two letters my husband sent me -- one from jail, the other from rehab. The divorce decree I never signed, a yellow arrow tab still pointing to the blank line. Just when I'd nearly given up, I found it toward the bottom of the file: 10 digits written on an overdue slip from the library.

I took my cellphone into the bathroom and locked the door. The children were watching MTV, sitting in a clump around the little television we'd found that morning at a yard sale; I hoped the voices of J.Lo and Eminem would drown me out.

I dialed and breathed out as I raised the phone to my ear. I'd begun crumpling the paper, anticipating the jeering automaton that would say, "The number you have reached has been disconnected," when he answered and startled me. His voice was creaky, as if he'd just awakened from a long nap.

"You're there." My heart continued its rapid hoofbeats. Odd, because talking to him again felt in most ways familiar, inevitable, like shifting a car into gear.

"Clearly." This used to thrill me: his dry, British way of speaking, so at odds with the lumberjack build. Of course, he could just as easily slip into the hillbilly twang ("gotta," "goin' to," "don't need no") that he used mostly on formal occasions: weddings, or faculty parties. Anything I dragged him to that made him uncomfortable.

I told him the story in shorthand. It all made sense now that he was on the other end of the line, interrupting only to say, "Yes," and "How much?" and "Bastards." He asked none of the questions I'd heard before. When I finished, he had only one: "Which airport is closest to you?"

He used to be heavy, almost fat. But the man who appears in the terminal is so long and dark and hollow-looking his body is curved like a C. I glance up as he exits the gangway, but my eyes drift over him, looking behind him for someone I know. Seconds later, he is standing silently in front of me, gazing straight down.

"You're still beautiful," he says without touching me.

"You still have distorted perceptions of reality." I lead him through the airport, out into the soft night and my minivan in the parking lot.

"How are the kids?" He waits until I'm merging into traffic to ask. Dazzled by the streetlights that crackle sharp and white, and speeding cars that leave ghost shapes behind, I hesitate.

"OK." I speed up and move into the left lane. "Anxious, I guess. And. They're angry." The tires smack the road, over and over, with the slap of wet washcloths.

He nods. "They should be angry."

How reasonable. The old burn of marriage starts in my gut. "It's so easy for you, isn't it?" I grip the steering wheel, my elbows poking out like chicken wings. "Well, you should know, angry kids are really hard to raise."

"I'm sure you're doing a good job." His voice is dreamy, unfocused.

"Yeah, well, what choice do I have?"

There. He's back now: the husband with hard, hateful eyes. "Jesus. I don't believe you're doing this. It's not fair. You're the one who told me to leave."

"I told you to leave because ..." A truck with a 10-foot-long mermaid painted on it rushes past and milliseconds later there is a gush of air. I lose my hold on the wheel for a minute and we shimmy loosely. "Because you kept leaving," I hiss, easing off the gas, regaining control. "Even when you were there, you weren't really there. I was always lonelier being with you than I am being alone."

"I know." He speaks softly and stares at his hands, at the wedding ring he still wears that is tarnished the dull gold of a dying fire.

Before this week, the last time I'd heard from him was in winter. He called one night around 2 a.m., from somewhere in northwestern Canada. His words came out slow and slurred, as if they were sticky and he was having trouble shaking them loose. He said he lived in a place with spiders the size of his palms and had worked for a few weeks as a dispatcher for the local volunteer fire department.

He told me he still loved me. I could hear wind rushing in the background. I asked him if he was driving. He said yes but he was pulling over right there because suddenly, talking to me, he realized he was drunk and never should have gotten behind the wheel.

Then he disappeared, nothing but emptiness in my ear. I lay in bed for hours, still holding the phone and staring at the blank ceiling where my mind projected an image: his car, whatever he drove now, skidding on the ice, spinning like a ballet dancer on one wheel against the backdrop of skeletal trees and snow.

I'd copied his new phone number on the slip marking my place in the book on my bedside table. Around 4 a.m., I turned on the light and stared at the line of digits. But I didn't call him back.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Six nights after his arrival. Mid-August. We leave my little rental cottage around 8 o'clock, opening the front door and stepping out into a summer night so wet and warm it seems to lick our skin. The moon, fuzzy in the mist, is oversized and orange.

"Make sure your sister brushes her teeth," I call over my shoulder before closing the door. Three pale faces are framed in the window, watching us go. I wave and motion with flapping fingers to go. Go eat, or watch TV.

Two of them back up and disappear into the murk of the house; only our 14-year-old, the one who is in charge for the night, remains. He is tall now, like his father. When we came in from the airport the week before they had stood feet apart, facing one another, eyes blinking rapidly as if they were communicating in a language I didn't understand.

"Do you think they'll be OK?" I ask, looking back. The house is empty but for the television, a portable stereo, three queen-size air mattresses and a set of plastic picnic plates.

"They'll be fine."

We're dressed alike: cut-off jeans, white tank tops, lace-up work boots. Already, my feet are sweating. Together we walk to the enormous truck that sinks into the muddy driveway. Then he's driving and we're rattling over a wooden bridge and across the bay, windows open because there's no air conditioning in the rental truck, entering a wavering dusk where sky and water bleed together in a soft charcoal gray. The waxing moon moves with us, a dented peach bobbing in and out of the dark, rippled waves below.

He lights a cigarette and drives with his right hand on the wheel, smoking hand propped half in, half out; ordinarily I would object, but this seat smells like urine and old onions so fresh smoke actually helps cover the stink. Whenever there is a choice of direction to be made, he turns smoothly, still one-handed.

Ten minutes later he stops in an industrial park just off the highway. Behind an electrified fence is a village of cement buildings, unmarked and windowless.

"This is it? You're sure? How did you find it?"

He reaches under the seat and slides out an ax and a set of bolt cutters that looks like a tweezers magnified to a size the length of my arm. "I made some calls."

"Calls." I unbuckle my seat belt. "To whom?"

He tilts his head to one shoulder and looks puzzled, reminding me of our boys when they were 2 or 3. "Drug dealers mostly. They tend to know Florida. Know the right people."

The memory of this man bent over a crib, singing "Sugar Magnolia" like a lullaby. "And how do you know them?"

He says the name of the high-priced treatment center where he stayed for three months last year, the one that comes right after Betty Ford on the list of best-quality drunk tanks. "Think of it," he says as he stretches one leg out of the truck, half sitting, half standing, "like an international trade show for the underworld."

The ground looks a long way down when I open my door; I have to jump from the cab and the concrete is hard against my feet. Mist curls in ribbons through openings in the fence, meeting and congealing into a cloud that he slices through as he walks.

We pass a dome that churns and shucks and makes conveyor-belt sounds -- the source of all the steam. A few yards past, we find a gate that has been left unlatched and 2 inches ajar. It is 3/4-sized, no more than 5 feet tall, with a metal bar on top. He turns to face me. "Won't be easy," he says, grinning down and looking, for just a fraction of a second, like the reckless, baby-faced 22-year-old I recall marrying.

He never did like it when things were easy.

Here's what I remember most vividly. This tall, skinny, dark-bearded man -- like Moses in WalMart clothes -- fitting the lobster claw of a bolt cutter around the curved top of the padlock, planting his feet, squeezing. Muscles standing out in plaits under his skin. The lock arcing overhead, glinting in hazy moonlight, hitting the dirt with a solid smack that echoes in my chest. The way it sends my blood through me in a rush.

I bend to pick it up and he says, "Don't do that."

I straighten. "Why not?"

He throws the bolt cutters down, grabs the lock and slips it into his pocket. "You're not touching anything. Nothing I haven't handed you. You're not breaking any laws."

"What about you?"

"What about me?" He's almost sneering. "It's not like I have anything left to lose."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

By midnight that conversation seems like a memory that might or might not be real, as do the children we left behind. I've been walking this dirt road for 10,000 years, hauling things, piece by piece, down the long alleyway, through the narrow gate in the fence, being careful not to touch the live wires, and loading them into the van. Bruises cover my thighs, purple bleeding to yellow bleeding to green. I got them carrying things -- drawers for an antique buffet, a van Gogh print in a wood-cut frame, boxes of china plates -- that bounce against me as I walk. My feet ripple with pain. There is a layer of dark sweat gummed to my cheeks, hands and arms, slick and tight to my body as a wet suit.

"We'll just throw these clothes away when we're done," Jack had said when he first raised the corrugated door and we saw how dirty everything was. I nodded, not knowing that very soon I'd be fantasizing about peeling off my skin and throwing it away, too.

But when I meet up with him on the path, I see the filth suits him. He wears it like a warrior: face painted, eyes and teeth shining through. He reaches out to steady me when I stumble. It's as if he's getting less tired as the night goes on. "I think," he says, pausing to light another cigarette and untying the bandanna he wears around his head so he can wipe off his face and neck, "I've finally found something I'm really good at."

Later, I'm walking back from the locker, a box of linens knocking against my knees, when I hear my cellphone ring. I drop the box and run toward the truck but by the time I get there, the sound has stopped. I listen. It's that silent crevice of time between night and morning. I pick up the phone and look but there is no call-back number displayed on the screen. Maybe I imagined it.

I stand, gripping the phone, debating. The children could be in trouble. I imagine them getting spooked by the stillness of the house, stuffing their clothes into pillowcases, tying these to the ends of sticks, Tom Sawyer-style, setting off in the dark to find us.

I look toward the alley. The box I dropped is lying on its side in the dust. In the distance there is an enormous green couch propped on one end and trundling forward, as if it's suddenly come to life. The wheels of the cart, invisible under the lop of soft cushion padding, squeal underneath. I toss the cellphone onto the seat and reach into the cooler for a bottle of water. It's the best thing I've ever tasted, sweet and lemony.

I can hear the wheels.

Then lights start to flash.

They're ice blue, the color of Freezees. My first thought is that I miss the bright cherry-red ones. Then the squad car rolls up next to me, no siren, moving over the speed bumps stealthily, like a cat. The squeaking has picked up its pace. I watch the officer get out of his car, adjust his belt and walk toward me. Too tired to panic, I smile instead.

"A little late to be moving, don't you think?" He is 40-ish, dark-haired, thick around the middle, clean-shaven.

I'm actually thinking about the phone call I'll have to make from the police station. Mother, you have to come out here right away. I've been arrested. The kids are all alone in an empty house on the bay. I wonder if they'll let me call long-distance, or if they'll make me reverse the charges.

I open my mouth to say something, then hear the disembodied voice of my husband. "I'm afraid that's my fault."

He's coming around the back of the truck, having covered the distance from the gate in half the time it should have taken him, but he's not even breathing hard. He smiles at the man, as if they knew one another from way back, and slides the cart out from under the couch, which teeters on its arm, then settles into balance. "It was the only time I had off work."

They watch each other. The cop is probably older, by a couple years. But his face is soft, cared for, while my husband's is an ancient-looking ruin of edges and lines and planes of dark stone.

"I know how it is." The police officer shifts from one foot to the other, pats his belt. "Even so. I'm going to have to check some I.D."

I turn and take a step toward the truck. But again this man who left me and our children on at least a dozen occasions, who was never around for the middle-of-the-night fevers or Christmas concerts, materializes at my side, like someone who can time-warp over short distances. He slips his hand around my arm, catching me in the act of reaching for the door handle, and slides it down, crawling his fingers between mine. We stand on the hot cement holding hands, the couch erect beside us like a totem, swaying slightly in a warm burst of wind.

"She didn't bring hers. But I have mine." He reaches into his pocket with his free hand and gives the officer a card. "But we're running behind. Gotta have the truck back by morning. You mind if we keep going?"

The cop shrugs, then turns back to his car, which is still running, blue lights revolving, a stream of voices and static coming from the radio inside. As I walk down the alleyway, I hear him reading the license number and using animal names when there are letters in the code: "Rabbit-Panther-4-6-9."

When we return he's leaning against the driver's door, and everything is eerily quiet. Both the squad car's engine and its squawking radio are off. The stars have sputtered out. Gray light swells on the horizon and even the ugly warehouse across the road has been illuminated by the pearly glow. The children might be waking up already, wondering where we've gone and if we're ever coming back.

There are only a few things left in the locker. The police will seize it and everything that's in the truck, take it all, and I'm glad. Anything to be done lifting and walking. To be able to take a shower, even in jail. The cardboard box I'm carrying is light but felty with thick, wet dust. I put it down and prepare to be handcuffed.

"Hey," the officer calls roughly, and my husband steps forward. "Want me to help you get this in?" He tips his head in the direction of the couch that we had left where it stood, poking up into the lightening night sky.

They say nothing then but communicate in that choreographed way men sometimes do, moving instead of talking, the policeman tipping the end of the couch down, turning and backing up the ramp of the truck, my husband crouching, bearing the weight, steering from behind. I wait in a puddle of streetlight. From inside, there's a clunk, a grunt, two sighs. Then the wash of low voices, like a song I can faintly hear though I can't understand the words. They are inside for a long time, at least two or three shades of morning.

When they come out, the officer nods at me and waves one smallish hand. He is wearing a thick wedding band that gleams like liquid. "Have a nice morning now," he says before he drives away, without his headlights on.

After we have hauled the few remaining items from the locker and put them in the truck, rolled up the ramp, closed the rear door and latched it, we hoist ourselves up into the cab. I am in the driver's seat this time, easing the truck out of the parking lot and onto the highway. Clear, pale sunlight has emptied the night sky. The water in the bay sparkles, white on blue, as we cross.

Beside me, my husband lets his head fall back against the seat. He reaches out to take my hand. And I wait to feel something -- pity or anger or the electricity of the padlock's flying through the air. But instead, all I feel is his hand, rough and warm in mine, like a part of my own body I'd forgotten was missing.

"I want to stay." He stares out the window at the blur of trees and buildings that thickens as we near the city. "I want our kids to have a father again. I still love you."

"I'm sure you do ... want to." Every minute that passes, the sun brightens and as it does, I feel myself hardening. After all these years, I've become like a superhero with the ability to form a shell that's invisible, impenetrable. At least that's what I tell myself. "But can you? Can you get a regular job and mow the lawn every weekend and show up for school conferences? Can you stick it out so the kids don't start counting on you again then wake up one morning to the news that you've disappeared?"

He is silent and I wonder if he's fallen asleep. But it doesn't really seem to matter. I drive, feeling the rhythmic bump of the tires and the heavy weight of the trailer as it sways behind me. I begin to blink. And just as I'm about to turn on the radio so it will help me stay alert over the last few miles, I hear him answer: "No." His eyes are closed when I turn, his voice low and old. "I don't believe I can."

The next morning when I wake up, he is already gone.

By Ann M. Bauer

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