Rose Madder 1
It was fourteen years of hell, all told, but she hardly knew it. For most of those years she existed in a daze so deep it was like death, and on more than one occasion she found herself almost certain that her life wasn’t really happening, that she would eventually awaken, yawning and stretching as prettily as the heroine in a Walt Disney animated cartoon. This idea came to her most often after he had beaten her so badly that she had to go to bed for awhile in order to recover. He did that three or four times a year. In 1985—the year of Wendy Yarrow, the year of the official reprimand, the year of the “miscarriage”—it had happened almost a dozen times. September of that year had seen her second and last trip to the hospital as a result of Norman’s ministrations . . . the last so far, anyway. She’d been coughing up blood. He held off taking her for three days, hoping it would stop, but when it started getting worse instead, he told her just what to say (he always told her just what to say) and then took her to St. Mary’s. He took her there because the EMTs had taken her to City General following the “miscarriage.” It turned out she had a broken rib that was poking at her lung. She told the falling downstairs story for the second time in three months and didn’t think even the intern who’d been there observing the examination and the treatment believed it this time, but no one asked any uncomfortable questions; they just fixed her up and sent her home. Norman knew he had been lucky, however, and after that he was more careful.
Sometimes, when she was lying in bed at night, images would come swarming into her mind like strange comets. The most common was her husband’s fist, with blood grimed into the knuckles and smeared across the raised gold of his Police Academy ring. There had been mornings when she had seen the words on that ring—Service, Loyalty, Community—stamped into the flesh of her stomach or printed on one of her breasts. This often made her think of the blue FDA stamp you saw on roasts of pork or cuts of steak.
She was always on the verge of dropping off, relaxed and loose-limbed, when these images came. Then she would see the fist floating toward her and jerk fully awake again and lie trembling beside him, hoping he wouldn’t turn over, only half-awake himself, and drive a blow into her belly or thigh for disturbing him.
She passed into this hell when she was eighteen and awakened from her daze about a month after her thirty-second birthday, almost half a lifetime later. What woke her up was a single drop of blood, no larger than a dime.
She saw it while making the bed. It was on the top sheet, her side, close to where the pillow went when the bed was made. She could, in fact, slide the pillow slightly to the left and hide the spot, which had dried to an ugly maroon color. She saw how easy this would be and was tempted to do it, mostly because she could not just change the top sheet; she had no more clean white bed-linen, and if she put on one of the flower-patterned sheets to replace the plain white one with the spot of blood on it, she would have to put on the other patterned one, as well. If she didn’t he was apt to complain.
Look at this, she heard him saying. Goddam sheets don’t even match—you got a white one on the bottom, and one with flowers on it on top. Jesus, why do you have to be so lazy? Come over here—I want to talk to you up close.
She stood on her side of the bed in a bar of spring sunlight, the lazy slut who spent her days cleaning the little house (a single smeared fingerprint on the corner of the bathroom mirror could bring a blow) and obsessing over what to fix him for his dinner, she stood there looking down at the tiny spot of blood on the sheet, her face so slack and devoid of animation that an observer might well have decided she was mentally retarded. I thought my damned nose had stopped bleeding, she told herself. I was sure it had.
He didn’t hit her in the face often; he knew better. Face-hitting was for the sort of drunken assholes he had arrested by the hundreds in his career as a uniformed policeman and then as a city detective. You hit someone—your wife, for instance—in the face too often, and after awhile the stories about falling down the stairs or running into the bathroom door in the middle of the night or stepping on a rake in the back yard stopped working. People knew. People talked. And eventually you got into trouble, even if the woman kept her mouth shut, because the days when folks knew how to mind their own business were apparently over.
None of that took his temper into account, however. He had a bad one, very bad, and sometimes he slipped. That was what had happened last night, when she brought him a second glass of iced tea and spilled some on his hand. Pow, and her nose was gushing like a broken water-main before he even knew what he was doing. She saw the look of disgust on his face as the blood poured down over her mouth and chin, then the look of worried calculation—what if her nose was actually broken? That would mean another trip to the hospital. For a moment she’d thought one of the real beatings was coming, one of the ones that left her huddled in the corner, gasping and crying and trying to get back enough breath so she could vomit. In her apron. Always in her apron. You did not cry out in this house, or argue with the management, and you most certainly did not vomit on the floor—not if you wanted to keep your head screwed on tight, that was.
Then his sharply honed sense of self-preservation had kicked in, and he had gotten her a washcloth filled with ice and led her into the living room, where she had lain on the sofa with the makeshift icepack pressed down between her watering eyes. That was where you had to put it, he told her, if you wanted to stop the bleeding in a hurry and reduce the residual swelling. It was the swelling he was worried about, of course. Tomorrow was her day to go to the market, and you couldn’t hide a swollen nose with a pair of Oakleys the way you could hide a black eye.
He had gone back to finish his supper—broiled snapper and roasted new potatoes.
There hadn’t been much swelling, as a quick glance in the mirror this morning had shown her (he had already given her a close looking-over and then a dismissive nod before drinking a cup of coffee and leaving for work), and the bleeding had stopped after only fifteen minutes or so with the icepack . . . or so she’d thought. But sometime in the night, while she had been sleeping, one traitor drop of blood had crept out of her nose and left this spot, which meant she was going to have to strip the bed and remake it, in spite of her aching back. Her back always ached these days; even moderate bending and light lifting made it hurt. Her back was one of his favorite targets. Unlike what he called “face-hitting,” it was safe to hit someone in the back . . . if the someone in question knew how to keep her mouth shut, that was. Norman had been working on her kidneys for fourteen years, and the traces of blood she saw more and more frequently in her urine no longer surprised or worried her. It was just another unpleasant part of being married, that was all, and there were probably millions of women who had it worse. Thousands right in this town. So she had always seen it, anyway, until now.
She looked at the spot of blood, feeling unaccustomed resentment throbbing in her head, feeling something else, a pins-and-needles tingle, not knowing this was the way you felt when you finally woke up.
There was a small bentwood rocker on her side of the bed which she had always thought of, for no reason she could have explained, as Pooh’s Chair. She backed toward it now, never taking her eyes off the small drop of blood glaring off the white sheet, and sat down. She sat in Pooh’s Chair for almost five minutes, then jumped when a voice spoke in the room, not realizing at first that it was her own voice.
“If this goes on, he’ll kill me,” she said, and after she got over her momentary startle, she supposed it was the drop of blood—the little bit of herself that was already dead, that had crept out of her nose and died on the sheet—she was speaking to.
The answer that came back was inside her own head, and it was infinitely more terrible than the possibility she had spoken aloud:
Except he might not. Have you thought of that? He might not.
She hadn’t thought of it. The idea that someday he would hit her too hard, or in the wrong place, had often crossed her mind (although she had never said it out loud, even to herself, until today), but never the possibility that she might live . . .
The buzzing in her muscles and joints increased. Usually she only sat in Pooh’s Chair with her hands folded in her lap, looking across the bed and through the bathroom door at her own reflection in the mirror, but this morning she began to rock, moving the chair back and forth in short, jerky arcs. She had to rock. The buzzing, tingling sensation in her muscles demanded that she rock. And the last thing she wanted to do was to look at her own reflection, and never mind that her nose hadn’t swollen much.
Come over here, sweetheart, I want to talk to you up close.
Fourteen years of that. A hundred and sixty-eight months of it, beginning with his yanking her by the hair and biting her shoulder for slamming a door on their wedding night. One miscarriage. One scratched lung. The horrible thing he’d done with the tennis racket. The old marks, on parts of her body her clothes covered. Bite-marks, for the most part. Norman loved to bite. At first she had tried to tell herself they were lovebites. It was strange to think she had ever been that young, but she supposed she must have been.
Come over here—I want to talk to you up close.
Suddenly she was able to identify the buzzing, which had now spread to her entire body. It was anger she was feeling, rage, and realization brought wonder.
Get out of here, that deep part of her said suddenly. Get out of here right now, this very minute. Don’t even take the time to run a comb through your hair. Just go.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said, rocking back and forth faster than ever. The spot of blood on the sheet sizzled in her eye. From here, it looked like the dot under an exclamation point. “That’s ridiculous, where would I go?”
Anywhere he isn’t, the voice returned. But you have to do it right now. Before . . .
That one was easy. Before she fell asleep again.
A part of her mind—a habituated, cowed part—suddenly realized that she was seriously entertaining this thought and put up a terrified clamor. Leave her home of fourteen years? The house where she could put her hand on anything she wanted? The husband who, if a little short-tempered and quick to use his fists, had always been a good provider? The idea was ridiculous. She must forget it, and immediately.
And she might have done so, almost certainly would have done so, if not for that drop on the sheet. That single dark red drop.
Then don’t look at it! the part of herself which fancied itself practical and sensible shouted nervously. For Christ’s sake don’t look at it, it’s going to get you into trouble!
Except she found she could no longer look away. Her eyes remained fixed upon the spot, and she rocked faster than ever. Her feet, clad in white lowtop sneakers, patted the floor in a quickening rhythm (the buzzing was now mostly in her head, rattling her brains, heating her up), and what she thought was Fourteen years. Fourteen years of having him talk to me up close. The miscarriage. The tennis racket. Three teeth, one of which I swallowed. The broken rib. The punches. The pinches. And the bites, of course. Plenty of those. Plenty of—
Stop it! It’s useless, thinking like this, because you’re not going anywhere, he’d only come after you and bring you back, he’d find you, he’s a policeman and finding people is one of the things he does, one of the things he’s good at—
“Fourteen years,” she murmured, and now it wasn’t the last fourteen she was thinking about but the next. Because that other voice, the deep voice, was right. He might not kill her. He might not. And what would she be like after fourteen more years of having him talk to her up close? Would she be able to bend over? Would she have an hour—fifteen minutes, even—a day when her kidneys didn’t feel like hot stones buried in her back? Would he perhaps hit her hard enough to deaden some vital connection, so she could no longer raise one of her arms or legs, or perhaps leave one side of her face hanging slack and expressionless, like poor Mrs. Diamond, who clerked in the Store 24 at the bottom of the hill?
She got up suddenly and with such force that the back of Pooh’s Chair hit the wall. She stood there for a moment, breathing hard, wide eyes still fixed on the maroon spot, and then she headed for the door leading into the living room.
Where are you going? Ms. Practical-Sensible screamed inside her head—the part of her which seemed perfectly willing to be maimed or killed for the continued privilege of knowing where the teabags were in the cupboard and where the Scrubbies were kept under the sink. Just where do you think you’re—
She clapped a lid on the voice, something she’d had no idea she could do until this moment. She took her purse off the table by the sofa and walked across the living room toward the front door. The room suddenly seemed very big, and the walk very long.
I have to take this a step at a time. If I think even one step ahead, I’m going to lose my nerve.
She didn’t think that would be a problem, actually. For one thing, what she was doing had taken on a hallucinatory quality—surely she could not simply be walking out of her house and her marriage on the spur of the moment, could she? It had to be a dream, didn’t it? And there was something else, too: not thinking ahead had pretty much become a habit with her, one that had started on their wedding night, when he’d bitten her like a dog for slamming a door.
Well, you can’t go like this, even if you just make it to the bottom of the block before running out of steam, Practical-Sensible advised. At the very least change out of those jeans that show how wide your can’s getting. And run a comb through your hair.
She paused, and was for a moment close to giving the whole thing up before she even got to the front door. Then she recognized the advice for what it was—a desperate ploy to keep her in the house. And a shrewd one. It didn’t take long to swap a pair of jeans for a skirt or to mousse your hair and then use a comb on it, but for a woman in her position, it would almost certainly have been long enough.
For what? To go back to sleep again, of course. She’d be having serious doubts by the time she’d pulled the zipper up on the side of her skirt, and by the time she’d finished with her comb, she’d have decided she had simply suffered a brief fit of insanity, a transitory fugue state that was probably related to her cycle.
Then she would go back into the bedroom and change the sheets.
“No,” she murmured. “I won’t do that. I won’t.”
But with one hand on the doorknob, she paused again.
She shows sense! Practical-Sensible cried, her voice a mixture of relief, jubilation, and—was it possible—faint disappointment. Hallelujah, the girl shows sense! Better late than never!
The jubilation and relief in that mental voice turned to wordless horror as she crossed quickly to the mantel above the gas fireplace he had installed two years before. What she was looking for probably wouldn’t be there, as a rule he only left it up there toward the end of the month (“So I won’t be tempted,” he would say), but it couldn’t hurt to check. And she knew his pin-number; it was just their telephone number, with the first and last digits reversed.
It WILL hurt! Practical-Sensible screamed. If you take something that belongs to him, it’ll hurt plenty, and you know it! PLENTY!
“It won’t be there anyway,” she murmured, but it was—the bright green Merchant’s Bank ATM card with his name embossed on it.
Don’t you take that! Don’t you dare!
But she found she did dare—all she had to do was call up the image of that drop of blood. Besides, it was her card, too, her money, too; wasn’t that what the marriage vow meant?
Except it wasn’t about the money at all, not really. It was about silencing the voice of Ms. Practical-Sensible; it was about making this sudden, unexpected lunge for freedom a necessity instead of a choice. Part of her knew that if she didn’t do that, the bottom of the block was as far as she would get before the whole uncertain sweep of the future appeared before her like a fogbank, and she turned around and came back home, hurrying to change the bed so she could still wash the downstairs floors before noon . . . and, hard as it was to believe, that was all she had been thinking about when she got up this morning: washing floors.
Ignoring the clamor of the voice in her head, she plucked the ATM card off the mantel, dropped it into her purse, and quickly headed for the door again.
Don’t do it! the voice of Ms. Practical-Sensible wailed. Oh Rosie, he won’t just hurt you for this, for this he’ll put you in the hospital, maybe even kill you—don’t you know that?
She supposed she did, but she kept walking just the same, her head down and her shoulders thrust forward, like a woman walking into a strong wind. He probably would do those things . . . but he would have to catch her first.
This time when her hand closed on the knob there was no pause—she turned it and opened the door and stepped out. It was a beautiful sunshiny day in mid-April, the branches on the trees beginning to thicken with buds. Her shadow stretched across the stoop and the pale new grass like something cut from black construction paper with a sharp pair of scissors. She stood there breathing deep of the spring air, smelling earth which had been dampened (and perhaps quickened) by a shower that had passed in the night, while she had been lying asleep with one nostril suspended over that drying spot of blood.
The whole world is waking up, she thought. It isn’t just me.
A man in a jogging suit ran past on the sidewalk as she pulled the door closed behind her. He lifted a hand to her, and she lifted hers in return. She listened for the voice inside to raise its clamor again, but that voice was silent. Perhaps it was stunned by her theft of the ATM card, perhaps it had only been soothed by the tranquil peace of this April morning.
“I’m going,” she murmured. “I’m really, really going.”
But she stayed where she was a moment longer, like an animal which has been kept in a cage so long it cannot believe in freedom even when it is offered. She reached behind her and touched the knob of the door—the door that led into her cage.
“No more,” she whispered. She tucked her purse under one arm and took her first dozen steps into the fogbank which was now her future.
Those dozen steps took her to the place where the concrete walk merged with the sidewalk—the place where the jogger had passed a minute or so before. She started to turn left, then paused. Norman had told her once that people who thought they were choosing directions at random—people lost in the woods, for example—were almost always simply going in the direction of their dominant hand. It probably wasn’t important, but she discovered she didn’t even want him to be right about which way she had turned on Westmoreland Street after leaving the house.
Not even that.
She turned right instead of left, in the direction of her stupid hand, and walked down the hill. She went past the Store 24, restraining an urge to raise her hand and cover the side of her face as she passed it. Already she felt like a fugitive, and a terrible thought had begun to gnaw at her mind like a rat gnawing cheese: what if he came home from work early and saw her? What if he saw her walking down the street in her jeans and lowtops, with her purse clamped under her arm and her hair uncombed? He would wonder what the hell she was doing out on the morning she was supposed to be washing the downstairs floors, wouldn’t he? And he would want her to come over to him, wouldn’t he? He would want her to come over to where he was so he could talk to her up close.
That’s stupid. What reason would he have to come home now? He only left an hour ago. It doesn’t make sense.
No . . . but sometimes people did things that didn’t make sense. Her, for instance—look at what she was doing right now. And suppose he had a sudden intuition? How many times had he told her that cops developed a sixth sense after awhile, that they knew when something weird was going to happen? You get this needle at the base of your spine, he’d said once. I don’t know how else to describe it. I know most people would laugh, but ask a cop—he won’t laugh. That little needle has saved my life a couple of times, sweetheart.
Suppose he’d been feeling that needle for the last twenty minutes or so? Suppose it had gotten him into his car and headed home? This was just the way he would come, and she cursed herself for having turned right instead of left when leaving their walk. Then an even more unpleasant idea occurred to her, one which had a hideous plausibility . . . not to mention a kind of ironic balance. Suppose he had stopped at the ATM machine two blocks down the street from police headquarters, wanting ten or twenty bucks for lunch? Suppose he had decided, after ascertaining that the card wasn’t in his wallet, to come home and get it?
Get hold of yourself. That isn’t going to happen. Nothing like that is going to happen.
A car turned onto Westmoreland half a block down. It was red, and what a coincidence that was, because they had a red car . . . or he did; the car was no more hers than the ATM card was, or the money it could access. Their red car was a new Sentra, and—coincidence upon coincidence!—wasn’t this car now coming toward her a red Sentra?
No, it’s a Honda!
Except it wasn’t a Honda, that was just what she wanted to believe. It was a Sentra, a brand-new red Sentra. His red Sentra. Her worst nightmare had come true at almost the very moment she had thought of it.
For a moment her kidneys were incredibly heavy, incredibly painful, incredibly full, and she was sure she was going to wet her pants. Had she really thought she could get away from him? She must have been insane.
Too late to worry about that now, Practical-Sensible told her. Its dithery hysteria was gone; now it was the only part of her mind which still seemed capable of thought, and it spoke in the cold, calculating tones of a creature that puts survival ahead of everything else. You just better think what it is you’re going to say to him when he pulls over and asks you what you’re doing out here. And you better make it good. You know how quick he is, and how much he sees.
“The flowers,” she muttered. “I came out to take a little walk and see whose flowers were out, that’s all.” She had stopped with her thighs pressed tightly together, trying to keep the dam from breaking. Would he believe it? She didn’t know, but it would have to do. She couldn’t think of anything else. “I was just going to walk down to the corner of St. Mark’s Avenue and then come back to wash the—”
She broke off, watching with wide, unbelieving eyes as the car—a Honda after all, not new, and really closer to orange than red—rolled slowly past her. The woman behind the wheel gave her a curious glance, and the woman on the sidewalk thought, It if had been him, no story would have done, no matter how plausible—he would have seen the truth all over your face, underlined and lit in neon. Now are you ready to go back? To see sense and go back?
She couldn’t. Her overwhelming need to urinate had passed, but her bladder still felt heavy and overloaded, her kidneys were still throbbing, her legs were shaky, and her heart was pounding so violently in her chest that it frightened her. She would never be able to walk back up the hill, even though the grade was very mild.
Yes, you can. You know you can. You’ve done harder things than that in your marriage and survived them.
Okay—maybe she could climb back up the hill, but now another idea occurred to her. Sometimes he called. Five or six times a month, usually, but sometimes more often than that. Just hi, how are you, do you want me to bring home a carton of Half-n-Half or a pint of ice cream, okay, bye. Only she felt nothing solicitous in these calls, no sense of caring. He was checking up on her, that was all, and if she didn’t answer the telephone, it just rang. They had no answering machine. She had asked him once if getting one might not be a good idea. He had given her a not entirely unfriendly poke and told her to wise up. You’re the answering machine, he’d said.
What if he called and she wasn’t there to answer?
He’ll think I went marketing early, that’s all.
But he wouldn’t. That was the thing. The floors this morning; the market this afternoon. That was the way it had always been, and that was the way he expected it to always be. Spontaneity was not encouraged at 908 Westmoreland. If he called . . .
She began walking again, knowing she had to get off Westmoreland Street at the next corner, even though she wasn’t entirely sure where Tremont went in either direction. That wasn’t important at this point, anyway; what mattered was that she was on her husband’s direct route if he came back from the city by way of I-295, as he usually did, and she felt as if she had been pinned to the bull’s-eye of an archery target.
She turned left on Tremont and went walking past more quiet little suburban houses separated from each other by low hedges or lines of decorative trees—Russian olives seemed particularly in vogue down here. A man who looked like Woody Allen with his horn-rimmed glasses and freckles and his shapeless blue hat crushed down on top of his head looked up from watering his flowers and gave her a little wave. Everyone wanted to be neighborly today, it seemed. She supposed it was the weather, but she could have done without it. It was all too easy to imagine him coming along behind her later on, patiently working her backtrail, asking questions, using his little memory-stimulation tricks, and flashing her picture at every stop.
Wave back at him. You don’t want him to register you as an unfriendly, unfriendlies have a way of sticking in the memory, so wave back and just slide along your way.
She waved back and slid along her way. The need to pee had returned, but she would just have to live with it. There was no relief in sight—nothing ahead but more houses, more hedges, more pale green lawns, more Russian olives.
She heard a car behind her and knew it was him. She turned around, eyes wide and dark, and saw a rusty Chevrolet creeping up the center of the street at little more than walking speed. The old man behind the wheel wore a straw hat and a look of terrified determination. She faced forward again before he could register her own look of fright, stumbled, then started walking resolutely with her head lowered. The pulsing ache in her kidneys had returned and her bladder was pounding, too. She guessed she had no more than a minute, possibly two, before everything let go. If that happened, she might as well kiss any chance of unnoticed escape goodbye. People might not remember a pale brownette walking up the sidewalk on a nice spring morning, but she didn’t see how they would be able to forget a pale brownette with a large dark stain spreading around the crotch of her jeans. She had to take care of this problem, and right away.
There was a chocolate-colored bungalow two houses up on her side of the street. The shades were pulled; three newspapers lay on the porch. A fourth lay on the walk at the foot of the front steps. Rosie took a quick look around, saw no one observing her, then hurried across the lawn of the bungalow and down along its side. The back yard was empty. A rectangle of paper hung from the knob of the aluminum screen door. She went over, walking in cramped little steps, and read the printed message: Greetings from Ann Cosso, your local Avon Lady! Didn’t find you at home this time, but will come again! Thanks! And give me a call at 555-1731 if you want to talk about any of Avon’s fine products! The date scribbled at the bottom was 4/17, two days ago.
Rosie took another look around, saw that she was protected by hedges on one side and Russian olives on the other, unsnapped and unzipped her jeans, and squatted in the niche between the back stoop and the LP gas tanks. It was too late to worry about who, if anyone, might be watching from the upper stories of either neighboring house. And besides, the relief made such questions seem—for the time being, at least—trivial.
You’re crazy, you know.
Yes, of course she knew . . . but as the pressure of her bladder decreased and the stream of her urine flowed between the bricks of this back patio in a zigzag streamlet, she felt a crazy joy suddenly fill her heart. In that instant she knew what it must feel like to cross a river into a foreign country, and then set fire to the bridge behind you, and stand on the riverbank, watching and breathing deeply as your only chance of retreat went up in smoke.
She walked for nearly two hours, through one unfamiliar neighborhood after another, before coming to a strip mall on the west side of the city. There was a pay phone in front of Paint n Carpet World, and when she used it to call a taxi, she was amazed to discover she was no longer in the city at all, but in the suburb of Mapleton. She had big blisters on both heels, and she supposed it was no wonder—she must have walked over seven miles.
The cab arrived fifteen minutes after her call, and by then she had visited the convenience store at the far end of the strip, where she got a pair of cheap sunglasses and a colorful red rayon kerchief. She remembered Norman saying once that if you wanted to divert attention from your face, the best way was to wear something bright, something which would direct the observer’s eye in a different direction.
The cabbie was a fat man with unkempt hair, bloodshot eyes, bad breath. His baggy, faded tee-shirt showed a map of South Vietnam. WHEN I DIE I’LL GO TO HEAVEN ’CAUSE I SERVED MY TIME IN HELL, the words beneath the map read. IRON TRIANGLE, 1969. His beady red eyes scanned her quickly, passing from her lips to her breasts to her hips before appearing to lose interest.
“Where we going, dear?” he asked.
“Can you take me to the Greyhound depot?”
“You mean Portside?”
“Is that the bus terminal?”
“Yep.” He looked up and used the rear-view mirror to meet her eyes. “That’s on the other side of the city, though. A twenty-buck fare, easy. Can you afford that?”
“Of course,” she said, then took a deep breath and added: “Can you find a Merchant’s Bank ATM machine along the way, do you think?”
“All life’s problems should be so easy,” he said, and dropped the flag on his taximeter. $2.50, it read. BASE FARE.
She dated the beginning of her new life from the moment the numbers in the taximeter window clicked from $2.50 to $2.75 and the words BASE FARE disappeared. She would not be Rose Daniels anymore, unless she had to be—not just because Daniels was his name, and therefore dangerous, but because she had cast him aside. She would be Rosie McClendon again, the girl who had disappeared into hell at the age of eighteen. There might be times when she would be forced to use her married name, she supposed, but even then she would continue to be Rosie McClendon in her heart and mind.
I’m really Rosie, she thought as the cabbie drove across the Trunkatawny Bridge, and smiled as Maurice Sendak’s words and Carole King’s voice floated through her mind like a pair of ghosts. And I’m Rosie Real.
Was she, though? Was she real?
This is where I start finding out, she thought. Right here and right now.
The cabbie stopped in Iroquois Square and pointed to a line of cash machines standing in a plaza which came equipped with a fountain and a brushed-chrome sculpture that didn’t look like anything in particular. The machine on the far left was bright green.
“That do ya?” he asked.
“Yes, thanks. I’ll just be a minute.”
But she was a little longer than that. First she couldn’t seem to punch in the pin-number correctly, in spite of the machine’s large keypads, and when she finally succeeded in that part of the operation, she couldn’t decide how much to take. She pressed seven-five-decimal-zero-zero, hesitated over the TRANSACT button, then pulled her hand back. He would beat her up for running away if he caught her—no question about that. If he beat her badly enough to land her in the hospital, though (or to kill you, a small voice murmured, he might actually kill you, Rosie, and you’re a fool if you forget that), it would be because she had dared to steal his ATM card . . . and to use it. Did she want to risk that sort of retribution for a mere seventy-five dollars? Was that enough?
“No,” she murmured, and reached out again. This time she tapped three-five-zero-decimal-zero-zero . . . and then hesitated again. She didn’t know exactly how much of what he called “the ready” there was in the cash-and-checking account this machine tapped into, but three hundred and fifty dollars had to be a pretty sizeable chunk of it. He was going to be so angry . . .
She moved her hand toward the CANCEL/RETRY button, and then asked herself again what difference that made. He was going to be angry in any case. There was no going back now.
“Are you going to be much longer, ma’am?” a voice asked from behind her. “Because I’m over my coffee-break right now.”
“Oh, sorry!” she said, jumping a little. “No, I was just . . . woolgathering.” She hit the TRANSACT button. The words ONE MOMENT PLEASE appeared on the auto-teller’s VDT. The wait wasn’t long, but it was long enough for her to entertain a vivid fantasy of the machine’s suddenly emitting a high, warbling siren and a mechanized voice bellowing “THIS WOMAN IS A THIEF! STOP HER! THIS WOMAN IS A THIEF!”
Instead of calling her a thief, the screen flashed a thank-you, wished her a pleasant day, and produced seventeen twenties and a single ten. Rose offered the young man standing behind her a nervous, no-eye-contact smile, then hurried back to her cab.
Portside was a low, wide building with plain sandstone-colored walls. Buses of all kinds—not just Greyhounds but Trailways, American Pathfinders, Eastern Highways, and Continental Expresses—ringed the terminal with their snouts pushed deep into the loading docks. To Rosie they looked like fat chrome piglets nursing at an exceedingly ugly mother.
She stood outside the main entrance, looking in. The terminal wasn’t as crowded as she had half-hoped (safety in numbers) and half-feared (after fourteen years of seeing almost no one but her husband and the colleagues he sometimes brought home for a meal, she had developed more than a touch of agoraphobia), probably because it was the middle of the week and shouting distance from the nearest holiday. Still she guessed there must be a couple of hundred people in there, walking aimlessly around, sitting on the old-fashioned, high-backed wooden benches, playing the video games, drinking coffee in the snackbar, or queuing for tickets. Small children hung onto their mothers’ hands, tilted their heads back, and bawled like lost calves at the faded logging mural on the ceiling. A loudspeaker that echoed like the voice of God in a Cecil B. DeMille Bible epic announced destinations: Erie, Pennsylvania; Nashville, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Miami, Florida (the disembodied, echoing voice pronounced it Miamuh); Denver, Colorado.
“Lady,” a tired voice said. “Hey, lady, little help here. Little help, what do you say?”
She turned her head and saw a young man with a pale face and a flood of dirty black hair sitting with his back against one side of the terminal entrance. He was holding a cardboard sign in his lap. HOMELESS & HAVE AIDS, it read. PLEASE “AID” ME.
“You got some spare change, don’t you? Help me out? You’ll be ridin in your speedboat on Saranac Lake long after I’m dead and gone. Whaja say?”
She felt suddenly strange and faint, on the edge of some mental and emotional overload. The terminal appeared to grow before her eyes until it was as large as a cathedral, and there was something horrifying about the tidal movements of the people in its aisles and alcoves. A man with a wrinkled, pulsing bag of flesh hanging from the side of his neck trudged past her with his head down, dragging a duffelbag after him by its string. The bag hissed like a snake as it slid along the dirty tile floor. A Mickey Mouse doll stuck out of the duffel’s top, smiling blandly at her. The godlike announcer was telling the assembled travelers that the Trailways express to Omaha would be departing Gate 17 in twenty minutes.
I can’t do this, she thought suddenly. I can’t live in this world. It isn’t just not knowing where the teabags and Scrubbies are; the door he beat me behind was also the door that kept all this confusion and madness out. And I can never go back through it again.
For a moment a startlingly vivid image from her childhood Sunday-school class filled her mind—Adam and Eve wearing fig-leaves and identical expressions of shame and misery, walking barefoot down a stony path toward a bitter, sterile future. Behind them was the Garden of Eden, lush and filled with flowers. A winged angel stood before its closed gate, the sword in its hand glowing with terrible light.
“Don’t you dare think of it that way!” she cried suddenly, and the man sitting in the doorway recoiled so strongly that he almost dropped his sign. “Don’t you dare!”
“Jesus, I’m sorry!” the man with the sign said, and rolled his eyes. “Go on, if that’s the way you feel!”
“No, I . . . it wasn’t you . . . I was thinking about my—”
The absurdity of what she was doing—trying to explain herself to a beggar sitting in the doorway of the bus terminal—came home to her then. She was still holding two dollars in her hand, her change from the cabbie. She flung them into the cigar-box beside the young man with the sign and fled into the Portside terminal.
Another young man—this one with a tiny Errol Flynn moustache and a handsome, unreliable face—had set up a game she recognized from TV shows as three-card monte on top of his suitcase near the back of the terminal.
“Find the ace of spades?” he invited. “Find the ace of spades, lady?”
In her mind she saw a fist floating toward her. Saw a ring on the third finger, a ring with the words Service, Loyalty, and Community engraved on it.
“No thank you,” she said. “I never had a problem with that.”
His expression as she passed suggested he thought she had a few bats flying around loose in her belfry, but that was all right. He was not her problem. Neither was the man at the entrance who might or might not have AIDS, or the man with the bag of flesh hanging from his neck and the Mickey Mouse doll poking out of his duffel. Her problem was Rose Daniels—check that, Rosie McClendon—and that was her only problem.
She started down the center aisle, then stopped as she saw a trash barrel. A curt imperative—DON’T LITTER!—was stencilled across its round green belly. She opened her purse, took out the ATM card, gazed down at it for a moment, then pushed it through the flap on top of the barrel. She hated to let it go, but at the same time she was relieved to see the last of it. If she kept it, using it again might become a temptation she couldn’t resist . . . and Norman wasn’t stupid. Brutal, yes. Stupid, no. If she gave him a way to trace her, he would. She would do well to keep that in mind.
She took in a deep breath, held it for a second or two, then let it out and headed for the ARRIVALS/DEPARTURES monitors clustered at the center of the building. She didn’t look back. If she had, she would have seen the young man with the Errol Flynn moustache already rummaging in the barrel, looking for whatever it was the ditzy lady in the sunglasses and bright red kerchief had eighty-sixed. To the young man it had looked like a credit card. Probably not, but you never knew stuff like that for sure unless you checked. And sometimes a person got lucky. Sometimes? Hell, often. They didn’t call it the Land of Opportunity for nothing.
The next large city to the west was only two hundred and fifty miles away, and that felt too close. She decided on an even bigger one, five hundred and fifty miles farther on. It was a lakeshore city, like this one, but in the next timezone. There was a Continental Express headed there in half an hour. She went to the bank of ticket windows and got into line. Her heart was thumping hard in her chest and her mouth was dry. Just before the person in front of her finished his transaction and moved away from the window, she put the back of her hand to her mouth and stifled a burp that burned coming up and tasted of her morning coffee.
You don’t dare use either version of your name here, she cautioned herself. If they want a name, you have to give another one.
“Help you, ma’am?” the clerk asked, looking at her over a pair of half-glasses perched precariously on the end of his nose.
“Angela Flyte,” she said. It was the name of her best chum in junior high, and the last friend she had ever really made. At Aubreyville High School, Rosie had gone steady with the boy who had married her a week after her graduation, and they had formed a country of two . . . one whose borders were usually closed to tourists.
“Beg your pardon, ma’am?”
She realized she had named a person rather than a place, and how odd
(this guy’s probably looking at my wrists and neck, trying to see if the straitjacket left any marks)
it must have sounded. She blushed in confusion and embarrassment, and made an effort to clutch at her thoughts, to put them in some kind of order.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and a dismal premonition came to her: whatever else the future might hold, that simple, rueful little phrase was going to follow her like a tin can tied to a stray dog’s tail. There had been a closed door between her and most of the world for fourteen years, and right now she felt like a terrified mouse who has misplaced its hole in the kitchen baseboard.
The clerk was still looking at her, and the eyes above the amusing half-glasses were now rather impatient. “Can I help you or not, ma’am?”
“Yes, please. I want to buy a ticket on the eleven-oh-five bus. Are there still some seats on that one?”
“Oh, I guess about forty. One way or round trip?”
“One way,” she said, and felt another flush warm her cheeks as the enormity of what she was saying came home to her. She tried to smile and said it again, with a little more force: “One way, please.”
“That’s fifty-nine dollars and seventy cents,” he said, and she felt her knees grow weak with relief. She had been expecting a much higher fare; had even been prepared for the possibility that he would ask for most of what she had.
“Thank you,” she said, and he must have heard the honest gratitude in her voice, because he looked up from the form he was drawing to him and smiled at her. The impatient, guarded look had left his eyes.
“A pleasure,” he said. “Luggage, ma’am?”
“I . . . I don’t have any luggage,” she said, and was suddenly afraid of his gaze. She tried to think of an explanation—surely it must sound suspicious to him, an unaccompanied woman headed for a far-off city with no luggage except her purse—but no explanation came. And, she saw, that was all right. He wasn’t suspicious, wasn’t even curious. He simply nodded and began to write up her ticket. She had a sudden and far from pleasant realization: she was no novelty at Portside. This man saw women like her all the time, women hiding behind dark glasses, women buying tickets to different timezones, women who looked as if they had forgotten who they were somewhere along the way, and what they thought they were doing, and why.
Rosie felt a profound sense of relief as the bus lumbered out of the Portside terminal (on time), turned left, re-crossed the Trunkatawny, and then got on I-78 heading west. As they passed the last of the three downtown exits, she saw the triangular glass-sided building that was the new police headquarters. It occurred to her that her husband might be behind one of those big windows right now, that he might even be looking out at this big, shiny bus beetling along the Interstate. She closed her eyes and counted to one hundred. When she opened them again, the building was gone. Gone forever, she hoped.
She had taken a seat three quarters of the way back in the bus, and the diesel engine hummed steadily not far behind her. She closed her eyes again and rested the side of her face on the window. She would not sleep, she was too keyed-up to sleep, but she could rest. She had an idea she was going to need all the rest she could get. She was still amazed at how suddenly this had happened—an event more like a heart attack or a stroke than a change of life. Change? That was putting it mildly. She hadn’t just changed it, she had uprooted it, like a woman tearing an African violet out of its pot. Change of life, indeed. No, she would never sleep. Sleep was out of the question.
And so thinking, she slipped not into sleep, but into that umbilical cord which connects sleeping and waking. Here she moved slowly back and forth like a bubble, faintly aware of the diesel engine’s steady hum, the sound of the tires on the pavement, of a kid four or five rows up asking his mother when they were going to get to Aunt Norma’s. But she was also aware that she had come untethered from herself, and that her mind had opened like a flower (a rose, of course), opened as it does only when one is in neither one place nor the other.
I’m really Rosie . . .
Carole King’s voice, singing Maurice Sendak’s words. They came floating up the corridor she was in from some distant chamber, echoing, accompanied by the glassy, ghostly notes of a piano.
. . . and I’m Rosie Real . . .
I’m going to sleep after all, she thought. I think I really am. Imagine that!
You better believe me . . . I’m a great big deal . . .
She was no longer in the gray corridor but in some dark open space. Her nose, her entire head, was filled with smells of summer so sweet and so strong that they were almost overwhelming. Chief among them was the smell of honeysuckle, drifts of it. She could hear crickets, and when she looked up she saw the polished bone face of the moon, riding high overhead. Its white glow was everywhere, turning the mist rising from the tangled grasses around her bare legs to smoke.
I’m really Rosie . . . and I’m Rosie Real . . .
She raised her hands with the fingers splayed and the thumbs almost touching; she framed the moon like a picture and as the night wind stroked her bare arms she felt her heart first swell with happiness and then contract with fright. She sensed a dozing savagery in this place, as if there might be animals with big teeth loose in the perfumed undergrowth.
Rose. Come over here, sweetheart. I want to talk to you up close.
She turned her head and saw his fist rushing out of the dark. Icy strokes of moonlight gleamed on the raised letters of his Police Academy ring. She saw the stressful grimace of his lips, pulled back in something like a smile—
—and jerked awake in her seat, gasping, her forehead damp with sweat. She must have been breathing hard for some time, because her window was humid with her condensed breath, almost completely fogged in. She swiped a clear path on the glass with the side of her hand and looked out. The city was almost gone now; they were passing an exurban litter of gas stations and fast-food franchises, but behind them she could see stretches of open field.
I’ve gotten away from him, she thought. No matter what happens to me now, I’ve gotten away from him. Even if I have to sleep in doorways, or under bridges, I’ve gotten away from him. He’ll never hit me again, because I’ve gotten away from him.
But she discovered she did not entirely believe it. He would be furious with her, and he would try to find her. She was sure of it.
But how can he? I’ve covered my trail; I didn’t even have to write down my old school chum’s name in order to get my ticket. I threw away the bank card, that’s the biggest thing. So how can he find me?
She didn’t know, exactly . . . but finding people was what he did, and she would have to be very, very careful.
I’m really Rosie . . . and I’m Rosie Real . . .
Yes, she supposed both sides of that were the truth, but she had never felt less like a great big deal in her whole life. What she felt like was a tiny speck of flotsam in the middle of a trackless ocean. The terror which had filled her near the end of her brief dream was still with her, but so were traces of the exhilaration and happiness; a sense of being, if not powerful, at least free.
She leaned against the high-backed bus seat and watched the last of the fast-food restaurants and muffler shops fall away. Now it was just the countryside—newly opened fields and belts of trees that were turning that fabulous cloudy green that belongs only to April. She watched them roll past with her hands clasped loosely in her lap and let the big silver bus take her on toward whatever lay ahead.