puta madre

23  

SWATCHES OF BURLAP THE SIZE OF QUILTS lay on the sidewalk and driveway of the Reagan home and two men tend to the landscaping, one riding a mower and the other edging along with a two-stroke powered weed-whacker with little puffs of oiled smoke spitting out the end opposite the whacking. The mowing rider stops his machine, resting it in neutral, and removes its large clippings catcher, hauls it to one of the burlap throws and dumps it empty and returns to the Thursday ritual of the Reagan home lawn care. The sonic throng of it all masks the squeak of the brakes and the idle of Elaine’s Camry that has come to stop at the curb near the pile of grass. She removes her keys from the ignition, grabs a manilla envelope from the passenger seat and gets out of the car. She walks up the driveway in sensible heels, a Halogen seamed pencil skirt, and a burgundy tunic, turning two heads away from lawn care to the lovely distraction. They extinguish the motors of their machines and with them silenced, the mid-afternoon spectacle of Elaine’s appearance is then complemented by the sound of the landing of her heels on the Reagan stone aggregate concrete driveway. The hush of the machines and the clop of the heels rousts Pam from around the side of the garage, her Golden trailing behind. They meet at the top of the driveway. Pam is considerably shorter. Were the detective staking them out at this point he would see a different exchange from before, something more civil, even symbiotic.

The mowing man looks at his cell phone. The one with the trimmer stands like a rocker, his feet shoulder width apart, the Husqvarna slung over his shoulder like an electric guitar, and watches the two women. The one in the skirt hands over a manilla envelope. Pam removes the documents from within it and carefully scans each page.

She looks at the signatures. Gray’s isn’t quite Gray’s, an indecipherable mark he has scribbled a million times, but this one is detached, less nonchalant than what appears on thousands of charts held in file boxes stacked in neat rows in a storage unit. A third and ironic signature has been added as instructed, embossed by the notary seal of the same.

Pamela Reagan. Gray Reagan (or something to that effect). Elaine Southwick. Signed, sealed, delivered.

Pam slides the documents back into the envelope.

“Thank you, Elaine. Do you have Gray’s cell phone?” Elaine nods. “May I have it back, please?”

“It’s in my car,” she says and she turns from Pam to walk back down the driveway. Pam walks with her.

“When this is all settled and the funds accrue, I’ll need your help in getting them disbursed,” says Pam as they pass by the waiting trimmer man. He rotates around with them as they do with the head of the trimmer making a wide arc and comes up a hundred eighty degrees to a stop, just behind the Retriever.

“Settled? You’re pretty optimistic. We’re accomplices, Pam. I’m afraid all of your money will go to defense attorneys.”

“I’m hoping my phone call to Detective Alvarez took care of that this morning. As far as the authorities are concerned, it’s a closed case.”

“What did you tell them?” asks Elaine.

“I said I had been in touch with Gray, that he’s no longer missing.”

“But it’s not over, Pam. He’s still in that storage unit. What’s Ian going to do with him?”

“I guess it’s all up to Mr. McDaniel at this point. Maybe we should turn him in. He abducted him, he’s guilty,” says Pam. Elaine shoots a look back over her shoulder to her admiring lawn care specialist.

“He doesn’t understand what we’re saying,” Pam says.

“We can’t turn him in.”

“You know where he’s holding Gray?” Pam asks.

“He’s in a -”

“Don’t tell me, Elaine. Knowing makes me even more of an accomplice. I have an idea, but it could be anywhere. If we turn him in, Gray will be rescued and Mr. McDaniel will have to face what I’m sure he’s prepared to face. He’s had to have thought it through at this point.”

“If Gray dies, it’s murder and there will be an investigation,” Elaine says.

“If Gray lives he will testify and there will be more charges than just against Ian. He’s not going to roll over on this. He’s going to see that you and I pay for what we’ve done. We’re accomplices. We can’t turn him in.” 

Pam pauses. They’ve reached the car. She sees the fear in Elaine’s face and her point. This isn’t going to end well, or at the very least, it’s going to be very complicated. Elaine is spooked in Pam’s silence and thinking. She watches Pam’s eyes dart about, up, to the right, then down, right, left.

Elaine’s eyes dart over Pam’s shoulder to find the man on the mower who is now watching them at her car with his cell phone to his ear, and then to the man with the trimmer, still standing at parade rest, fixed on the ladies, waiting for the moment he can pull the cord and throttle up his trimmer. The malaise of it all is going right to her paranoia. She breathes faster. She puts her hands to her face and slides her open fingers up and into her hair. A moan surfaces from within her driven by the dread that’s growing as she stands there with the momentum of it turning into a scream. The neighbor lady across the street steps out of her front door to feign getting the mail she had picked up earlier just to be a spectator of what’s about to unfold. She wasn’t disappointed the last time these two got together. The nosey woman’s movement catches Pam’s eye and brings her out of her critical mode to catch Elaine as her body starts a scream-perpetuating shudder. Pam reaches up to Elaine’s wrists and pulls them and her into her body, tight. She can feel Elaine shaking against her. She releases her wrists and envelopes Elaine with her arms, drawing her even closer, and whispers in her ear, “I’ve been in worse scrapes than this.” Elaine holds her breath. “We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to liquidate his assets and start on reparations, especially if we run a risk of being indicted.” Elaine lets the breath go and holds on to another.

“I’ll talk with my attorneys to get that going and chat with them about our predicament – attorney, client privilege. We’ll see what they recommend.”

Elaine lets that breath go and settles back into a more regular respiratory rate coming off the panic.

“Get yourself together, Ms. Southwick.” 

Elaine opens the passenger door to retrieve Gray’s phone and hands it over to Pamela. The woman across the street now at the mailbox has no sense of inconspicuousness. The man on the mower, sensing, perhaps that this convo is coming to an end snaps his cell phone shut. Pam pockets the phone and her dog stands in anticipation of her master moving. “I’ll let you know what I find out,” she says.

They part, Elaine walks around to the driver side of her car and Pam and her dog walk the curved stoney driveway, and the two-stroke Husqvarna and the Toro commercial riding lawn mower start in synchronicity and move back into the lines of the Reagan’s front yard manicure.

WHILE ELAINE AND PAM were discussing his fate, Ian had put Serena through what has now become routine – a blindfold, a ride, an arrival. Ian has her seated on the folding chair in the small space between Gray and the back wall of the storage unit and removes the bandana from her eyes. Early afternoon light streams through the peep-hole, the only light in the chamber, but enough to be near the same exposure her pupils have pulled and as she blinks them open she sees before her Gray Reagan, seated, bound, with tape over his mouth. Ian learned with Laura that it is best to keep it there.

Serena sits and stares at the doctor for a long time. Ian has disappeared into the shadows and watches her respond as she takes in the sight before her. A decade has rolled on since the last time Doctor Reagan and Serena were in the same room together, a delivery suite where she was on an obstetric labor table, feet in stirrups, knees high. She is no longer the home-schooling beautiful mother and wife of Detective Alvarez. She’s seventeen now, reverted in a memory she has suppressed for just as long in the presence of the man culpable of traumatizing her then.

“Puta madre,” she whispers on the release of her controlled breathing. “The last time I saw you was when you upped my meds to induce me. Her heart beat was gone and my labor wasn’t starting.”

Serena leans back on the folding chair and locks her heels on the connecting rung of the bottom brace and spreads her legs. Her boot-cut, low-rise jeans cover her pelvis, but it’s not hard to imagine the scene.

“Your nurse left, too, called out to go help you with something else, and then they started, the contractions. My water broke. I tried not to push. Who would deliver my baby?”

The escalation of the question is matched by her heartbreak. Gray stays locked on to her stare. She reels it back in and breathes deep.

“I pushed her into this world already dead.”

She was calling out screaming for someone to come, her baby girl laying motionless except for her limbs unfurling from the constraint of the womb she left. Serena suffered one last contraction, screaming again as she delivered the placenta, and then passed out. The suite was silent except for the beep of her heart rate monitor, the only indication that Serena hadn’t passed as well, it’s rapid beeping slowed as she dipped into oblivion.

“I was alone when I came to, my baby cold between my legs.”

Serena rocks forward on the chair bringing it abruptly down on it front legs.

“Serves me right. Seventeen. Unwed Latina mother. Doesn’t know who knocked her up.”

She leans in closer to Reagan. He does not blink.

“I could hear that in your voice in all those prenatal visits. You acting like you were doing my mother some big goddamn favor. Every time we’d leave your office she’d fall over herself thanking you. Hijo de puta,” she hisses.

Doctor Reagan closes his eyes, a combination of the autonomic response from his face being sprayed with the aerosol of Serena’s breath on the plosive P and T of puta, and his deliberate blocking her out in keeping them closed against her polemic. He doesn’t see Serena’s windup to the open fisted haymaker that strikes him on his left upper cheek, eye, and bridge of his nose. His head cannot turn in the follow through because it is has been re-attached to the back slats of the adirondack. The collision has hurt Serena’s hand, something she won’t feel, though, until later.

“Don’t you close your eyes, don’t you drift away on me.”

Blood trails from of his nose and into the cleft centered in his upper lip, then over the duct tape on his mouth, drizzling down its width to his chin. Ian leans out of the dark over Gray’s shoulder and checks on the doctor. He is awake, more so now, his breathing is deeper, raspy on the cusp of a growl but not in immediate need of clearing. Gray’s nose, though, is noticeably a bit more out of whatever whack it was in before the hit, having lost its anchor five days previous. Gray’s eyes roll up and to his left catching Ian in his exam, condemning instead of pleading, threat instead of any sort of acquiesce to his own transgressions. Serena moves back to her perch like a boxer to her corner. She reclines the chair again, this time with her feet planted on the floor. Ian gets out of the way snapping Gray’s stare off of him, his eyes moving back to their default position on Serena who is now out of spitting range.

“It was best for this little girl,” she says, slightly nodding her head as if she were in agreement with the good doctor and her mother. “Seventeen. She has her whole life ahead of her, what good’s a baby going to do?” Serena now has her eyes closed. “Twenty minutes with my dead baby girl between my legs. What good is that going to do for her?”

Doctor Reagan never did return to the delivery suite. It was his PA who closed with an evacuation procedure, cleared her uterus and stitched up a small perineal tear. Serena had lapsed back into unconsciousness after her delivery.

She is acutely conscious now, her head resting against the wall on the copy of Linda McDaniel’s fetal monitoring strip, her eyes still closed in her recollection. Her right hand is on her abdomen and she slides it down until her fingers reach the swell of her pubis bone. She pushes down and curls her fingers down in between her legs covering her vagina. Her hand cups her curve and rubs herself tenderly, painfully and she allows herself to cry.

Ian feels like a gross intruder and would sooner melt away at this point than continue to invade this moment, even in Serena’s current detachment. Her crying escalates to sobs, close to heaving, but she stops as suddenly as she open her eyes, bearing again back on Doctor Reagan. She removes her hand and rights her chair, face-to-face.

“I have a living baby now. She came from my womb moving and breathing and crying and beautiful.” She stands, her groin at the level of Gray’s face. She grabs her crotch and looks down on the man in the chair.

“I – gave – her – life,” clenching her hand on every word.

Tears roll down Ian’s face.

And then in the grace that purifies over having reached her point with the obstetrician, she bends down, leaning into his face, her hands landing on the tops of his taped wrists, locking back into his eyes for one last time into his compassionless glare.

“Mother. Fucker,” she quietly says.

BY THE TIME ELAINE had gotten back into her car at Pam’s house, Ian and Serena are back in his Ranger, stopped in a parking lot of a small retail outlet on Corby waiting for a city transit bus to light at the Thrifty’s stop just across the sidewalk. There is nothing to say. They just wait for the No.14 that goes up town to the Avenues. There are people in the bus stop shelter and Serena was ready to step out of the truck and wait with them, but Ian told her she could just wait there in the truck if she’d like, so she did. He faces a bit left, watching for number fourteen and Serena looks at her folded hands in the her lap, still in the emotional aftermath of that early afternoon. Ian catches sight of her bus a block or so down and turns to her. She looks up to see it, too, and then puts her hand on the door lever and waits. She looks at Ian and he at her for the first time since leaving the storage unit. He sees her calming, the stress of the lines in her brow fading, her lips filling back with color and fluid, her eyes express a warmth of what he hopes is gratitude. Serena sees him unsure and tentative, cautious and maybe even a bit of a threat given the level of what is at stake now. Surely he saw Steve’s academy graduation picture, his service portrait as well. He’s not stupid. He knows what he’s done.

Number 14 lumbers to a stop into the curb adjacent the shelter and appears to kneel into position for passenger egress and loading. Serena pulls the lever and opens the door, gets out and leaves Ian behind in so many ways. She is the last to board the bus for the Avenues.

Ian reverses his truck out from the stall and puts the transmission into drive, pulling to the parking lot exit with his curious load of a polished bathtub. He signals and turns left onto Riverside and drives to the next signal at Corby and turns right, drives to the next commercial entrance a few blocks down at Corby Car Wash and Fort Knox Storage and turns right into the drive that takes him to the gated entrance next to the pay phone. He pulls up to the keypad and punches in his code and the motor on the gate’s rail engages the chain that is connected to the long gate and starts its long pull to make way for Ian’s white Ford Ranger. Another moment and he’s parking just outside the storage unit on his right, number 435. Not a soul around on this Thursday afternoon except for his and the one inside, though several people might argue that one.

Ian hops out of the cab of the Ranger and walks to the rear of the truck and folds down its tailgate. He grasps the tub by its lip on the end and draws it out of the truck’s small bed just to the edge of the tub’s opposite end where it rests on the edge of the tailgate. He sets his end down and steps to the other and lifts it off and carefully rotates it clear of the truck and sets it down on the asphalt. It is manageable in weight if not a little awkward in size. He unlocks the unit and slides the bolt and lifts the rolling door. Gray is motionless with the commotion, enough to alert Ian. He steps into the unit and looks over Gray’s shoulder to his face and sees his eyes blink, staring straight ahead at the empty folding chair before him as if Serena were still there.

“Still with us?” says Ian, and he pats him on his shoulder. Satisfied that he is, Ian turns his attention back to the bath tub, stepping to it, grasping it again by its edge with both hands and dragging it into the boundary of the cement pad of the opening of the unit checking to make sure the door will clear it when it is rolled down closed. The drain end of the tub is closest to the unit’s right or south wall. Ian steps out and surveys the unit’s contents and their orientation to each other – the adirondack facing the rear wall up against which is the folding chair and to the right side in the corner leans a rolled-up area rug. There’s a box with feeding supplies and suction catheters, a suction machine, a backpack with a couple of cans of Ensure, a bottle of Gatorade and a pack of adult diapers, and behind the adirondack between it and the opening of the storage unit is the tub. Oh, and Gray Reagan. Ian checks him again, thinking the sound of the tub grinding on the cement as he slid it inside might have shaken him up a bit, but it does not appear to as Gray is now making eye contact with him. “Sit tight there and I’ll be right back to get you some lunch going.” 

He steps out of the unit and pulls the rolling door closed checking to see if anyone else has shown up in the alley, but it’s vacant still. Just the sound of the car wash.

NUMBER FOURTEEN STOPS AT THE CURB of 1st Avenue between C and D streets, kneels in its suspension’s decompression and allows a couple of riders off the bus, one of which is Serena. She makes the gentle uphill mile trek to 4th Avenue in little time, down two houses from the corner, crosses her lawn with a bit more haste to the mahogany door with the leaded glass and throws it open to her startled mom who is playing with Mikayla on the floor of the front room.

“I’m good now, Ma. Thank you for watching her,” Serena says. She’s doing her best, but not all that well in keeping her disposition as neutral as possible in front of her mother, who throws her that shorthand nonverbal combination of what’s-going-on? and are-you-okay? while keeping Mikayla aloof of the exchange. If that were still possible. Serena smiles not in her eyes and looks down at Mikayla and then back to her mother. “I think Mikayla and I will take a little nap now. Will you join us for dinner later?” Her mother gets to her feet and hugs her granddaughter tight and kisses her on each cheek. “I will see you a little later,” she says to her, and then she steps to Serena and throws her arms around her. “And I will see you a little later, too.” She holds Serena longer and tighter, until she can feel Serena’s head nod on her shoulder. “Thank you, Mama,” she says as her mom releases her embrace and walks out the open door.

Serena and Mikayla are curl up on the couple’s big bed in the afternoon sunshine dappled by the Elm tree just outside the window of the master bedroom. Mikayla is curled up, fetal and tucked into her mommy who is curled around her. They sleep.

IAN HAS MOVED THE RANGER out of the fence line of Fort Knox and has parked it in a row of stalls adjacent the car wash building dedicated to those drying and detailing their rides. He walks his way back through the gate and to the first alley on his right and back up to the unit where he deposited the tub.

Lunch for Gray is more of a transfusion than a feeding. Feeding has an implication of mastication and swallowing and Gray isn’t doing anything like that. Ian pours another syringe-full of Ensure and lets it gravity feed through the feeding tube still placed through Gray’s nose and down into his stomach, just barely. The pediatric NG-tube is precariously long enough to dangle just beyond his lower esophageal sphincter, feeding Gray the nutrient-dense liquid diet supplement. The Gatorade is next. Work on those electrolytes.

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