The void was always there, though void wasn’t an adequate word; it did nothing to capture what you might call the fullness of the emptiness, which was a saturating force, a question and a presence, a thing he saw around him and a thing he felt inside him. He didn’t think he was depressed in a chemical sense, one of those people who needs Prozac the way a diabetic needs insulin. He believed his reactions to things were in proportion to the things themselves. The void would have been there no matter how his brain was wired; everyone saw it and everyone dealt. The highway from his house ran by the Hood Canal, which despite its name was a fjord, a winding vein of shallow water whose low-tide contractions exposed muddy flats reeking of dead shellfish. On foggy days an opaque greenish-beige mist united sea and sky, obscured the far bank, and he could imagine maybe he was driving next to nothing at all, like a yank of the wheel would send him plummeting forever through the nothingness at the edge of the world. He knew this was a juvenile fantasy, a way of tricking himself into a sense of wonder. The fog had nothing to do with the void but his mind couldn’t help suggesting the connection. The hollowness at the middle of all pleasures and joys and struggles. The eternal so what.
He had a little office in his car, a laptop with a car charger and a USB stick that patched into wireless so it could send faxes and a portable USB-powered printer/scanner/copier, though it squeezed out something like five pages a minute and he tried to do all his printing before he left home. It was useful as a scanner, though. He tried to keep an unopened ream of paper in the back seat. On days when he worked he would print the documents, tap them on Aunt Claire’s desk to line up their edges, clamp the tops with a binder clip – he’d never seen these until Claire showed him the business and he thought them toylike, the two rings of silver metal that could swing out like wings or down to make the tabs which opened the flat-lipped alligator jaws – and slip them into Claire’s worn leather briefcase. He would leave his house, which was really Claire’s house, go down the long hill and drive past the town, Shell station and grocery store and Post Office, a string of cabins overlooking the Hood. The town was there and gone before you knew to be looking for it.
Claire’s house was in a retirement community surrounding a golf course, golf carts and shiny Buicks being driven down neat lanes; its presence in the town and his presence within it were equally anomalous, both a surreal misplacement. The rest of the area was blasted by meth and the collapse of the timber economy, and he saw little small-town friendliness. He knew nobody in town, or where the boundaries of town were, because it dissolved, on all its sides except the one bordering the Hood Canal, into a scattering of isolated houses dotting tracts of forest. At the Post Office he would stand in line behind stubbled leathery men who always seemed half-amused and contemptuous; the women at the Shell were solidly pleasant and never showed any sign they remembered him from one day to the next. There were always teenagers clustered on the benches in front of the grocery, girls age fifteen or sixteen talking with loud affected tiredness about the boys they were seeing, nothing left in the whole complex of human sexuality that could surprise them, and they no longer believed in a certain quality of feeling. Their faces were zitty and their bodies already had the doughy spill of middle age, already wrecked by puberty. Certain adult women grew into a grace he found beautiful, but they did it by shedding a child’s essential openness, something the teenagers at the store had retained and made awful. He thought the teen years were the worst of human ages, recognizing that he’d been his worst self at that age. Children were rare, and fleetingly glimpsed.
He had his mail sent to a PO Box, because it seemed exciting to have, one of those things which had once seemed very adult. He stopped on his way through town to clear out the sales inserts and phone directories. Such a short window of usefulness between raw material and garbage. He was paid per job, so he received a lot of small checks. He tried sometimes to think of things he could order, just so checking the mail would be more interesting. Maybe he could subscribe to some boring generic magazine like Maxim. Thoughts he never clung to long enough to act on. Clustered on the wall opposite his box were the sex offender notifications. They’d been taped to the front of a glass display case; you could almost feel the clerk giving up. He’d never read any of them the whole way through, and they existed as a patchwork of half-glimpsed faces rendered in pixelated black and white, crimes reduced to the most Hotlineal description. The lettering was all in capitals, which made it easier to avoid reading – he’d heard somewhere that the human eye goes slower through uppercase – though phrases jumped out anyway – CONFESSED IN THERAPY TO SEXUAL CONTACT WITH A MINOR ON TWO OTHER OCCASIONS. Odd to put something so horrifying in such a mundane place, like they’d torn a hole in the wall and found a portal to hell and everyone just walked by the unacknowledged circle of howling flame. He didn’t want to feel like he was avoiding the notifications. He had to deny his own awareness.
After the town came Highway 101, a long country road snaking through forests and farms, terminating in I-5. Other days he might have gone north to Olympia, where more timber casualties mingled with Capitol yuppies and hippie Evergreen students; further were Tacoma and then Seattle. But that day he went south, where the road went past a string of dying industrial towns and eventually the Oregon border. He didn’t know what to call the areas by the freeway, too wild to be farmland but not dense enough to be forest. He passed a sculpture garden in a fenced field, fifty-foot columns of metal cage topped with geometric shapes, abstractly sinister even though one of the columns was topped with a sculpture of Christ.
He went to a town called Chehalis, the exit marked with a huge picture of a frowning Uncle Sam next to a readerboard that said IS TRUTH THE NEW HATE SPEECH? He followed the GPS to a ranch house, knocked on the door and introduced himself to the woman who answered. At the kitchen counter they went through a stack of paperwork and he explained the terms of the refinance and the amounts involved, what would happen given this or that eventuality, had her initial each page. The woman listened and underlined certain phrases with her pen, but he’d done this enough that his attention wandered, glancing at the woman, at details of the kitchen. Her face was odd somehow, one eye a little higher than the other, her nose too wide at the bridge in a way that made her mouth seem undersized. Almost attractive but not. There was a picture on the fridge of a girl maybe eight or nine in a softball uniform, and the daughter’s face had roughly the same shape but it was neater, more symmetrical. Maybe she would grow up to be prettier or maybe she would age into her own set of minor flaws.
The woman didn’t volunteer any information about the refinancing. He thought he sensed tension, though he didn’t think of himself as intuitive. Sometimes people would want to talk if they were starting a business or remodeling; if a couple was signing a mortgage they would talk about how they’d met or what their plans were for the future, though always with hesitation, like please don’t say anything to suggest I’ve made the wrong decision. He liked the fact that his work was mobile, liked drifting in and out of people’s lives, meeting new people every day. He liked having a script he could walk through, standard questions toward a practical goal. Social interactions scared him because he had to improvise. When Claire passed him the business she’d told him to always look people in the eye, which he knew he wasn’t good at. He wondered if he really liked this way of connecting with people or if he told himself he liked it because it was all he had.
On the way home he stopped outside Olympia, bought some Chinese food from the Safeway deli, ate it in an empty park. Eating alone in a restaurant made him feel self-conscious. He knew where all the parks were in his service area, the big sprawling complexes with soccer fields and pavilions, the nature preserves with reedy ponds and forest, the little fields tucked off suburban drives. He often had to kill time between appointments; he’d find a park where he could read a book or watch a DVD on his laptop. On early weekday afternoons it was rare to see anyone besides a stray city worker or a mother with an infant. It was the end of March, a day warm enough that he could be comfortable outside without a jacket. He’d been through all the seasons in Washington now, and he’d decided he liked the climate. Of course it was damp but most months gave you at least the chance of a sunny day, and the summers were never too hot. The trees were evergreen mixed with deciduous in roughly equal proportion, so there was always green in the landscape, something real for the snow to drape on, but you could also see changes in the season, yellows in fall and denuded specters in winter and the burst of spring foliage.
He didn’t have another appointment; even eating slowly and taking an after-lunch stroll it was possible he’d be home before three. It bothered him to have too much empty space in the afternoon. Sometimes when he was confused or bored or frustrated he would make a scavenger hunt out of cleaning the house. All the first-level floors were brown tile, and he had a mop but he found it more enjoyable to spot-wipe. Layers of things would reveal themselves depending on conditions of light and the chance scatterings of attention. Maybe a Sprite can would dribble while he walked from the kitchen to the living room and a day later the sun would fall just right to reveal a string of glistening spots, or in three days enough dust would collect to turn the stickiness black. Sometimes only careful examination could distinguish between the natural patterns of the tile and a bit of crusted food. He could never clean the whole house; the attempt was a process, essentially an infinite one, connected to the house’s slow dissolution in the way that cleaning his body was about removing the debris of creeping life-long death. Fibers would work themselves out of the stairway carpet, slivers would curl away from the boards, hair and skin would drop from his head, all of it sucked up by the vacuum, carted to the landfill, returned to the earth.
If cleaning didn’t satisfy he might go jogging until he couldn’t stand it anymore. As he ran he might think about harmless pop culture, Star Trek or the eighties Transformers cartoons, the same things he would meditate on at night when he was trying to clear his mind to sleep, aggressively neutral fixations inherited from his brother’s racks of VHS tapes. You’re only allotted so many heartbeats before you die; every beat oxidizes and ages, the process which keeps you alive being the driver of time’s breakdown. Your pulse goes up when you exercise but it brings your resting heart rate down. He didn’t know who’d taught him all that; maybe someone at the Mission. Sometimes after he jogged he would just sit with his hand on his heart. He would think, here I am. Running out the clock. A thought he kept in a secret place, but like all his secret thoughts he had nobody to keep it secret from besides himself, which meant he had no secrets.
When he got back to his car he saw he had a missed call from Nina. He called her back and she answered after one ring and said, “You’re a notary, right?”
“M-hm.” He nodded even though she wasn’t there to see.
“I got a call from a friend who works at another agency. She has a client who needs someone to notarize an affidavit. It has to be someone who’s trustworthy and mobile. They have a woman but she’s out of town. They do normally require a woman, actually. I mean… it’s kind of a sensitive thing. They need someone who’s sensitive.”
“Yeah, I can do that. I’m finishing a job, I’m actually in Olympia right now. I was about to head home but I can do this before I go.”
“Okay, cool. It’s outside of Yelm, so the gas alone will pretty much wipe out your fee. Think of it as a favor to me. I know I already owe you a couple.”
“I’m glad to help, really.”
“I’ll text you the address.”
The GPS told him it was the address for a casino. He went seven miles north on I-5 and took the last exit for Lacey, went past the choking fecal stink of the mushroom factory and down through the wind-rippled trees on the road that went toward Yelm. The roads here were winding, narrow, tree-hemmed, the whole landscape asking you not to hurry. He passed trailer houses with junk-scattered yards, stands of yellow-flowering Scotch broom and thickets of blackberries, a shuttered firework stand with a mural of beak and claws above the gothic-lettered words Ill Eagle, the pun complex enough to require a second look, yet still wrenchingly stupid.
The casino was a glittering rectangle that made no sense against the surrounding environment. He’d never been in a casino before, but it was just as he expected, a windowless space cut off from subjective time, the dry coolness of air conditioning even though it was warmer here than outside. Pictures on the walls of smiling retirees holding giant checks or standing in front of shiny new cars, similar people hunched expressionless, faces lit by glowing screens, repeatedly jabbing a single button. Just walking by them gave him a blanching sensation, joy slipping out of his body the way, as a child, he would suck the sugar from a Kool-aid popsicle and leave a stick of unflavored ice. High ceilings amplifying the layers of competing noise, interlocking strings of electronic chimes and whoops and jangles, the harmonic structure shifting as he walked, its underwater dreaminess interrupted by the occasional low-to-high zip of jackpot. In the center of the room was a fenced-off landscape of plastic rock and cloth foliage, taxidermied animals standing around a waterfall whose humming pump was audible even above the bubbling water and polyphonic of the slot machines. Next to it was a woman who looked as lost as he felt, gazing in pity at a dead coyote stuffed into a posture of eternal surprise. All three of them watchful, confused.
He stood next to the woman, waiting for her to notice him. She was thin and short, alarmingly small, muscular but not without a suggestion of brittleness. Her lips were small but starkly crimson against the paleness of her face, marred on one side by a raw cold sore, discolored swelling around a raw split, shiny with ointment. Her hair was long and straight, dyed a uniform red which announced its own fakeness. Her nose had a gravity around which the rest of her face orbited, though this wasn’t to say it was ugly; it was very large but there was a grace to its largeness. It was more rounded than most very large noses. He cleared his throat and she glanced at him, then turned to give full attention.
“Are you Amanda?”
“I’m your notary. Do you want to find somewhere to sit down? There’s a cafe over that way.”
“Okay. Yeah, I saw it coming in.”
A short quiet walk to a table with a checked vinyl cloth, pulling out chairs with flimsy legs of hollow pot metal, their feet zipping against low-pile office carpeting. He set his case on the table opposite her.
“I’m sorry you had to come all the way out here to meet me,” she said. She fidgeted, adjusted her posture, like she was remembering a second too late that it would be polite to sit up. “I’ve been staying at a shelter and it’s supposed to be in an undisclosed location. They’re out here in the boonies, you know, because it’s easier for a lot of reasons. I guess it’s not hard to figure out why. But it makes a lot of things inconvenient.”
She had a piece of paper in an envelope; she was worrying it, tugging it, passing it from hand to hand. “I’m kind of surprised you’re not a woman.”
“I think normally they use a woman, but she was out of town.”
“I mean, no offense. I don’t mind. Just there are some people there who are weird about men, and the woman who runs it is kind of, you know.”
“It’s understandable. I volunteer at Crisis Hotline, so they know me pretty well and I’ve had a background check.”
“You don’t have to be defensive. I don’t have a problem with men. I mean, I like men, I miss men.”
“Is that like a suicide hotline?”
“That’s how people tend to think of it, but most of the people who call us aren’t suicidal. Or maybe they’re suicidal time to time but it’s not the primary thing they’re calling about.”
“Did you know Ted Bundy used to work at a suicide hotline? When he was studying psychology?”
“I did not know that.”
“The people who worked with him say he saved more people than he killed.”
“I think that might be kind of a myth. Just because… it’s not like someone calls from a bridge or holding a gun and you talk for a while and at the end he’s like, whoa, I was wrong, I guess life is worth living. People call because they’re having a problem and they need someone to talk to, and maybe it’s a big thing or maybe it’s just a small thing that seems big or maybe they’re just lonely and they need to hear a voice.”
“How did you start doing that?”
“Um. Needed something to do, I guess.”
“I’m sorry, that’s nosy. That’s not appropriate.”
She looked at her envelope, twisted it lightly between her hands, one way and then the other, not enough to crease it. “I guess we should do this.” She set it down, pulled out a folded sheet of paper, laid it on the table and smoothed it with the flat of her hand, the top fold rebelliously popping up a second later. He reached for it, then pulled his hand back, waited for her to push it toward him. “Not totally sure what you’re supposed to do with this, but work your magic.”
“I’m certifying that you’re aware of the contents of this affidavit, that you signed it of your own free will, of sound mind and body, no duress involved. Just so they know that someone reliable watched you sign it and made sure you knew what it was and nobody was holding a gun to your head when you did it.
“Um. I mean, like, you can’t be a notary if you’ve ever been arrested?”
“Have you ever rejected somebody? Turned somebody down because you thought maybe they weren’t right in the head, or something bad was happening? Do you have a list of, like…” she stopped, looked down at the table. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay to be nervous.”
She folded her hands in front of her on the table, fists entwined, the knuckles at her first joint whitening and then flushing as she unclenched, thumbs chasing each other for a moment and then ceasing, reluctant, to sullen inactivity. “I’ll be alright. It’s been a stressful few days.”
He started reading the affidavit. “So you’re asserting a pattern of regular abuse, throughout the course of the relationship, first of all.”
“Alright. And you’ve laid out several specific examples here, starting with March twenty-fifth of two thousand twelve, when he, um… looks here like a pretty extensive list of injuries…” Using all his will not to glance at the thing on her mouth which maybe wasn’t a cold sore after all.
“I don’t think we have to go through all of this if you don’t want to. Like, I don’t have to read every incident aloud or anything like that.”
“I don’t mind. I’m the one who went through it.”
“You know what this document is, right? Clearly you do.”
“It’s an affidavit. So I can get a restraining order.”
“That’s what matters. If you can go ahead and sign it.”
He pulled a pen out of his case and passed it to her. She pulled the cap, flicked the tip across the signature line, recapped it and set it on the table. He slipped the paper between the flat jaws of his sealing tool, squeezed the handle and embossed the paper, initialed and dated, slid it back to her. She folded it, ran her fingertips along the creases, slipped it into the envelope.
“I guess that’s it. How much do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Don’t comp. It’s a valuable service. You should at least let me give you gas money, you drove all the way out here from Olympia.”
“The usual fee is ten dollars. Probably that’ll cover my gas.”
“That won’t cover your gas.”
“I drive a small car.”
“Okay, fine. The usual fee, that’s fine. Stop costing myself money.” She turned to the purse hanging from the chair, lifted the flap and pulled out a leather billfold, ID showing through a clouded window of aged plastic. “Break a twenty?” He nodded; she gave him the bill and he pulled his own wallet out. Just by chance he had a five and some ones. He almost never did jobs that paid cash.
He pushed the chair back, stood up, but the woman was still sitting there, hands folded into a pile of tense-squirming appendages. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No,” she said. “You’ve done fine, thanks.”
“If you need a ride back to the shelter I’d be happy.”
She shook her head. “It’s walking distance and the location is supposed to be a secret. Even you, I know you’re trustworthy but they’d be angry. They didn’t want me to come here alone. But everyone who works there is really busy and I just wanted to get this fucking thing done, you know?” He took a breath to say goodbye and she said, “I guess I’m not so excited about going back to the shelter. I’m trapped with… I love my daughter but we’re both in this little room and we have to share a pretty small bed, and… there’s not a lot to do, there’s a TV in the living room but it gets pretty boring only being able to watch TV and some of the other women are usually watching it so I have to watch what they pick. There are some books, but… just not having a choice. It’s a little like being in jail. I hate to say that, I feel terrible saying that because it’s so nice what they’re doing for us. But just… being stuck like that, it’s hard. That’s the hardest thing about it. The room gets cold. My daughter doesn’t know what’s going on.”
“It sounds like it must be really frustrating.”
“That’s life, I guess.” She stood, picked her purse up from the chair and hung it over her shoulder. He followed her toward the door, because his car was in that direction, not sure if she would think he was walking her there for politeness, maybe trying to keep an eye on her, if it would be considerate to take a different exit and walk around. The front of the casino was a series of automatic sliding doors like a supermarket, sequined letters against pink felt saying COME AGAIN SOON, a chubby Indian security guard with a flattop, thumbs hooked in his utility belt. She stopped in a way that was almost cartoonish, pausing with one sandaled foot in midair, spinning around and shuffling back into the careening noise of the slot machines, weaving from table to table and row to row. Her dress was cut low in the back, and from behind he could see a bruise between her shoulder blades, reddish-yellow haloed in fading purple.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I think I saw my boyfriend’s car in the parking lot.”
“The one you’re…”
“You think he’s here right now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know how he would have found me here. He’s not supposed to know where I am, he’s not even supposed to know I’m at the shelter. Don’t talk to me, don’t act like you’re with me.”
“Okay.” He sat in front of one of the slot machines, looked at the display. It was something called Jackpot Party, spinning rows of presents, cakes, candles. Still looking at the screen he said, “I can go outside and look if you want. See if it’s really his car. Do you remember the plate number?”
“Not off the top of my head. It’s a Ford SUV. It’s kind of a dull gold color, it’s hard to explain. I can’t remember the name of the model. Like Escape or Explorer or, I don’t know.
“One of the small ones?”
“He’d like something bigger but he can’t afford it.”
“What does he look like?”
“I don’t know. Like a guy, I guess. He’s white. Mid twenties, about your height, maybe a little heavier than you. I don’t think there are a lot of young guys in this casino.”
“Where’s somewhere you can go that he wouldn’t spot you? Would he think to look in the women’s bathroom?”
“He wouldn’t follow me in there. He wouldn’t make a scene.”
“Do you have your phone with you? If you give me the number I can check and see if he’s there. I’ll call you and tell you what I see.”
“Okay.” She read him the number and he programmed it in his phone. “Don’t make a big deal out of it. You think you see him, don’t try to talk to him, don’t look at him.”
He watched her walk across the floor until she disappeared behind the partition which hid the door to the women’s room, then stood up and slipped through the crowd of elderly, glancing back and forth for someone who looked like him but bigger, through the automatic doors as they whooshed aside, up the first row of the parking lot. She’d seen it through the front window; if it was there it would be close to the front. He tried to walk at an even pace. There was a Ford SUV, something more silver-ish than gold but perhaps not without some modest muted goldishness, and he could think of several narrowing questions he might have asked – how many doors, do you remember the plate, does it have any cracks in the windshield – but he told himself it was better to err on the side of caution, that this was an abused woman in hiding and it was perhaps even cruel if he didn’t take her fears seriously. He called her phone. “Yeah, there’s something here that might be his.”
“Fuck. Fuck fucking fuck.” Her voice was echoing against the tiles; he imagined a grandmother hunched in slow urination, wondering about the cursing woman in the next stall.
“Maybe you can get out one of the side doors. I can pull my car around, have it ready, leave the engine on.”
“I can come find you and we can walk out together. If he hits me, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not any kind of a badass. I’ve never been in a fight that I won. But I’ve been punched a few times and there’s worse things. Plus there’s security, I know they’re not much but maybe they can be some help if he starts harassing you or something.”
“Cool. Yeah, I think this can work.”
“I’m driving a Saturn, it’s sort of a light brownish color. I guess you don’t need to know that if I’m coming in to get you.”
“No, it’s good. Thanks. I’ll see you in a minute.”
He walked to his Saturn, unlocked and started it, drove around the back of the casino to the door on the opposite side. He passed a dumpster stenciled FOOD WASTE and a man in a white suit smoking next to a propped-open door. Escaping through the kitchen would lend a cinematic flourish but likely make a bigger scene than they could justify. He pulled up to the side entrance, left the car running, reached over to the passenger door to unlock it because the power doors didn’t work, walked through a different set of sliding doors past another flattopped security guard – odd how he felt guilty and evasive even though he was probably right at this moment the only person doing an actual good deed – walking as fast as he could without attracting attention, thighs of his slacks going zip-zip. Feeling real anxiety now at the prospect that the ex might be here; it had been years since he’d been punched and he’d heard of people getting concussions from being hit, permanent brain damage, maybe your nose gets pushed into your brain and you’re dead on the spot. Sometimes when he got out of the shower he would look at his faceless peach silhouette in the fogged mirror. He lifted and ran and he’d never carried a lot of extra weight and there was always the imagined hope that he could be someone else, that he might spot some distinct shift that signaled a major change in his size and definition, but as the bathroom fan sucked the moisture from the air he would see it was still him; he kept a beard – trimmed now to follow the shape of his jaw, a luxury of his stabilized life – perhaps the ease with which he grew facial hair was a tiny clue about his father – but his torso still seemed boylike, presexual, flat chest and narrow arms. Lucky at least that he wasn’t fat but fat guys could take a certain level of punishment and some of them had strength if not speed. The bathrooms were toward the back wall, by a row of tables where women in black vests over white shirts pushed chips and cards in response to murmured monosyllables. He called the woman’s phone and she didn’t answer but she walked out of the bathroom a moment later – she must have been waiting right next to the door – and he whispered follow me, then thought why does it matter if I whisper? – and then they were both striding through the casino, her half a step behind and two feet to the left, and he didn’t want anyone to notice they were together so he forbade himself to glance back to see if she could keep up. Into the car, thinking it had been smart of him to make sure her door was unlocked, shifting into drive, slowing as he neared the exit for just long enough to glance quickly left and right, stomping the pedal and swinging the car left with maybe a bit more verve than was appropriate for a guy in a ‘93 Saturn, stomping the pedal hard enough that he could hear the engine rev, letting himself feel good.
“Oh my fucking God I could hug you right now,” she said. “I don’t even know how to say it.”
“I mean, it wasn’t a big deal.” He glanced in the rearview. “I don’t see anyone following. I think we got away.”
“You really have no idea. I mean, you do but you don’t. I owe you.”
“Least I could do. Where should I take you?”
“Let me call the shelter and figure out what they want to do.” She pulled her phone from her purse, made a call, was quiet for a minute or two, ended the call. “Nobody’s answering. They don’t really have, you know, a front desk or anything. I’ll try in a bit.”
“I don’t have anywhere to be in the near future. I can stay with you as long as you need.”
“Yeah, that would be nice.”
They drove for a bit, the engine humming inoffensively, his sense of satisfaction beginning almost immediately to evaporate under the heat of self-consciousness, though not so fast that he couldn’t see the puddle retract, couldn’t keep feeling some of its cooling comfort even as he recognized its passing. He glanced around the car: empty wrappers of foods both fast and medium-paced, Mapquest directions, torn-out pages from a Thurston County road atlas. He’d had the sense in his youth that a cluttered car could signify decadence and carefree spirit, but he didn’t think this qualified. The Saturn’s upholstery was resolutely gray, the carpet worn thin, the passenger armest fallen from the door, marked by an outline in trim and a couple of screws attached to broken divots. The smell was many-layered, residues of long-ago air fresheners mingled together into a generalized sickliness the way a mixture of many colors always turns to brown, the old-car smells of greasy metal and unidentifiable burning fluids and hidden mildew, days of trapped sweat.
He tried to think of something he could ask her, some way to make conversation. Silence creates its own compounding significance, every quiet second adding more discomfort than the last one. He thought about the road to his house, which had a sharp dip. The hill peaked and plateaued and then the road went briefly down past a storage facility and a real estate office, and that was where he would mash the pedal because he knew what was coming, and the greater his speed the better the stomach-dropping whoosh, a moment’s illusion of freefall, the roll and sway of the suspension. However much the sucking gravity of the void might peel the meat of pleasure away from anything else that might amuse or entertain him, he always got a moment of joy from the dip. He wished he could show it to her.
And then she asked, “How did you get this job?” Amazing how such an obvious statement could clear the air, break the tension. He thought those skills eluded him partly because of their Zen simplicity; they were too obvious for him to think his way into.
“Through my aunt. She did it for maybe ten years and then decided she wanted to travel. She has some other money, she’s a widow, she’s basically retired. It’s one of those things where… it’s a decent way to get an income but only a couple of people can live off it in a given area, and it helps if you have a reputation as being reliable and accessible. So you basically only get the chance to do it if somebody quits it and passes it on to you, vouches for you with the people she works with, et cetera.”
“Do you make a lot of money this way? I mean, if it’s okay to ask. Driving out here for ten bucks? Not like I don’t appreciate it, but…”
“Mostly I do signings for home loans. People buy a house or they refinance or take out a second mortgage, and the bank hires a contractor to go through the loan with them. I do what I did with you but a home loan instead of an affidavit, and I get paid a lot more for it. You won’t get rich off it but I do okay because I live at my aunt’s house.”
“It was a lucky setup.”
“Do you think you’re a lucky person?”
“I don’t know. Some ways, maybe.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“It’s okay.” Feeling blood flush his face; one more stupid useless instinct, one more way his own body betrayed him. There was no contextual reason to be embarrassed.
“This seems like the kind of job an old man should be doing, you know? Or someone older than us, at least.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Not like you did bad. Just, you know, trying to figure out if people are trustworthy. Stamping a document saying, hey, it’s legit. How old are you?”
“No shit? Me too. Funny how it works out.”
“Yeah.” Not sure how to comment because the coincidence didn’t seem so surprising. He wished he had more to say. They’d reached Yelm, the curtain of trees pulling back to reveal upscale houses, a vet’s office, a spread of lawn and fruit trees. He gestured at a brick mansion behind a low fence. “That’s the Ramtha compound. I don’t know if you know about them. They’re… kind of a cult, I guess, but basically a harmless one. I mean, they don’t murder people. There’s just this woman who says she’s channeling some warrior from thousands of years ago, she talks in a funny voice and gives people classes on how they can be immortal or enlightened or whatever. A lot of the people who live here are involved with her, one way or another.”
“I’d never heard about that.”
“You can go on YouTube and see videos of her talking in a warrior voice.” She rested an elbow on the car’s windowsill, put her chin in her hands, turned her head to follow the compound as it receded into the distance. He said, “The copper on the fenceposts is to keep bad energy out. I’ve heard they drink a lot of red wine, too. It’s important to the religion somehow. My aunt Claire used to know someone who was a waitress at a restaurant here in town. She said they wouldn’t order food, they’d just sit for hours and drink red wine.” Knowing he was scraping the bottom of this diversion.
“Is that how you heard about all this? Through your aunt?”
“No, I read about it somewhere. I used to have a book on weird stuff in Washington. I mean, I still have it, but I haven’t read it for a long time. There was kind of a period where… I guess I accepted the fact that I was going to live here indefinitely, this was going to be where I spent… if not the rest of my life, at least all of my life that I could… that I could imagine from where I was. You know? That makes it sound bad. I was happy to be here and I felt like I should learn about it. So I started getting books from the library about history and geography. Going to museums sometimes.”
“That’s a cool thing to do.”
“I guess.” He’d always thought of it as a natural extension of having no friends.
“What else was in the book?”
“In Prosser there’s a hill that creates some kind of optical illusion, you can put your car in neutral and it will look like it’s rolling uphill. In Ellensburg there’s this really deep hole that’s supposed to be… magic or something.”
“A magic hole.”
“It doesn’t sound very exciting when you use those words, but yeah. People drop things into it and they disappear, that kind of thing. People used to think it went to another dimension or it was some kind of military experiment or something. The book is more about… it’s like the Ramtha thing, the book is more about how weird it is that people take these this seriously. As opposed to, wow, look how weird this magic hole is. Nobody’s sure now if it exists or if it’s just something they made up for a radio show. I mean, of course it doesn’t exist.” All the while wishing he could remember something more striking than the hill and the hole and also quite a lot of serial killers. Her phone vibrated for a second; he had the irrational sense that she’d made it happen.
They were passing a Safeway and she nodded toward it; he slowed, turned into its parking lot, put the Saturn in park but kept it running. She got out and talked on her phone, taking quick strides in a compressed space, the sound of her voice covered by the off-kilter hum of the engine, snatches of abstract vocal sound poking now and then through lapses in an idle which was never so rough he got around to having it tuned. She caught his eye and he tried to seem like he’d been turning his head in the process of looking somewhere else. The town was newest at its center, a ring of new housing around this Safeway and the Wal-Mart across the street, surrounded by shabby but dignified houses, older bars and restaurants, and around those a scatter of old homesteads, crumbling barns, overgrown cars rusting in fields. Probably the chain stores had imposed the illusion of structure on an area that was previously centerless. He heard a wailing sound and turned to see a mother dragging a screaming boy through the parking lot, the father slouching a few steps ahead, head hung and hands jammed in his pockets, taking the tantrum as personal insult and public humiliation. He thought of himself as someone who valued the honesty of children, the way even their self-consciousness and shyness were transparent. The flip side was this total lack of self-awareness, this fantastic irrationality.
The woman knocked on the window. He reached to unlock her door and saw it was still unlocked, so he pulled the handle and pushed it open and she climbed back in.
“They want me to wait here until someone from the shelter can come get me. With you here if you don’t mind. Obviously you’re not ideal company because you have a penis but I guess they think you’re better than nothing. It shouldn’t be long. I know you have places to be.”
“I don’t, really.” He shut the engine off.
“Can we maybe roll the windows down?”
“I’m sorry, I’m imposing. Everything up until now seemed okay but that’s just too much somehow, the windows.”
He turned the key to accessory mode and then flipped the switch to roll her window down, because her switch was on the passenger armrest and that was maybe, if he remembered right, in the trunk. She used a hand to shield her eyes as she peered around the parking lot, then let the arm hang; there were a couple of hollow-metal thunks as she idly slapped the outside of the door. She asked, “Did you go to church when you were growing up? Do you now?”
“My family wasn’t religious.”
“I was brought up to think that things are tests, you know? That God never sends you more than you can handle. And if you hold on, if you do the right thing and you try to be strong, then he’ll take care of you. Which… It’s funny because you’d think the last couple weeks would back that up, right? But it actually seems more bullshit than before. Because so many things have gone wrong for so long. I don’t think this achieves a balance.”
He looked again at the family, standing next to an old Chevy Lumina, the mother standing with her hand posed on the door handle, talking to the child. Her lips moved through cycles; she was repeating the same phrase over and over. The man looked away with his arms crossed. The only difference between him and his son was a veneer of repression. “There’s… I don’t know if I believe this precisely but I read this in a book and it stuck with me. God, the creator God, is a blind idiot. He deluded himself into thinking he was the only god, into thinking he was omnipotent, and he made this blind idiot universe full of horrible things. In his own image, which was a reflection of his fucked-up mind. And he told it to worship him. And the wiser gods came along and they found him playing with his little creation and said wow, that was sure a fuck-up. But of course he’s filled this whole universe with sentient beings and so it would be cruel to just wipe it out. So the other gods try to poke little holes in this veil of darkness, to where a little bit of light can maybe penetrate or infiltrate this awful universe that really shouldn’t exist. Jesus was one of those, maybe the main projection or invasion of goodness into our universe, but he could only last a certain amount of time, and after he died his message got… more and more dirty, more ruined, the longer it stayed in this world. No signal, all noise. If I was going to believe in any God it would be that one.” Feeling himself blush again with the creeping sense of silliness that accompanies displays of honesty.
She nodded. “That seems as credible as anything.”
“It’s the only thing I’ve heard about God that ever made sense to me.”
She touched his arm, her fingertips warm. It was rare that he felt anyone else’s skin, and it always surprised him how it could feel moist without really being wet. He thought about the feel of his own hands against the steering wheel, which had a waxy slipperiness he could never quite wash off, oils from his skin or chemicals extruded by decaying vinyl. Her hands were tiny and thin-fingered, nails painted the same blood-red as her lips. His narrow fingers struck him as frail-looking on the few occasions he considered them; it was rare to see someone whose hands were smaller than his. She pointed to a flash of motion, a silver roof creeping like a shark’s fin, and for a moment he thought it was the boyfriend but she said “That’s my ride.” Opened the door, patted her purse to make sure she still had it. “Thanks for everything. Really. I mean it.” She smiled, like a passing spasm of hope. Took a couple of steps away, paused for a moment and waved, then turned.
Driving home he felt newly reblinded, like some veil had been removed and then reintroduced. He pushed it to sixty for the dip, a moment’s feeling that something unimaginable would happen if he fell fast enough, hard enough. Like a roller coaster, the illusion of danger.