Until last week, Gomez had been a high school English teacher.
Until last year, he was a husband and a father.
The story of the car crash that took the life of his wife and daughter on their way home from the mall on a bright and sunny Tuesday afternoon in February was already hardening into legend in his mind. Gomez remembered how Tommy Parker, the principal, stood outside the hot gym waiting after the seventh-period assembly and put his big hand on his shoulder and looked at him with sad eyes, and how the police officer told him the news with a sort of awkward familiarity, and how quickly and efficiently his wife and daughter were buried and spoken about by the passionless minister, the old house that they had moved into north of Detroit when they were married sold along with nearly everything they had owned. The funny purple couch, the antique filing cabinet they had bought together in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, the espresso coffee maker that they had only used twice, the piano with stuck keys increasing like a contagion. Their daughter's computer, her new clothes for college, her trophies from track, her bulletin board. All these things, they were props, they belonged to someone else. He felt as if all the secret mechanisms that lay beneath the surface were exposed, revealing the absurd logic of events and consequences: death and burial, morning and night, waking and sleeping, talking and listening, standing and sitting. There was nothing magical in any of it, and it confirmed what Gomez had always secretly thought, but was afraid to say. The random absurdity of it all, given some desperate form by rituals. He felt that maybe he was being punished for thinking this way, for harboring these thoughts.
He gave himself a couple of weeks and then went back to work. People had said it was the best thing to do. He assigned his English class Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk and Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker and was reprimanded at the end of the year, kindly but formally, by the superintendent in his absurdly cold air-conditioned office. Then Gomez slowly and deliberately cut off all connections to his limited and far-flung family: his wife's mother, who at age 43, abandoned her family to sell her art on eBay; his older brother in San Francisco; his aunt who gave him all those rare books and the Roman coin. He sold the house and moved into a smaller one, and then a while later sold that and moved into a smaller one yet, a cabin really, that backed up against a five-hundred acre wood outside of town. Sitting on the back stoop now, in the dark June night two days after summer vacation started and many, many months after the accident, nursing a beer, he could remember the dumbest of details about them—like how his daughter always skipped stairs or how his wife said "whew" and tossed her keys on the entryway table when she came home, no matter where she had been.
Their death had become solidly and permanently a fact, something beyond recall.
On the first day of summer Gomez went to town for groceries, and as he was pulling out of the parking lot, he saw a girl waiting, she said later, for a taxi.
Her red backpack.
Her army fatigues.
Her beautiful face beneath her stringy hair.
She was standing in the sun, by the side of the road, watching him.
She seemed to have rings on every finger.
She got into his car because he leaned over and opened the door, unexpectedly.
It was not something he planned to do.
He drove away with her because she let him.
He took her to where he lived because she said yes.
He didn't kid himself about how ridiculous this was, and how dangerous, but he felt he had earned the right, and that nothing had been for anything, and that everything that had come before was merely the set-up to an awful punch-line that was to come no matter what he did or did not do.
She slumped down in the car seat on the way to his cabin, either because she was hiding or because it was some weird affectation, like the way teenage girls twirl their hair. He drove her past his old house, with a new SUV in the driveway, and past the familiar storefront landmarks and out to the edge of town to his new place on the edge of a woods that he had never been in.
"Can I stay here a few nights? Do you mind?" she had asked, looking around at his sparse place like she was interested in renting it. Before he answered she had tossed her backpack onto the couch and disappeared into the bathroom. It was either sheer confidence or else an act.
The first night he slept in his bed and she on the couch.
The second night she slept in his bed and he on the couch.
On the day of the fire that drove him finally and evermore out of his old life, she wanted to talk, but not about anything that seemed to matter.
He didn't know if she was homeless, or a runaway, or what.
He guessed she was about 19.
Her face had a savage determination about it, but he couldn't tell if it was from lots of experience or something else. Her eyes were bright green. Perhaps people were desperately looking for her, or perhaps they were hoping she would never return. She was quiet about all that with Gomez. He could see how she, with her long bare arms and fierce stare, could become the object of obsession or disdain. She was eating an orange at the kitchen counter, digging her fingers into it, wearing a white tank top. She had tattoo of an oversized drop of blood on her left shoulder. It was a place where you could put your lips.
"Have you ever been to Spain?" she said.
"No. Have you?"
"Yeah, it's nice. No one rushes around. The beaches are white."
"Beaches?" For a moment he forgot that Spain had beaches, but then he remembered that it did. Of course it did.
Then he said, "That doesn't sound so bad."
"Even the squid is good."
"Isn't squid like rubber?"
"Not there it's not. You've got to get it fresh. With lemon juice." She passed him an orange wedge.
"What else is there?"
"Priests. You can have a drink with them at the cafe. They understand about sin."
"I'll bet they do," Gomez said.
"But I don't do confessions," she said.
"I understand, my child," he said, and put his hand on her shoulder in a gesture of mock forgiveness. She smiled and held his eyes. He just wanted to touch her tattoo.
"Do you want to know what I saw in one of the churches there? In Spain?"
"I've never told this to anybody. I shouldn't tell you . . . maybe it's because you're a total stranger, you know?"
"I don't believe you but go ahead."
"It is unbelievable, you're right. God. You'll think I'm lying. It's like something out of a horror movie."
"Did you see Blair Witch?"
"Well, I'll keep it short." She pushed the plate of orange rinds away. "In this old stone church in the country we went to one night, past midnight, when we were drunk. It was outside of Madrid. We had followed the dirt road through a forest. It was hard to tell if it was even being used anymore. It was so dark. And then this church—or whatever—appeared, at the end of the road. The door kind of fell off its hinges when we went to open it. Should I really tell you this?"
"I don't see why not."
"I've wanted to tell somebody. Might as well be you. At first it was only a feeling, but we were drunk, so it's hard to say. It was pitch black inside. The floor was crooked, tilted. But everything was spinning anyway, so it was hard to tell. Why we were even there, I don't know. It was one of those crazy things. I was the first one in, and it smelled rotten. Like a dead animal."
"This is like a campfire story, isn't it?"
"Sort of," she said. "But it doesn't have much of an ending."
"Well inside, there was this thing. I don't know. It was dark, but you could still see it, standing there, like ten feet tall, by the altar."
"What kind of thing?"
"Like a person. But too big. Standing very still, but looking right at me. At first I thought it was a statue, something religious. Like Mary. You know? But it was moving, swaying."
"It could have been. I think it was. My head was spinning."
"What did you do?"
"Nothing. I mean, I couldn't tell what it was. It was this . . . presence, you know? Like God's eye but not God. Or a statue of God. That's what I keep thinking now, a statue of God. I slowly backed up and ran out, and I could hear the voices of the others back at the jeep. I heard it start and I thought they were going to leave without me. I ran to them in the dark."
"And then what."
"Nothing else happened. But the thing in the church, it saw me, it recognized me. What if I told you that it's searching for me?"
"That would be nice."
She looked at him fully, this girl. "What would?"
"To be hunted."
"What makes you say that?"
"I'm just kidding."
"Anyway," she said. "It's like it saw right through me and knows everything now. Even things that haven't happened yet."
"Sounds like mythology."
"Well it's a story, at least. That's what you wanted. But it really happened. It's a story that's true. You better watch out. You're the only one I've told it to." She laughed.
This seemed to Gomez like some sort of threat or promise, or maybe even a little bit like an invitation. For she touched his hand gently when he said it. Why she did this he couldn't fathom; what she wanted from him he did not know. He let her keep her hand on his for a few moments, before withdrawing it and standing up. Whatever it was that she wanted he did not have to give, although her cryptic talk made sense to him in a strange way. As he listened to her, he thought that maybe she reminded him of his wife or daughter. But she didn't. She was just some girl, some person. She smiled, and there was something beneath her smile, something that he thought he understood.
Then everything changed again so quickly. Like the accident. Late into the night he awoke on the couch to the smell of what he first thought was burning popcorn. In the dark he stood up and pulled on his pants and sweatshirt, his eyes watering, coughing, and for a moment, inexplicably, he thought he needed to save his daughter. Then he remembered and called for the girl, as if he had always known her, but there were flames coming from the kitchen that stood between where he was and the bedroom. The heat was already nearly scorching him and the noise of the fire was building, filling his head like the hum of a box fan. The heat pushed him back, and he found his way in the dark to the front door, and then down the steps, across the street, and to his car, and didn't look back, and for a moment, in his alarmed grogginess, he believed that Hell itself was coming for him in the flames. He got in his car and drove off, passing the screaming fire truck coming the other way.
What would they find back there?
Her body, charred in his bed?
Or perhaps not, perhaps she was bad, and had started the fire herself, had waited until he was asleep on the couch, had tiptoed around and looked at his face one last time. In any case it was wrong to run, and now, in his car, his clothes reeking of smoke, it dawned on him that it wasn't randomness, that his bad fortune hadn't been a fluke of circumstance. No, his life was being actively destroyed, he was losing everything: wife, daughter, home, and now even his freedom was in jeopardy.
He was, as they say, on the run.
* * *
It was strange to be driving without direction or purpose, but he was. Clutching the steering wheel, it was clearer than ever to him that it had been a mistake to stay in the same town after what happened to his wife and daughter. There was nothing for him there. This made it easier to drive for hours into the night down through the northern Michigan openness toward Detroit, which loomed 200 miles in the future like an abandoned set from a dystopian science fiction film. Every time he drove through Detroit it looked worse than the time before. It was an experiment in suicide. He expected all the time to be stopped by the police and arrested for abandoning the scene of a fire, or whatever they called it. At 1 a.m. he pulled off into a welcome center and slept on the leaned-back seat.
He started up again at about 4 a.m. About an hour later, he could see the dawn creeping up in his rearview mirror, illuminating the flat, scrubby fields. It was June; why wasn't anything growing in them? It didn't matter.
The truth is, he could have traveled like this forever, through the unpoliced towns that dotted the Midwest, the freedom of its unkempt highways, its unexplored woods, its abandoned barns, its empty buildings from another era of physical labor. It was as if the real world had been abandoned to him alone. There was no war. There were no towers. He moved across the landscape unnoticed. Despite everything that had happened, he was Godlike in his assuredness. His story was as complicated and tragic as anybody's—rottenness and bad luck times ten—yet not for all his trying could he believe that his pain was matched by anyone else's pain.
He didn't think he was fleeing, because he wasn't sure if he was being pursued. It was a question of semantics, a state of mind.
After all, had he started the fire?
He had not.
And that he—a forty-year-old widowed school teacher with a nineteen-year-old girl sleeping in his bedroom—what about that? Who would believe that out of compassion and something else, he had helped her by letting her stay a few nights, by providing shelter for her, by feeding her? After all, she was no mean animal. It was too complicated, he knew, to explain away. He doubted if he would believe it himself.
Even in this time of great uncertainty, it was clear to him that his whole life had tended toward this catastrophic year of his, as if everything that had come before was a carefully plotted script designed to simply advance him to this point. Gomez found this oddly comforting, because if the whole universe conspired against you, what hope was there? And this lack of hope offered a tremendous release, a freedom even. The car crash, and now the fire, it all seemed so tragically and so fatalistically comforting at the same time, a kind of short-lived, self-deluded victory. He knew now how the terrorists must have felt.
In his car, driving out of the ruined city, the rain pounded his windshield in the night. Buildings and bridges disappeared behind him, fleeing into the distance of his rearview mirror. Lightning filled the passageways of abandoned buildings and the underpasses of great highways. On a sharp curve on I-94 he passed a night-time road construction crew, illuminated in the lightning like some three-dimensional painting, their yellow hats, their orange vests meant to protect them from swerving cars. They were carving out the underside of an overpass. He drove further south out of Detroit with its savage history written everywhere, the car radio playing a crackly version of a new White Stripes song that already sounded ages old.
He took Telegraph road laid out like the barrel of a gun through the suburbs past Dearborn and eventually into the dark countryside past Adrian and into the little town of Monroe, with its sad, middle-of-the-night flashing red stop lights, the rain coming down in heaves like something from an over-budgeted movie.
It was 2 a.m. Gomez slowed at an intersection as the shadow sped across the road, then stopped. A bony dog stood at the side of the road in the pale edges of his headlights and he stopped and opened the door and waved a half-eaten candy bar beneath the dome light. In the back seat, the animal held the candy between its paws and chewed at it silently.
He drove on out of Monroe south into the unfamiliar Michigan countryside, his window open to the sound of crickets in the fields. Farther south still to the Ohio border. At the Red Roof Inn at midnight, he paid in cash and carried the lame dog bundled in his coat up the dimly lit, cracked cement stairs, to room 218.
Everything looked fake, like props.
He kicked at the tiny table to make sure it wasn't painted cardboard. He laid the dog on the bed like a carcass, turned on the lights, and shut the door.
In the shower, he rubbed the little odorless white bar over his face and in his hair. In the foggy mirror he looked upon his own blank face, even and smoothed out in the steam, except for his hair, which was shocking black, like crow's feathers. And the scar above his left eye.
On the bed the dog whimpered and licked a bloody, mutilated paw. Its nails were long, like it had been unnaturally caged and recently set free. Gomez sat down beside the animal and with his knife trimmed them back, holding each paw, one-by-one, firmly. Perhaps the dog understood, for it offered no resistance, but lay on its side blinking at the ceiling. It lapped up the water Gomez brought it in the frail, plastic-wrapped cup from the bathroom. It slept beside him in the bed, twitching and fretting all night. It comforted Gomez, somehow, to think that the dog had such troubled sleep, too.
He laid back on the bed and looked up at the freshly painted ceiling, and fell asleep.
That night he dreamt of Something coiled black in the trunk of his car, and of the girl's warning after she told him the story of the thing in the church, and of opening the trunk with the turn of a key, and of the Something spiraling out of the trunk like a reverse tornado.
The next morning, the dog let Gomez carry him out to his car and put him in the back seat. He drove out to the main street with its Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut and Tire Shop and every building that had been distractedly built, past Fetter's Iron Works and Meijer and Dough Boys and the pharmacies and banks and oil changers, past the brown brick bank with the time and temperature and the small farm house wedged between the insurance office and the church, past the lurking hospital, square like a bunker with its startling antennas on the roof and its thin, crease-like windows. He drove out to the edge of development where the new marriages and hopeless marriages fled, some age-old memory trace of butchery buried in the signs for the brand new, Indian-named subdivisions, Shawnee Trace and Tecumseh Point and Arrowhead Park.
Then the houses and businesses fell away and the road south opened up with no distractions. Gomez drove further and further still until it was dark, a blanket of numbness covering his mind.
* * *
Everything at the truck stop off I-75 was covered with a delicate sheen of grease.
He was somewhere near Ashland, Kentucky.
The food came in fried heaps, delivered by a somnambulist waitress with wild red hair and a torn dress.
Perhaps she wasn't the waitress, after all, Gomez thought afterwards.
The coffee set his ears ringing, and he had to strain to hear his own thoughts.
Two tables over, a young boy about 11 or 12 with a pierced eyebrow poked at his food sullenly, a secret signal to his parents that he was soon leaving their world, that even this—this innocent stopover on the way to somewhere else—he could not tolerate. He was bored with his own boredom. His clothes were brown and baggy; he was loaded with the symbology of discontent. With his bare hands and thumbs Gomez could mold the boy's high-cheek-boned, feminine face into the face of his own child's, his daughter, lost now lost now lost but visible in traces in the body of every child.
With shaking hands Gomez fished out his money and spilled it lazily in rattling coins at the cashier's counter. One coin spun and spun beyond reason until he stopped it with his hand. Out of his wallet slipped a small piece of paper with a phone number written on it. He turned it over in his hands, and knew without knowing that the girl must have slipped it in there. Perhaps her cell phone number. Why? He imagined her doing it in the dark, as he slept. He folded it in two and returned it to his wallet. In the car the dog was awake, watching Gomez approach through the foggy window. Gomez started the car and drove off, pulling onto the highway with all the banal order that such an act required, gripping the steering wheel in his hands with strangulation strength.
As the gray strip of highway gathered speed behind him, he looked more than once in his rearview mirror, certain that someone was following him. Not the police. There was something bigger in store for him than that. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. Something to end it all. Everything that was happening was tending toward this final moment.
* * *
That night, in southern Kentucky, he pulled off the highway and took a sorry road to the James Motel just outside of Kensington. The dog slept beside him in the bed. In the pale blue light of the morning Gomez walked across the parking lot to the truck stop and ordered breakfast. A policeman came in and sat down in the booth across from him, his gun in his holster. He put his walkie-talkie down on the table and took off his sunglasses and looked over at Gomez. He smiled. The waitress came and Gomez ordered the Number 2, and when it came he kept some toast aside for the dog.
Back in the room he fed the dog and checked its feet, which were healing quickly. He flicked on the TV but all that came up was the blue on-screen menu, which he couldn't get to work. He went to the window and drew closed the drapes, and then turned on the lamps on the desk and the bedside table.
When he was in the bathroom, someone pounded on the door. The dog jumped down from the bed and stood and barked. Gomez came partially out of the bathroom and stood in the doorway, waiting. The dog quieted down, and then there was pounding again, louder, almost alarming, and the dog went back to barking, its body shaking. The dog threw its head from side to side as it barked. Gomez didn't move. After the pounding stopped, he went to the door and looked out the peephole, but it was fogged and he could see nothing.
Gomez sat down on the bed and the dog jumped up next to him. He rubbed the dog's head, and wondered if it might have been the cop at the door. Or maybe the cleaning woman, but she would have let herself in.
Gomez had planned to leave, but somehow he didn't. He called the front desk and put another night on his card. He also told them the TV wasn't working, and they said he needed to press the yellow button on the remote, not the red one, and that it said that in the channel guide on top of the set.
He ordered room service that day and night, and then the next, and it slowly occurred to him that he would not be leaving any time soon. He had enough money to stay here for a long, long time. Before he knew it, five or six days had gone by, and he hadn't even opened the curtains or looked outside. He didn't answer the door when the knocking came again, nor did he answer the phone when it rang. If someone wanted to get him, they would have to come and get him, because for all he cared, the world outside had disappeared, and as long as he had food and money to pay for this room he was content not to leave, ever. He ceased to look at himself in the mirror, but sometimes caught sideways glances that revealed his growing beard, his scraggly hair, his wrinkled clothes.
At night he sometimes wondered about the boy in the diner, which made him think about his daughter, and her long, graceful body in the coffin, and the way she covered her mouth when she laughed, and about how the dog was healing, and about the girl he had maybe left in the fire.
He remembered her number in his wallet.
He had regretted not touching her tattoo.
He wondered if she was okay.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, he dialed it.
It rang and rang.
He hung up and did it again.
This time, she answered.
"Hello," she said.
"I wanted to see if you were okay."
"What happened to you? Why did . . ."
Before she could finish, another voice interrupted them on the phone, and at that moment the dog, startled by something at the door, jumped off the bed, tangling its foot in the phone cord, pulling the whole thing down and disconnecting the call. Gomez put the phone to his ear, but it was dead.
The lamp on the bed stand suddenly seemed too bright, like 200- or 300-watt bright. He reached over and turned off the light. The dog was barking wildly at the door, showing more life than Gomez could imagine, the hair on its back standing up.
He knew that he would never call her again, and that he shouldn't have even tried, and that it was time to let the dog go. He leaned over and put the phone back on the table, got out of bed, and walked across the room to open the door. In his mind the name he had for it was Hellhound, but that was a terrible name. Gomez, in his Detroit Tigers T-shirt, opened the door and let the dog out. It was easy to let it go.
Gomez stood in the doorway and looked out into the black night, trying to see something, anything, even a light. Yet there was nothing but blackness. The air felt sweet in his lungs. His car must be out there somewhere in the parking lot that he could not see. In fact it was so quiet, so still, that looking into the blank night, Gomez could almost imagine that the world itself had disappeared, or had never existed.
What happened to you, she had said.
He wanted to answer her now, but it was too late.
As he stepped away from his room, what he had come to fear and secretly hope for, was finally and actually there before him in its darkness, darker even than the gathered night.
Nicholas Rombes is a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, in the city that will not die. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Oxford American, Metazen, n+1, decomP, matchbook, Exquisite Corpse, Used Furniture Review, and other places. He writes about film at The Rumpus.
© 2011 prickofthespindle.com