"You know why people do what they do?" Nelson asked Helen one hot summer day while they sat in a bench at the Oronoco Park in Old Town. People were everywhere. Grownups and kids. Joggers, walkers, tourists.
She turned to him with a curious look on her face, one that said something like 'Is this weather getting a little too hot for you, honey?' But she said instead: "Depends on what motivates them." She felt stupid even giving him that answer.
"Exactly," he said. "And no matter what it is people do, it's all for the same reason."
"How is that?"
"People do things only for an audience. Whatever a person does beyond acts to meet basic natural functions - eating, drinking, defecating, having sex, the person does primarily to get attention. Did you ever think of that?"
"No!" She wanted to take his hand and lead him to a picnic table in the shade of a tree. "Never did, come to think of it."
"You go to a party, a dance party, any kind of a social get-together, all dressed up, looking good. You get there and nobody showed up except you and maybe a couple other people. Does it make sense to be there at all? To dance, show off your number, parade whatever it is you're parading to show the world? No. Because you have no audience. Might as well go home and watch TV."
She laughed, feeling awfully silly listening to that.
"Everybody does it for that same reason," he went on. He looked at a woman nearby pushing her toddler in a baby carriage. "Even babies do it. A baby cries only when it senses it can get somebody's attention. When it has been conditioned to know that it's not going to get any attention, it won't cry anymore, or it will stop crying after a while.
"Okay, you're all alone in a wilderness. Say on an island. What does it matter what you do with yourself? Your face, your hair, the rest of you? There's nobody to look good for, smell good for. What difference does it make if you just let everything hang out? Unless you just want to please yourself. But then, why can't you just go fishing and enjoy the day?"
She got up from the bench then, laughing, raised her face to the sky thinking 'why me God, and why on such a nice day as today?'
Another time, he was driving them back in her car to her place from the foodstore one afternoon. They were on a nice suburban residential street where they passed a number of old and expensive houses with 'For Sale' signs on the front yard.
"Don't you feel sad seeing that sometimes?" he said out of the blue.
"What?" she asked and looked at a house he pointed out as they passed by it.
"That's a nice big house. Imagine the lives that were lived there for many years. A whole lifetime. The family that was raised in it. Must have been a lot of happy years. But, now the kids are grown up and gone, 'things' are done, that stage is over and the life cycle is almost complete, so it's time to sell the house and go someplace to die."
She wished she had known that was what's coming out of him so she could have maybe shut his mouth with a masking tape she had in the glove compartment. But she couldn't argue with his feelings about his observations of life, because they were all true. She just wished he wouldn't be as unfeeling, and totally practical about the way he laid them out as plain and simple facts.
Later in the evening while they were working up a mood to get intimate in the bedroom, she said it's encouraging to know of people like his friend Baker and the kind of family he comes from and that she gives Nelson credit for having such a friend.
"I wish," she added, "I could say as much for myself about some of the people I know."
"Like Gilda," Nelson said. "How is she doing? I hope she's not getting drunk again over some guy."
"I had a long talk with her yesterday," Helen said, guiding one of his hands over some of what they called the 'love spots' of her naked body. "I told her what you suggested."
"To give it a rest. The endless male-chase, and just look at men not as potential mates but as humans of the other gender, persons of the opposite sex."
"I was only kidding. You didn't tell her to play church bingo too with the old ladies. Or go bungee jumping."
"No. But I asked her to come to Dr. Luisa Mayberry's seminar this Thursday after work at the Hyatt in Crystal City."
"What?" she asked, nibbling on his right ear.
"You must have read my mind. I was just going to suggest that you do that." His hand came up from between her legs and held one of her breasts, kneading it gently.
"Maybe I did," she said, moaning. "I would also like you to come. I got an extra ticket. A complimentary one."
His hands suddenly stopped moving as did the other parts of his body.
"You do?" he asked.
"Yes, honey. I want you to come with us. It'll be good for Gilda, and for us."
His mind raced for anything to obstruct the idea from setting in her mind that he was coming, that he could make it Thursday night to sit and listen for hours to all that relationship gibberish coming from some Ph. D. advise expert. Anything: working late, tight work deadline, late doctor or dental appointment, a relative suddenly dead from a heart attack or in a car accident, a long-drive trip to a construction jobsite.
"Dr. Lulu Mayflower did you say?" he asked when he couldn't think of anything.
"Luisa Mayberry," she corrected, rolling on top of him. "She's from California. Very popular speaker, and very good. She's just now winding down her east coast lecture tour. This is her last week here."
"But, honey, isn't that mostly for women? Wouldn't I be sort of out of place there?"
"Don't be silly. It's men and women. Singles and couples. Couples, especially, are strongly encouraged to attend."
Naturally, thought Nelson. It's twice the attendance of singles, twice the admission, twice the business, twice everything. He wondered if she was doing this deliberately to get on his nerves, knowing what an ordeal he considered this sort of thing to be.
They picked up Gilda at her place in Shirlington and was at the Crystal City Hyatt in less than fifteen minutes. There were over five hundred people in the hotel conference room when they arrived. Many more were streaming in through the long admission tables where they presented their tickets and proceeded directly to their seats or to one of the bars. They headed to the bar at Gilda's suggestion since, she said, it was fifteen minutes before the start of the program and it didn't look like they had to worry about getting seats. There were plenty to spare.
The two women volunteered to get the drinks while Nelson stood out of the way of traffic to the bar and found time to take in the scene. It was one big noisy crowd. Late thirties and up. Mostly women in pairs or groups of as many as five, buzzing incessantly. Very few couples, he could tell among the pairs of men and women who conversed with each other. The couples stood or sat close to each other. They touched, even held hands. The singles stood at arm's length as if keeping each other at bay, holding a drink, moving cautiously and giving each other half-smiles.
Looking around, he didn't see much different in the crowd: middle-aged women, and men, seeking some sort of self-affirmation, some relevance to their existence in mid-life, after years of marriage perhaps or that long relationship that couldn't be saved and had to come to an end. Some looked like the party type, trying to stave off the advancing years by acting young and playful in spite of the creeping bulge in the waistline and the early wrinkles. Others appeared depressed, ravaged by loneliness, looking desperately to connect with another human being, wanting to be rescued from the entrapment of circumstances beyond their control, or of their own doing.
He saw Gilda among them, though looking at her just now from a distance coming from the bar with Helen - youthful, smiling pretty, very feminine in the way that catches most men's attention, one would hardly think she'd be the type to be found in a gathering like this. But knowing what he knew about her, he agreed, as he had even suggested to Helen, that someone like this Dr. Luisa... Blueberry might have something to say that could be good for her to listen to.
It's quite possible, he was thinking as they got nearer, that the circumstances Gilda found herself in at forty were beyond her control or comprehension. With some women, especially the unmarried ones, the panic at hitting that age could be very disorienting. And it probably lowers their defenses against the present-day life challenges such as those they face at work and in their social life, especially with men.
Men see this in a woman. They see her coming, just as a sleazeball used-car salesman sees an innocent unsuspecting victim walking in the store. And men could be such sleazeballs, like the ones he'd heard Gilda had known recently. Like the ones he himself knew when he went out there before Helen's time and the times they broke up, in the singles dances, the bars, the clubs. In fact, the two of them, Gilda and Helen and all the women in this gathering could point a finger at him and in many ways he couldn't argue against any of them.
However, with her relationship with Helen, he would have a lot to argue against it if anybody, including Helen, pointed an accusing finger at him. Men are sleazeballs, dirtbags, turkeybutts, call them anything there is in the farmer's almanac, but what goodness they possess, the ones - few and far in between they may be - who had them, they would lavish on a woman to please her, to bring smiles on her face, make her happy. Such a man would come by her side to comfort her when she's sad or in distress if it meant taking leave of his own life at work or in front of the TV during a crucial Sunday ballgame.
There are such men. Men who possess such goodness, and he would stand up and argue to be counted as one. And he is not alone. There are other men out there like him, even more than like him in that respect. Right here, as a matter of fact, in this crowd.
Gilda and Helen were a few steps away when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"Herman," he said when he turned around and recognized a friend he had known from one of the singles clubs they frequented regularly on weekends a few years back - five, six years ago. They shook, then took turns in a quick banter:
'Look what the cat dragged in. Good to see you, Herman.'
'Good to see you, Nelson, the person.'
'Herm the sperm.'
'Haven't heard that one in a while. So, how've you been?'
'Good. Good. You?'
'Oh, same old, same old.'
They were still carrying on after the two women had been standing before them a short while until Helen handed Nelson his vodka and tonic. Nelson then made the introductions.
Just like the other singles he'd observed, Gilda and Herman gave each other approving half-smiles, and what was behind those, hell if anybody knew. But it sure would be interesting to find out what chemistry, if any, took place there from the moment they shook hands.
Herman was married at twenty, became a father six months later, and was divorced a year later. That was twenty-one years ago. His son, now halfway through college, grew up mostly with his family: parents and a sister. Meantime, Herman got married again later in his thirties but his wife died of cancer. He had been an unmarried widower since, ten, eleven years now.
He and Nelson had become good friends since those club days, double-dated a few times. They were open to each other especially about women, and other personal things. Herman was one man Nelson knew women could not liken to a sleazeball used-car salesman when it came to relationships. As a matter of fact, unlike him, Herman had been wanting to settle down and had been seriously seeking a committed relationship. But with some of the women Herman had known, Nelson didn't see anything lasting between them more than a few weekends. Herman had said this himself to Nelson.
"Where have all the good ones gone?" Herman complained to him once.
"They're still here," Nelson had said. "But they've changed. Many of them have."
"You're telling me. I can't get to their heads with anything I say. Talking to them is more often like running into a concrete barrier."
"You mean like talking to a brickwall."
Herman came by himself, he said, and just met here with a group of people he knew. Seeing how easily he got into the conversations with the three of them, Nelson invited him to join them and he was glad he did when the two women seconded him. Herman accepted and thanked them. A moment later, a woman got behind the microphone up on the stage and asked that everybody be seated.
Nelson led them to a row of seats about a third of the room back from the stage. Helen sat to his left and Gilda and Herman to her left. The woman behind the microphone got right to business, made a brief introduction of the speaker and out came a tall blonde woman, late forties, nice trim figure in a two-piece dress with a knee-high hemline looking like she was out for a dinner date instead of a business speaking appearance. She too got right to business.
Twenty minutes later, Nelson started feeling impatient, thinking how right he was again about this thing. He hadn't heard anything Dr. Luisa had touched on that he hadn't heard or read someplace before - courtship, rites of passage, life phases, the whole relationship package. He looked at the women to his left through his peripheral vision and saw how intently they listened to every word coming to them. Herman just sat next to Gilda looking like he too might as well be listening to a weather report he heard earlier.
Some forty five minutes before she finished, however, Dr. Luisa finally got most of Nelson's attention when she began talking about how men and women need to be practical in dealing with problems in their relationship, at one point saying:
"For instance, take his habit of leaving the toilet seat up after he's done his business there."
"Now, how do you deal with that?
"I know some women who really get infuriated with it. I know somebody who actually broke up with her boyfriend because of it.
"And in the bedroom, after those last two wonderful spasms - not yours but his, mind you - and he rolls over. He's done! But you're not. No way in the Garden of Eden you're done... "
"... and he actually falls asleep ten seconds later! Now, how do you deal with that?"
Through the corners of his eyes, Nelson saw Helen half-turn her head at him as did a lot of women at their partner. One woman sitting two rows in front of them practically confronted the man next to her by bending forward in front of him and looking him up straight in the eye.
"How you deal with a lot of things in a relationship," Dr. Luisa went on, "depends on how each of you entered in that relationship, who you are to your partner when you did, the role you took up. If you entered in it to some degree and knowingly as a mother figure to him, your tolerance level with the toilet seat issue and a lot of other petty ones would be high enough that, I bet you, most of them wouldn't even be an issue. In fact, you might even be glad to pick up after him.
"The same thing holds true where a man is typecast as, say, a utility man around the house, or a macho companion, or a sugar daddy. Whatever, based on what he has and is willing to offer in a relationship: money, muscle, some specialized skill, or maybe even some intelligence. After all, let's face it: a relationship is a form of a trade agreement. I know this sounds so impersonal, you might even say it's a crude way of looking at it. But how is it any different from the way we've seen many relationships, marriages, that had ended in ugly divorces?
"I say, it's not impersonal, or crude, but rather sensible, and practical."
This time, it was Nelson who turned to Helen, not just partially but fully, looking for some reaction. And this time, it was Helen who sat still and regarded Nelson only through the corners of her eyes.
"Now, let's talk about sex," Dr. Luisa continued, drawing a mixed reaction in the expression of indifference and acute interest in the audience. "I know, I know. You're thinking 'what else can anybody say about this issue after all that's already been said about it. It's like beating on a dead horse.' Well, okay, then let's not talk about sex. Let's talk about lovemaking. Or shall we say... loving? Physical intimacy? What else is there, c'mon, help me out here."
"Copulation!" a man responded.
"That's good. Another one, anybody?"
"Intercourse!" yelled another.
"Very good. But you have to be specific with this one. I assume you mean sexual intercourse. Not Intercourse, Pennsylvania."
"Coitus!" shouted a squeaky-voiced little old lady near the front row.
"Excellent," responded Dr. Luisa. "Very Kinseyan. Anything else? How about fucking? Screwing?"
The audience hissed and groaned. Some cackled, others looked stunned.
"Doesn't that sound really crude?" Dr. Luisa said directly to one of the people, a young middle-aged woman she picked to have an eye contact with a few rows away. "It does, doesn't it? To some people it does. But not to everybody. The F word, in particular, has a different effect at different times, with different people. To some, it is a turn-on. Let's see, how many of you like to talk dirty while doing it with your partner? Those who do, raise your hand. C'mon, let's not be bashful. We're trying to help each other out here and the only way we can do it is by being honest to ourselves and to one another."
Dozens of arms shot straight up like young blades of grass in a freshly watered meadow.
"Thank you. Now, how many of you had done it with your partner starting out by being affectionate and just wanting to be held or acknowledged, with no prior thought or motivation of having sex?"
Everyone raised a hand.
"Great. Now, how many of you had done it with your partner with the primary motivation of just being physically intimate? Times when you might say, plain and simple, that you're horny."
Again, everyone raised a hand.
"Wonderful. Now we're getting somewhere. What does that tell you when you go through those experiences? It shows that sex plays a dual role in a relationship: first, that it is part of all the fundamental ingredients of a relationship - the caring and sharing, the affection, romance, and whatever idea or feeling of love you have for each other; second, that it is a natural function, a need which must be met in each one of you.
"I know that I don't really need to tell you any of these because you know these already. I believe that you've known these all along, but you're in self-denial and in need of some reassurance, some confirmation of the facts. Well, I'm telling you now that as long as you're honest to yourselves and to each other about it, it's okay to have sex just for the sake of having sex and enjoying it physically with each other. If you just want to get pleasure or give it to one another, it's prefectly alright. It's healthy, it's natural and it's good. It's not wrong, it's not dirty, it's not obscene, it's not immoral."
"And in the process, if you want to use the F word or any other word you think would help give each other more pleasure, by all means do so. As long as you don't hurt each other, you can talk all the dirty talk you can think of. Just don't be too loud and wake up the neighbors."
That just about brought the house down. It took Dr. Luisa Mayberry a good three minutes to get back on track from all the applause and the boisterous laughter. Everyone thought they'd heard the best of her going into the last twenty minutes of the seminar until she began talking about what many who knew her well said she considered the most important issue in any long-term human relationship: change.
"Love," she said. "Do we all know what kind of love we're talking about here? Yes, we do. At this point, I know we do. The question I want to bring up to you now is: how do you love each other? And how sure are you that you love the person you think you love?"
A man raised a hand and Dr. Luisa paused to let him speak.
"I don't think I love the person I love," the man said. "I feel I love the person I love."
"Thank you, sir. I take it you're in a relationship with this person you feel you love at present?"
"Yes. She's sitting right here with me right now."
Dr. Luisa turned to the rest of the audience and asked: "Who else feels this way for your partner?"
Hands shot up once more in great numbers.
"Wonderful. Now, I'm going to be very straightforward with every one of you, and again I'd like you to be honest to yourselves. First, I'd like to talk about those people who have been in a relationship for at least one to three years, either married or singles. Tell me, can you honestly say that the feelings you felt for your partner when you first started dating and became intimate a few weeks or months later, remain the same and undiminished? Unchanged in any way at all?
"Some of you would say that they haven't. That can't be a hundred percent true but I won't argue with you because either you refuse to believe you've changed, or you haven't changed enough to see that it matters, or you're outright lying to yourself, to your partner and to the rest of the world. Nothing stands still and remains the same. Everything changes over time. Even at this very moment, you are changing. Every moment that passes, we are all one moment older. Every cell in our body, every emotion, every thought we have is one moment older and not totally the same the moment before. "
Heads nodded in agreement throughout.
"Don't tell me the sexual urge you felt for your partner the very first time the two of you did it remains a hundred percent the same now, two or three years later, or shall we say, four hundred or six hundred times later.
"The same way with your feelings of love. A year or two later, after you've seen some of the things you didn't see or thought you'd never see in your partner when you first started out, don't tell me your feelings for your partner have not been affected and changed in some way. True, some of you might say yes your feelings for your partner have changed, and it's for the better; that you feel you love the person more now. That's great. A positive change is still a change.
"But for every such change, who would venture to say how many of the opposite change occur? Going by the divorce rate in the American society today, anybody?"
Gilda, to the surprise of company around her, raised her hand. Dr. Luisa pointed to her and Gilda stood up and said: "The same number."
"Exactly!" said Dr. Luisa emphatically. "Fifty percent, which is the divorce rate in this country right now. With every two marriages, one keeps and one fails. And why the failed ones? Hah! Big question. Really big. But we all know the answer: it's because people change. People change in any number of ways. Some for the better, some for the worse. And what changes do they undergo? Everything - biological or physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional.
"Anything that makes them who they are could change, including what I consider the most important factor affecting human relationships - value. For instance, what's important to me fifteen, twenty years ago may not be important to me now. Right now, maybe I couldn't care less about something I valued so much and would die for years ago. It's the same thing with feelings of love, sexual appetite, material ambition, any kind of desire in life: power, acceptance, approval, social reputation, success. Today, I don't give a hoot whether or not I get the approval I worked so hard in the past to get from whoever; I don't care for this or that anymore. Because some of my values have changed.
"However, not all values change significantly enough that one could say they're lost. There are certain values that remain fundamentally constant in certain people with the passing of time. For instance, now you might ask me 'What about that thing called... love? What happens to it? Where does it go?'
"Those who change and lose it, the ones who obviously belong to the failed fifty percent, again I would ask the question: How did you love each other? What value did you place in your relationship with your partner. You think maybe we ought to ask those who belong to the other fifty percent since things appear to be working with them and it looks like they have not lost it? Well, I did. I've talked to a lot of them and asked them that question, and this is what they tell me:
"How you love each other depends on how you like each other based on what you value in each other. They tell me one of the biggest false leads is physical appearances and physical attraction. Meaning sex. And I was amazed at how simple one couple I talked to proved this to me. A man, they said, would tell a woman 'I love you, I want you' but he never stops to think why? So they tell me what if the woman has no hair, no teeth, squat and fat? Would he still say that to her? Chances are he wouldn't even bat an eye at her."
Once again, a sea of heads nodded and chuckled in agreement.
"But let's be honest about it: we're all big on looks and we're all guilty of such ignorance. The ignorance of a person's other attributes or lack of it beyond physical appearances. And this ignorance is what serves as the blindfold when people enter into a relationship blindfolded as such, guided only by sheer physical attraction and sexual drives and what other material consideration there is.
"What happens after all of the hot and steamy sex are done with, after all the pure animal drive hiding behind the cloak of romance and affection are exhausted and gone? What's left?
"We've all heard the story of a couple where one says to the other: 'Would you still love me when I'm old and wrinkled?' For good measure, let's add 'fat and ugly' to that. In short, when the looks are gone, what's left?
"With those who started out with the blindfold, I don't know what's left. I don't want to be judgmental about them, so I won't say anything. But with those who started out without the blindfold, I'll tell you what's left: it's what they value in each other from the very beginning, beyond appearances and physical attraction, and which remain constant. The friendship, the respect, the caring and sharing, the kindness and understanding, the admiration, the appreciation, the humor, the laughter, the camaraderie, and everything else that makes them like each other and enjoy each other's company. That's what's left and what they will always have for each other for as long as they live. Now, tell me what love is. If that isn't it, I don't know what is."
A thunderous applause, yet the longest and the most deafening, broke out. Some people looked awestruck, exhilarated. Others broke down in tears of joy.
Helen could not help herself and took Nelson's left hand in both hers. She too was close to tears. Gilda and Herman smiled at each other coyly. They spoke to each other with their eyes for a time span which they felt drew them closer together.
At the hotel lobby on their way out, there was an awkward moment for all of them, no less for Helen and Nelson who had conspired just moments before to leave the two alone and see what happens, than for Gilda and Herman who had noticeably polarized into a pair and were at a loss for a way to let everybody know that they wanted to keep things that way.
Shortly before they got to the door, they were relieved of the predicament when Herman said that he lived in Shirlington, the same neighborhood where Gilda lived. Thus, everybody agreed it simply made sense that Herman provide Gilda a ride home so that Nelson and Helen could just get on the nearest entrance to I-95 South and head straight to Nelson's place where they had planned to stop by for a brief visit with his cousin Albert before heading home to Helen's place in Springfield.
It was a few minutes past eight in the evening when they drove out of the hotel parking lot. Sitting in the passenger seat close to Nelson, Helen asked about Albert, not exactly thrilled at the thought of spending at least a half hour conversing with him. She had thought about suggesting to Nelson that they skip the visit but decided against it for it would almost be uncivil of her since she hadn't seen him since he arrived last Sunday.
"He said he's having a great time when I talked to him yesterday," Nelson said. "He's enjoying himself with his buddies. He asked about you. I said you're doing fine."
"Tomorrow, Jill and her roomie are coming," Helen said. "How about we plan for dinner with him Saturday night at your place. That is, if he's free. I'll cook."
"I'll ask him. Let's ask him tonight if he would be free."
In less than half an hour, they would know that Albert would not be free to have dinner with them Saturday night. In fact, the man literally would not be free to do much of anything.
Six hours ago, at a few minutes past two o'clock in the afternoon, Albert, driving Nelson's late model V6 Toyota Camry, dropped off his buddies Tom Griffin and Gary Bonerski at the main entrance of the First Union Capital Bank branch on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. They asked him to wait in the customer parking lot in the back while they conduct their business inside. Shouldn't take more than ten minutes, they said.
Inside, things happened very quickly, and in less time than ten minutes. The two, led by Gary who had made an appointment with the branch manager 'regarding the matter of opening a business account with a sizeable initial deposit', were immediately ushered in to the manager's office by the assistant manager as soon as she learned who they were. In the manager's office, they got right down to business.
First, Tom pulled out a 9mm Glock semi-automatic handgun, put the muzzle on the back of the assistant manager, an attractive, high-kicking thirty-something career woman, and told the manager in front of him to place his hands on the table or anywhere they can see them. Then Gary took out a time-bomb from a briefcase he was carrying and strapped it with a tamper-proof anchoring string attached to it on one side of the manager's waist so it wouldn't be visible under his suit coat.
"What are you doing?" asked the manager, a bespectacled, balding middle-aged man who gave one the impression that he hadn't done much of anything in life but count somebody else's money, the terror of the predicament he suddenly realized he was in sinking in rapidly. "What is this? P... please... tell me what you want."
"Yes," Gary said normally as if he did something like this two or three times a week. "That's a bomb that will blow up half of this building, and... you of course, if you don't do everything I tell you. First, no pushing of any hidden alarm button under the desk, on the floor, anywhere. And act normally. Nothing to attract anybody's attention. Got that?" He eyeballed the man and his assistant with a look that left them no doubt about everything he was telling them. Tom reinforced this with a nudge of the gun on the assistant's rib cage.
"Now, here's all you need to do," Gary continued. "Take this briefcase, put two hundred thousand dollars in cash in it, I don't care what denomination, it's up to you, and come right back here. You have exactly five minutes to do that." He then took out a device that looked like a beeper.
The bank manager was petrified but was trying hard to compose himself and pay attention. His assistant stood rigid but appeared to have control of herself. He was attempting to say something but held himself when Gary put out a hand to show the side of the device with two buttons on it and a digital timer window that displayed 00:00:00.
"This is a remote that starts and stops the timer in that bomb which is programmed to go off in seven minutes starting.... now," he said, staring ominously at the man and pushing one of the buttons that started the timer window from 00:07:00 down. At the same time, the hostage heard, felt, the bomb strapped to his side start ticking.
He hesitated for what felt like an infinite two seconds. Then he took one deep breath, grabbed the briefcase from Gary and walked out of the office.
"Five minutes," Gary said behind him.
The timer window of the remote control Gary held in his hand showed 00:02:01 and kept going down when the bank manager re-entered the office. Sweat dripped down his face from the long forehead, fogging up his glasses which he took off and cleaned with a tissue after handing the briefcase back to Gary who placed it on the table and opened it immediately.
"It's all in there," the bank manager puffed out as if he just did the hundred-meter dash. "Please, just take it and take this thing off of me. Please don't hurt us."
Gary shut the briefcase after inspecting the stacks of fifty- and twenty-dollar bills in it then quickly pushed the stop button on the remote control, doing it with a brief ceremonious effect in front of the bank manager who at this time was so nerve-racked he had to lean against the wall to support himself. The remote timer window showed 00:00:32 when it stopped.
Everything had gone smoothly so far and in less time than they expected. One last thing to do to ensure their clean getaway was to delay the alert and pursuit as long as possible. The plan was to take the manager with them which would ensure that no one else would know of the robbery until much later but they didn't figure on the assistant manager becoming a part of the scene. So they decided to take her along too instead of tying her up and gagging her in a hidden corner of the office.
They went out the backdoor which was just across the corridor from the manager's office and opened out to the parking lot where Albert sat in the Camry facing them. He opened all four doors at the same time with a push on the power-lock button and Tom got in next to him on the front seat and the three went in the back.
"All set?" asked Albert.
"Yup," said Tom. "Let's get outa here." He gave Albert directions each step of the way on how to get them back to Virginia from Georgetown, going via the Reservoir Road and the Canal Road to the Chain Bridge over the Potomac river.
Nobody said anything to Albert outside of Tom telling him what lane to get into and where to turn though it was obvious he was expecting some remark about who the man and the woman in the back seat were. It turned out there wasn't much time for that when, after driving about two miles, at the entrance to Canal Road from the Reservoir Road, Gary told him to stop to let the couple out on the side of the road.
"Friends of yours?" Albert asked when he resumed driving. He thought the man looked awfully sick and was ready to throw up for some reason as the man got out of the car and sat down on a planter box above the street curb. In the rearview mirror, Albert also noticed how the woman hurriedly got a pen and a paper out of her coat pocket and started writing something in a hurry.
"Yup," replied Gary in the backseat, now looking relaxed, holding the briefcase close beside him. But a few miles later, along Route 123 in McLean, Virginia, Tom turned around to him with a dumbfounded look on his face, a hand reaching over his left chest pocket.
"What?" Gary asked impatiently. "You having a heart attack?"
Tom didn't say anything, or couldn't for some reason, but Gary understood in a moment when Tom pulled out of the shirt pocket a pair of blindfolds similar to those used in tanning salons. They had forgotten to blindfold their hostages getting them out of the bank and into the car.
"Damn!" Tom said on impulse, thinking hard; thinking the worst scenario: say the bankers got their license plate number, chances are they are sitting ducks even right this very moment. If a local cop or a state trooper, who could by now have all the data to look out for, saw them: three men, Toyota Camry, Virginia plate number... , it's all over.
"What's going on?" Albert queried, puzzled at seeing his two buddies gawking at each other like a pair of zombies, no idea at all that both of them had their minds racing for any solution to help themselves out of this possible jam.
A thought came up in Tom's head quickly: he and Gary could still have a clean getaway and split the money only two ways, but they'd have to kill Albert and dump the car, making sure nobody ever finds either the body or the car.
And Gary was thinking: dump the car now, the three of them take a cab separately and meet in the house in Manassas later; Albert get in touch now, immediately, with his cousin Nelson who owns the car and tell him report to his auto insurance company and the police that the car was stolen. Nelson takes the metro to work everyday, the car sits at home all day. And he must have plenty of people at work to vouch for his whereabouts during the time of the robbery. Yes! That'll work.
Only question is: Does Albert tell Nelson what really took place? That would mean getting Albert completely out of the picture. He never came at all to Virginia and stayed with Nelson during his vacation. So the car simply got stolen at Nelson's place during the day, anytime before the bank robbery.
Finally, Albert himself must be told now about what's happening.
"What's wrong with you guys?" Albert said in the next moment, breaking the spell that had entangled his two bank robber buddies.
Tom kept gawking at Gary over the back of the passenger seat with a hand out as if waiting for change, not knowing what to say and expecting Gary to come up with something.
"Ok, ok. We got to do this quick," Gary said hurriedly. He looked at where they were now and told Albert to pull in to the parking lot of an office building on the right near a street corner. He had made up his mind that everybody must think the authorities had the license plate number of the car so, therefore, they must separate themselves from it as fast as they could.
Albert kept askng what's going on especially when Gary told him after they got out of the car that they must get away from it as fast as they can. By the time they had distanced themselves two blocks from the car and turned to another street, Albert knew everything including Gary's scheme to get them out of trouble.
Everybody agreed with Gary's thinking except Albert about one thing: he didn't think he could tell his good cousin Nelson what really happened. He suggested he could just tell Nelson the car was stolen and that he should report it immediately.
"Same thing," he added. "The only difference is I don't get him in on this, and I don't look bad to him."
Gary and Tom thought about it a moment and agreed. One way or the other, the two of them would be in the clear. Nobody knew who they were except the bankers, and Albert.
"Alright," Gary said, "then you better call your cousin fast. Let's split and get away from each other right now. We'll meet at my place tonight. Call first."
Gary inconspicuously took out two stacks of twenty-dollar bills from the briefcase and handed them to each of the others. "Here," he said, "to get you where you want to go. But don't flash it." Then they hurried away from each other in three different directions.
Albert went straight to a phone booth outside a convenience store nearby. He fished out a quarter and picked up the phone. That's when he realized he didn't have a number to call Nelson. The only ones he had were his and Helen's home number so he tried them both anyway, chancing that for some reason either one or both might be in either place. No luck.
And he didn't know where either of them worked, the name of the company.
He looked at the time. Two forty-five. He can't wait for any length of time to get in touch with him. He must talk to him before the cops did or... God, he can't imagine what's going to happen. Gary, at one point back there, had expressed hope that maybe the bankers didn't get the license number of the car but now Albert remembered that moment he looked in the rearview mirror after they let the couple out, the woman hurrying to write something on a piece of paper, something she had memorized and didn't want to forget. No question about it. They got it.
It now looked like Gary and Tom did a quick and easy job, but they blew it in the last act. Shit! The only thing he can do now is get home as fast as he can, dig up Nelson's work number somewhere there and hope that he gets a hold of him.
It was half past three when he got out of the cab in front of the condo building in Kingstowne Village and hurried up the stairs to the second floor apartment. He started in the living room with the books and papers on a lamp table where the phone was, looking for Nelson's work number, then the kitchen, carrying the cordless phone with him from the living room ready to make the call as soon as he found the number. He was about to go to the bedroom next when he heard the knocks on the front door.
He froze. Blood rushed to his head and began pounding in his ears while his mind raced for every possiblity he could imagine. Could be the neighbors across the hall come to ask to take care of things for them while they're out of town for a few days - water the plants, feed the cat . Shit, no time for that right now. Just keep quiet and don't answer the door.
No good. If it's the cops, chances are they saw him come in. They probably had the place staked out before he got there. They know he's in so he can't not answer the door. It'd be like admitting to everything and they could bust in and just haul him out.
The knocks came again, this time a little louder and more persistent. He felt the urge to move towards the door but his legs wouldn't budge. When they did, it was one slow and laborious step at a time during which he decided what to do: dial information and ask for help to get the police to report the car theft, then open the door while he's on the phone. He got that far with the act but couldn't think fast enough what to do next while he listened to the phone ringing before he got to the door and had to open it.
"Good afternoon," said a man he thought looked like TV's Columbo character. Bushy, ruffled hair, squeaky voice. But this one was a bit taller and didn't wear a raincoat. He looked neater in a beige sports coat, a green tie and a pair of well-pressed khaki pants. Behind him stood another man, probably the sidekick, not much different in appearance but a little shorter. "We're from the Alexandria Police Department," the man announced, holding out his badge. "Mr. Nelson Robbins?"
Albert stared at the badge, pretending to concentrate listening to the phone he held intently to his ear. Then he looked up to the man, smiled in relief as he lowered the phone and pressed the off button.
"Police?" he asked, now looking happily surprised.
"Yes, sir. I'm Detective Harold Duke. Are you Mr. Nelson Robbins?"
"No, no. He's at work. I'm his cousin Albert. Albert Robbins. And I was just trying to call the police to report a car theft. I believe his car was stolen from the parking lot outside."
The man asked to come in and he led them in to the living room. The lead man stood in the middle of the room and surveyed the surrounding while the sidekick stood guard just a few feet in from the door. They looked as if they didn't hear one word of what he said.
After the man finished eyeballing the place, he turned to Albert in slow, deliberate moves with head slightly tilted to one side. Albert could almost hear him say 'Oh, yeah?'
But the man said instead: "And when is this theft supposed to have occurred?"
"It must have been anytime this morning or early this afternoon. I got up late this morning and didn't go down to it till just an hour ago and that's when I found out it's gone."
Again, the police detective didn't look like he heard what Albert just said to him. Instead, he asked Albert for some personal ID. At this point, Albert's façade of innocence was about to fall apart. He knew that they know he was picking his way through thin ice with every word he says.
After the man finished examining his Michigan driver's license, he asked Albert to put his hands behind his head saying: "...with probable cause deemed substantial under the prevailing circumstances, police procedure requires that we search your person now." Then he motioned the other man to frisk Albert.
It was all over when the law man patted him on the rib cage and felt a bulk inside his coat pocket. The man reached inside the pocket, pulled out the stack of the crisp twenty-dollar bills and tossed it over to his lead man who was still standing in the middle of the living room and whose head now tilted to one side even more so.
Detective Harold Duke and his superiors at the station were happy for the way the investigation had turned out, especially at the speed they produced a highly probable suspect who had been ordered held in the Fairfax County jail without bond. But he was not happy about having to come back here and hang around for the last couple of hours now because Albert Robbins wouldn't tie up the loose ends of his story.
So, he's using his cousin's car, and the condo as a hotel, while on vacation here for a week and his cousin stays with his girlfriend. Today, he had a get-together with a couple of buddies who had planned on robbing a bank using him as the driver in his cousin's car - without his knowledge. Now, that's a little farfetched, almost laughable, but they were giving him the benefit of the doubt.
The loose end of it which nobody in the station was buying was Albert not knowing where his buddies are now, where to find them. He said he doesn't even know where they live. Now, that is definitely, totally, not credible at all.
And that's why he and his sidekick were back here at almost half past eight now, sitting in the car waiting to see if what Albert said about his cousin and his girlfriend stopping by on their way to her place from some show in Arlington was true. It would be interesting what comes out of this one, Nelson Robbins, the owner of the getaway car himself. At this point, he was as much of a suspect as his cousin Albert was, in the commission of the crime.
He looked up through the windshield and, what do you know, here they come now getting out of the car, her car he assumed, across the parking lot from them. It's got to be him. Looks just like the blowup of the man's driver's license picture he got from the lab, propped right there on the car console right now.
The detectives waited for a minute after their quarry had entered the apartment before they went up and knocked on the door. Helen had barely settled on the sofa while Nelson was just coming out of the bedroom after realizing Albert wasn't home. He headed straight to the door on hearing the knocks.
"Mr. Nelson Robbins?"
"We're from the Alexandria Police Department," Duke said, holding out his badge, thinking 'here we go again'. "I'm Detective Harold Duke. May we come in?"
Nelson looked long and hard at the shiny metal in the sleuth's hand before he stepped out of the way, hesitantly, and let them in. Helen sat erect in the sofa waiting to hear what this was all about.
Harold Duke got right down to business: "Mr. Robbins, your car has been identified as the getaway vehicle in a bank robbery this afternoon in Georgetown. Could you tell us where you were today between one and three o'clock in the afternoon?"
"What?" Nelson gasped. Helen turned equally shocked.
Using a tactic he learned in basic police psychology training years ago, Harold Duke thought it all looked and sounded authentic enough: the sudden dilation of the pupil, both the man and the woman, the caught breath at the precise moment and its duration and the accompanying body movements.
"Yes, sir," said the detective. "Could you account for your whereabout during that time period?"
"Why, yes, of course. I was at work. A lot of people would attest to that."
Again, the man looked and sounded real, Duke thought, especially that they had already verified the fact with a couple of people during a call they made to Nelson's office earlier in the afternoon.
"Sir," he said next, "are you related to one Albert Robbins?"
"Yes. He's my cousin from Michigan, here on vacation for a week."
At this point, the detective went ahead and related what had happened, including everything Albert had told them in the three hours they spent with him in the interrogation room. Nelson felt totally helpless when Duke asked if he might know any of Albert's friends and where they live, and he suddenly realized he knew nothing about any of them outside of Albert mentioning they're in Manassas. Helen sat through it in the couch in disbelief, anger and contempt at the thought of that dumb Albert getting involved in such a crime rising within her. Simply unbelievable, she screamed in her mind.
Harold Duke now took a pause, contemplating the tip of his over-used brogans. Again, the loose ends. This one, Nelson Robbins, could be in on the whole thing himself. Why not? Could be the mastermind. Not likely, though. He wouldn't be dumb enough to have them use his car. He had a good look at it, a current top-of-the-line model Camry XLE V6, while it was being dusted for prints after it was brought in. Smelled brand new.
Another possibility: that man they got in the can right now might not be Albert Robbins. The real one might be dead somewhere. Therefore, Nelson Robbins must be brought in now to ID that man in jail.
Before he got to that, something else occurred to him. He looked up at Nelson and asked: "Since Albert has been staying here, it's possible that his friends had called him here from where they live."
"Yes. Quite possible."
"Do you have a caller-id?" Duke asked. Ha! thought his sidekick standing by the door. Very clever. I like working with this guy.
"Yes," Nelson answered. "Holds as much as 85 numbers. Right over there with the telephone."
Duke led them to a room facing a wall with a glass window that looked into the other side, an interrogation room they called here the 'frying pan' where they saw Albert sitting in a metal chair at a small table under a lamp hanging from the ceiling. A man stood behind him pacing the floor. Another sat on the edge of the table, half of his rear end hanging while he bent forward blowing smoke and interrogating - frying - Albert.
Harold Duke's sidekick had found one Manassas number that was captured at least a dozen times in Nelson's caller-id. After they located the address of the bank robbers in Manassas with the help of the telephone operators, Duke made the calls that got things moving again: at the station in Alexandria which got the Manassas Police Department to move quickly, and at the Fairfax County jail where another round of interrogation of Albert was initiated for the possibility of Albert coughing up some information that simultaneously might help the operation in the siege of Gary Bonerski's apartment and the capture of the bank robbers - what kind of weapon they were carrying, any more bombs, how desperate were these people, etc.
The first thing Duke did even before they sat down in the front-row seats a step above the floor was ask Nelson to have a good look through the window and ID the man being interrogated.
That was him, Nelson said to the detective after two seconds of looking at him. Albert, the cousin from Michigan. No doubt about it. Helen said so too.
Helen had not been particularly thrilled at the prospect of taking a trip to the detention center with them and spending any time there at all after Duke explained to her what for and why. And sitting there now in a darkened room watching Albert being pumped of information about a crime he was accused of, her feelings of resentment would not be confined only to Albert. She glanced at Nelson once in a while and wondered what in the world are they doing here; what is she doing here sitting next to him, a possible suspect as an accomplice according to the police analysis of the crime as explained to her by Duke. And she herself needed to be cleared yet due to the nature of her relationship with Nelson. She was a suspect in a bank robbery!
If this was what Nelson meant by putting their relationship to a test by getting on each other's nerves, he sure picked a winner here by bringing his cousin into the picture.
In a minute, the phone hanging on the wall near the glass window gave a couple of low-volume rings. Harold Duke got up and picked it up.
The operation in Manassas was over. The two suspects were caught. One of them, one Tom Griffin, was critically injured when he attempted to escape by jumping through a bedroom window of the second-floor apartment, broke a leg and exchanged gunshots with officers while trying to get away. He was at the moment being taken to the hospital with non-fatal bullet wounds.
Immediately after learning these, Harold Duke called the extension inside the frying pan. The man frying Albert picked up the phone beside him on the table. Duke spoke very low on the mouthpiece, making sure the two in the front-row seats didn't hear a word. He relayed the information he just received and advised the man inside on how to conduct the grilling from there on, what information to get out of Albert, one of which temporarily cleared Nelson and Helen of any involvement in the planning and execution of the bank robbery.
Upon learning of the capture of his buddies, Albert confessed everything he knew, in the process lessening Harold Duke's doubt about Nelson and Helen's innocence enough to let them go for now.
"They have absolutely nothing to do with this," he insisted. "Neither of them knew anything about it. Just as I didn't until my friends told me about it."
It wasn't till they left the detention center that the effect of the whole event began to show on Helen. She hardly spoke a word to Nelson who, upon noticing this change in her, began to shift gears: speaking to her more cautiously, light with his touch as when opening the car door and putting an arm over her shoulder carefully as if he just got her out of a hospital from being sick.
"I'm awfully sorry about this whole thing, honey," Nelson finally said after holding off on it all this time. "I can't believe any of it really happened."
"It's not over yet," she responded, looking away from him and at the night scenery on Route 66 hurtling on her side of the car. "You know why they still wouldn't let you talk to Albert. And why they're holding your car till tomorrow."
"Yes. They want to hear the other men's side of the story first. Piece everything together, before they take anybody's word about anything."
"And we don't know anything about those men," Helen added. "They could get us deep into this before we know it, just like Albert, if they think it might do them any good."
She spoke without looking at him for a single moment. This was because she was trying to handle her growing anger which, by the time they got home, had just about totally distanced her from him emotionally and physically. She wanted to tell him that she'd rather be alone tonight, to calm herself down or something. But she didn't know how without feeling too abrupt, or too harsh, about it. For one thing, she'd have to drive him to his place since he didn't have his car.
They went to bed without touching each other in any intimate way. Knowing how upset she was, he simply patted the back of her hand and said good night. She just laid on her back staring at the ceiling for a long minute without saying a thing then turned to her side away from him and went to sleep.
This was exactly the same pattern of events that had taken place in their previous breakups and they both knew it. First, an event that brings the turbulence, then the effect on either one or both of them, the breakdown of communication, the resulting buildup of resentment, then the drifting apart and the breakup.
When he called her at work in the afternoon the next day to tell her that he got his car back from the police, he fished for signs of her mellowing hopefully with the realization that he had absolutely nothing to do with everything that happened outside of being a blood relation of Albert; that she, therefore, had no cause to feel disenchanted with him in any way at all. But she sounded just as distant as the night before, speaking with the coldness and disinterest he usually heard in her voice when they were having problems. When she reminded him about tonight's dinner with daughter Jill and roommate, he sensed a strain, a reluctance in her doing so.
Sitting at the dinner table next to her at half past seven in the evening, she wasn't at first what he pictured and was concerned she would be to him in front of the girls. She was her usual thoughtful, affable and even cheerful self. But although Jill and her friend Trisha whose mother was getting remarried the next day in Hoboken, New Jersey, did not see through it, the night didn't go far before he noticed a change in her mannerism toward him. The subtle detachment in words and actions, the furtive inching away to avoid contact with him, were there.
At this point, however, he had resigned to the idea that he should allow themselves a downtime in their relationship mostly for her part in it; the feelings going through her now, the anger, the irritation, the disenchanment.
From where Jill was sitting, on the other hand, everything looked lovely just as she had always imagined with the two of them. She thought how fitting it was to see the two of them together like this. Nelson with his sound and logical engineer's mind, Mr. Practical as her mom said to her several times. Jill saw him in a similar way: a stable man, not rich but not wanting materially, good sense of humor, generous to a fault but, again, as women perceive most men nowadays, unyielding, elusive, too disciplined with his emotions.
And her mom. Look at her. So graceful and hale in her young middle age. So calm and dignified as she went about doing her part in her life now as a mother, as a separate and independent person, a woman in full bloom, a lover, a companion, a friend.
She certainly has much to be thankful for at this time of her life, Jill thought just now as she watched her mother smile at Nelson and thank him properly after he refilled her wine glass. She hoped to be as lovely, as happy and as lucky with a good man beside her when she was her age.
Most women would say the same about Helen but tonight Helen might disagree with them for a couple of reasons. One was that she wasn't really sure how well she knew this man beside her, and whether or not it mattered to him who or what woman he was with any time, any place, as long as he had a woman.
She wasn't exactly expecting him to come right out one day and propose marriage to her, but what was there between them in this relationship, really, outside of friendship and physical intimacy? And as Dr. Luisa Mayberry had asked, how did they like each other, and what did they value in each other in this relationship that could possibly stand the hazards of change?
At the very moment she was thinking this, the course of the conversation over dinner took a turn that did not help her feelings much.
"I have an older brother and a younger sister," Trisha said when Nelson asked about her family. "Dad died of a heart attack ten years ago. Mom remarried five years later. That didn't work. Lasted less than two years." That raised Helen's eyebrows. "So I'm now going into my second stepfather starting tomorrow."
Well, now, how is she supposed to feel about this for herself? Helen thought. There is this woman in Hoboken, New Jersey who had the misfortune of losing a husband with whom she evidently had a happy and loving marriage that produced three children, remarried though unsuccessfully, and now she is about to take another trip to the altar, so to speak. And what has she, Helen, to show for herself after all the years following her divorce? Ten years now. A trip to the altar? When? The only trip she had taken with her man that might be worth mentioning, in terms of its impact upon her personal life, is the one they took yesterday - to the Fairfax County detention center.
She had always known since she first got into this on-again-off-again relationship that there were a few things lacking in it. But time and again over the last three years, she had chosen to put more weight on the proven good part of it and those others she knew were there, in Nelson, but which she had yet to see and no doubt would under the right circumstances. But now, she was beginning to think that perhaps she had been too trusting, too passive and that she had not been assertive enough.
A surge of indignation came upon her, thinking, indeed, what has she to show after three years in this relationship? She wasn't anywhere different from where she was on day one of it. This may be all Nelson wanted it to be, ever, for him. But not for her.
For instance, why couldn't the girls have come up this weekend for her own trip to the altar. Why is it so that the idea of it is so remote, that nobody would even dare speak of it?
When she heard someone speak next at the table, it was Nelson saying to Trisha: "I wish you and your mom all the best. We all do."
She simply had to get up and instantly find an excuse to remove herself from the table, go to another room. The kitchen or the bathroom. She decided on the kitchen, picking up the bowl of the homemade mashed potato on the table, saying that she needed to reheat it in the microwave since it had been the first thing she prepared and it had been sitting for a while and had gotten cold.
She stayed in the kitchen through all of the three minutes she put in the timer, watching the seconds tick away while trying to calm her nerves down. After one minute, she managed to rise above it all, the whole scene not just of this evening but of her whole life situation.
She struggled against her emotions to see through things objectively while up there, viewing herself and the people who touched her life now and in the past. But she was weak against the bad feelings that dominated her being at the moment. She could almost cry. She wanted to cry to relieve the anger and despair she continued to feel, and then afterwards perhaps learn to accept things as they were, as they had turned out to be; accept Nelson exactly for the way he was; accept everything in her life as she found them beyond her ability to change.
Later in the evening, just after midnight, restless and unable to sleep, she sat in the kitchen to continue to do battle with her demons over the half-full bottle of Chardonney left over from dinner. The alcohol was like a double-edged sword in that it served to dull her senses to her despairs while at the same time it defeated her purpose for seeking the solitude of the late hour by herself to untangle her confused feelings.
So she just sat there at the kitchen table staring at the bottle. She wasn't sulking but the sight of her conveyed so much sadness to Jill when she came out of their bedroom where she had taken the place of Nelson whose departure an hour earlier, unknown to her, had come as a welcome relief to her mother, and to Nelson himself.
"Ma," she uttered after a few heart-tugging moments of watching her mother, a lone figure frozen in the still of the night, from the threshold between the dining room and the kitchen. "What's wrong?" She hurried behind her and wrapped her arms around her, holding back her tears.
"Nothing, honey," Helen said in a voice quite normal. "I'm just not sleepy yet. Go on back to bed. You want to get an early start tomorrow morning."
"Ma... " Jill insisted, not moving, arms around her mother, the side of her face pressed against hers. "No secrets, remember?"
"And what makes you think there's anything wrong?" mother said after taking a few moments enjoying her daughter's closeness. "I might just be enjoying this fine bottle of wine."
"Okay, then," daughter said, taking the seat at the end of the table to her mother's right. "How would it look to you, and what would you do, coming out of the bedroom and finding me sitting here in the middle of the night, by myself, deep in thought and working on a bottle of wine?"
Helen gazed long at her daughter, raised the wine glass by its stem and said: "I'd walk right up and ask if I could join you."
"Mo-o-ther. Quit fibbing. What is it? Is it the job? Are you being downsized? Forced to retire? What?"
"Nope. None of that. Job's doing fine. They can't downsize me or any of my staff. Half the business the company's doing now I brought in."
"Great. Well, then it's something else. And you want me to guess."
"I'm not saying that."
"Let's see now. Job's fine so I imagine there's no money problem..."
"Have some wine, babe. Let's kill this sucker and go to bed."
"It's got to be either one of the following then," Jill continued, ignoring Helen's evasion completely. "Family matter, health, or personal relationship. That's it, isn't it?"
"What?" Helen said, eyeing her only child fondly. What a precious gift, she was thinking. When she thought things over, nothing else came close to knowing that this existed in her life, this love between them; this particular one between daughter and mother. Everything else was secondary. And if, heaven forbid, anything should happen to take it away from her, she had no idea what would happen, how she would take it or if she could.
She didn't mind her prying at all just like she usually did even when she was growing up. In fact, she liked it because in one way it was an affirmation of their intimacy as mother and child, and in another as friends and confidants. And she did open up to Jill especially when she thought the girl could learn something good from her at the time. She welcomed Jill's inquisitiveness and shared her feelings with her as she would with a close friend.
"Ok, I got it," Jill said, leaning closer on the table. "You're thinking in less than a year, I'd be out of college and I'd be off into my own world, my own independent life pursuing a career and you'd hardly ever see me anymore."
"Nope. Just the opposite: I can't wait to see that happen to you - finish college and be out there making a name for yourself."
"Okay then, somebody died? A favorite aunt? Uncle?"
"They're all alive and well and will probably outlive both you and me."
"Okay, okay, it's a health problem then. You had your annual check-up and the doctor found - "
"Nothing. I'm hale as a newly hatched chick from a Grade A chicken egg."
They laughed. Then Jill finally settled down with a serious look on her face.
"It's him isn't it, Ma?" she said, eyeing her mother carefully. "Nelson. And it's same old same old with him."
"You got that right, babe," Helen sighed, taking a sip of the wine and reloading the glass to half full. "I'm just not sure anymore where this whole thing is headed after three years. Sometimes I don't know if he even cares who I am or who he's with as long as he's got somebody. A warm body for the weekend."
"Oh, Ma, that's not true. Nelson cares about you very much. I know that. I see that."
"Oh, yeah?" Helen eyed her daughter through the corner of her eyes. "You know something I don't?"
"I asked him and he told me."
"You asked him what and he told you what?"
"Asked him if he really... cares about you, and he said yes. Very much. His own exact words."
"What did you expect him to say: 'No, I don't really care about your mother. She's fun to be with but I'm just taking time with her till someone I like better comes along?'"
That stopped Jill dead on her track. She suddenly realized she needed to tune in on her mother more closely.
"Three years is a long time. You would have known that long before now."
"Well, I have to admit I've been having fun too."
"So, why do you think that now? Did something happen?"
Helen took a sip of the wine and didn't say anything.
"Okay, you want me to guess? I'll guess. Let's see... you met someone you like better and you don't know how to break up with Nelson."
"Ha! I wish. Breaking up wouldn't be a problem. I've had lots of practice."
Jill sighed and let her head hang on one side of her while giving her mother a look that spoke of her growing impatience. "Mother," she said wearily, "I think you better lay off of that bottle. It's making you depressed."
"Alright, I'll tell you what's going on," Helen finally said in a feigned drivel. "I'm a suspect, along with Nelson, in a bank robbery that took place in Georgetown yesterday."
Jill broke out laughing, saying: "Ma! I don't want to listen to you anymore. Let's go to bed."
But Helen then proceeded to tell everything that happened up to where she felt totally disenchanted with Nelson and the whole thing between them.
"Incredible," Jill said afterwards, unable to decide if she should find the events she just heard anything amusing or something to be deeply concerned about. "But mom, Nelson has absolutely nothing to do with what Albert and his friends did."
"Yes, I know. It just seems that everything that's been happening to us, to me in particular, sets me back more and more. The same thing with what's not happening in my life." Helen checked herself after that last sentence. But it was too late. Jill had caught on to one other thing that had been dogging her mother and had pushed her down in the dumps all night long.
"I wish it were your wedding too that I'd be going to tomorrow, Mom," Jill said openly now. "But maybe it's not time for you to get married again. Not just yet - "
"Stop it, Jill," Helen snapped at her daughter but Jill had more to say which she now realized she needed to say to her mother.
"Ma, you can't go by what's happening in other people's lives, what they're doing. It might not be right for you. And even to them. It might not be the right thing for them to do either but they don't know and they're doing it anyway thinking they'd be one step forward and then end up two steps back."
"My God, Jill. How could you say a thing like that?" Helen retorted, but she actually felt her child made sense.
Jill took one of her hands gently with a warm look in her eyes, begging to be listened to and continued: "And for all you know, you might be the one who is, and has been, doing the right thing."
Heavens, Helen thought, where is she getting all these. How did this dear child of mine get to be so wise, so... reasonable?
"You want to know what Trisha told me? She said she doesn't think her mother should be getting married again. Not now anyway, mainly because she's not sure it's right with this man either. Just like it wasn't right with the last one. This was months ago. I told her talk to her. I said marriage isn't something you do over and over again till you get it right."
Helen couldn't control herself from shaking when she started laughing. Jill felt good that somehow she was able to draw her mother out of the gloom she was in. She too then cracked up at what she had said. Little did she know, though, that her mother's laughter was more than out of being amused. It was also coming from the joy she felt out of having her, and for realizing how that little girl she raised had now turned out to be the person she is: thoughtful, caring, intelligent, and funny.
They hugged while they continued to laugh. Then Jill said: "Now, about Nelson... "
"Uh-uh, enough said for now," Helen countered. "Learn to quit while you're ahead. Be a graceful winner. Let's turn the lights out and go to bed."
Helen went to sleep with the comfort of having her daughter next to her and the thought that she, indeed, could very well be doing the right things with her life. Now, that may not mean she was getting anywhere she wanted to be in life but, certainly, things could have been worse. She could have done a number of really dumb things that could have put her in a worse shape than where she was now.
She could have gone out on a dating spree in the past five, ten years and had men that might have ruined her life. She could have been married and divorced two or three times and have had children with different fathers. Good God! Heaven forbid.
The last thought that went through her mind moments before she fell asleep was that of Nelson. Somehow, the feeling she had about him since the fiasco with Albert remained the same. She felt nothing less and nothing more than the despair that had overwhelmed all the good there was to be said of her relationship with him. Content in the knowledge that her life was as complete as it could ever be at present with Jill beside her, she simply turned the lights out in her mind and went to sleep.
Then, thirty-six hours later, beyond all her imaginings, all the lights seemed to have gone out of her life in an instant after she received the call from the Maryland State Trooper at the southbound Interstate 95 just past the Delaware state line. Sunday at ten in the morning, Trisha drove her late model Ford Escort to head back south from Hoboken, the same way they came, with Jill at the passenger seat. They were talking about the wedding the day before, how Trisha and many in her family weren't too happy about it mainly because they thought the man was not right for her mother and that she shouldn't have done it. Not this soon anyway. They believed the man, now her new stepfather, was a closet alcoholic and he might drag her mother into that addiction too.
"There was just no talking her out of it when she decided to marry him," Trisha said to Jill a few miles past Wilmington on I-95. "I tried to talk her out of it a few times, so did many of my relatives. My sister and brother, aunts, uncles."
"That's nobody's decision but hers," Jill said.
"All you could do is hope for the best. First, that he would turn out to be better than you thought. And second, if he didn't, that your mother would see how right you are and get out of it as soon as she could."
It was a sunny day in autumn. Traffic was light on the highway and other than the event of the day before for which they made the trip, they had enjoyed it so far mostly because of the nice weather and the easy drive.
Shortly before they crossed the state line to Maryland from Delaware a few minutes before one o'clock in the afternoon, they were talking about Jill's mother and Nelson.
"He seems like a nice guy," Trisha was saying. "And easy to get along with. I could just sense it talking to him that close."
"Yes, I know. I feel the same way. He's a very nice guy. And he's kind, and thoughtful. And funny."
"So what's your mom's problem with him? She didn't look very happy while the man was with us Friday night."
"So, you noticed," Jill said, looking at the bright blue sky, hoping her mother had gotten over her bad feelings Friday night. "I had a talk with her late at night," she continued and went on to tell Trisha what was going on.
"I think the man is a hundred percent right," Trisha commented after Jill had spoken about how Nelson uses his head more than his heart and her mother had come to call him 'Mr. Practical'. "The only way to go. Look at my mom. She just got married and here we are, the day after, talking about her getting out of it if it didn't work out. Not too practical."
"She's thinking of turning him loose. I got to talk to her some more."
"You should. Make her see the light."
"When I first got to know him a couple of years ago, I had a quick chat with him, around Christmas time. He'd been going out with mom for a year. He said to me: 'Your mother loves you very much. She's a good woman, a good person. You should be very thankful for having such a good mother. Good parents are hard to come by nowadays.' I felt so happy that he had said that to me."
"Did you tell that to your mom?" Trisha asked, taking her eyes off the road and turning to Jill for a moment as she herself was touched by what Jill said. A tall eighteen-wheeler had appeared from a curve a few hundred yards up ahead on the northbound lane of the highway. It was coming fast.
"I don't remember if I did," Jill replied. "But I will as soon as we get back to her place today." She was going to say something else but when she turned to look through the windshield at the same instant Trisha raised her left arm over her face in panic, she was quickly overwhelmed with horror.
The truck had come up at what must have been eighty miles an hour. And as they were passing, a white convertible Corvette suddenly emerged from behind the truck, accelerating to overtake it. Trisha managed to yank the wheel to the right to get out of its way but not fast enough to avoid the collision. The cars hit head-on on the driver's side. The Corvette was swept partly under the speeding truck and dragged about a hundred yards till the truck came to a screaming stop on the side of the road, killing the driver and a passenger in it.
The Ford Escort tossed in the air belly up after the impact, shortened by about a quarter of its length on one side. It landed on its passenger side fifteen yards away on the road shoulder and skidded another ten.
Trisha was killed instantly. Jill survived miraculously. It took nearly an hour after the paramedics, the police and a fire truck arrived to pry her out of the wreckage. She was quickly put on emergency life support in the ambulance and taken to a local hospital in nearby city of Elkton. Later, she was flown to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where Helen had already been waiting for an hour by herself, agonizing.
It was after six o'clock in the evening and getting dark when Jill was wheeled in to the ICU. Numb and exhausted with fear through the hours following the news of the accident, Helen walked beside her along with the attendants, the attending physician and the nurses. She was told by one of the nurses who had kept her company and informed of what was happening that because of Jill's massive injuries and loss of blood, she had to undergo several emergency surgical procedures to save her life.
Her systems had now stabilized as she was laid in bed. But the doctor also told Helen that Jill was not responding to any physical stimulant and that she had gone into a deep sleep. She was in a coma and there was no telling when she would come out of it.
(The preceding text constitutes half of the novella)
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