Chapter 5: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY (Part4)
I’d set the oven timer and its ding rouses me from my reverie; and as I revive, the front door opens and I hear the familiar call, “Babe, I’m home.”
My call is rote, already perfunctory from hundreds of repetitions. “In here, Richard.”
I’m placing the plates and utensils on the table and it occurs to me that in many ways my life is like a play: It’s scripted morning to night. Everything we say is like precast dialogue. We have memorized our lines well and spiel them, unvaried, every hour of every day. Like actors, we’ve worked at nuance; each common phrase packs meaning for us—well, for me at least. “Babe, I’m home” is more than a simple, pleasant greeting; rather, it is Richard’s announcement for me to prepare myself for any number of things: He will relate the important events of his day and I should be prepared to listen with rapt attention; he will inquire about how I have spent my day and I should answer with the correct amount of detail, not so much that I bore him, but enough so I assure him I haven’t frittered away my time; he will ask for a progress report on Samantha, sort of like a status update from an employee on the growth of an account. Babe, I’m home alerts me to be on my ready, and tightens the cord of tension in me to the limit of its tensile strength.
I remain in the kitchen taking care of the finishing touches: the salt and pepper (I never seem to season his food to his liking), the napkins (I learned early cloth only when he declared paper low class, though paper is acceptable for breakfast), and our beverages (iced tea only, as he complains soda bloats him and water is tasteless).
In he strolls and I turn. Reacting to the surprise on my face, he quickly says, as if he means it, “I should have called, but it was last minute.”
Last Minute stands next to him, still and expressive as a statue. He is a tall man, thin and angular, his hands bony, his Adam’s apple prominent and protruding offensively. I want to ask Richard if the man is a circus act: He wears bright blue from head to toe. He is in a shirt and tie and they are blue. A hat, a fedora, covers his head, and it is blue. As if this is not sufficiently bizarre, every article of clothing is exactly the same shade. I am confounded as much by the consistency of the man’s blues and as I am at the man’s presence. I want to demand of Richard what he is thinking, why he would invite a stranger into our house unannounced, how he could expect me to accommodate his guest without notice.
Richard focuses on the man and snickers. “Oh-oh, I believe I have committed a grave error.”
The man in blue acknowledges nothing. He appears not to be present in any manner but physical, in my kitchen in form only.
I am unhappy and distressed, and I am waiting for Richard to introduce us. Time passes and Richard’s behavior strikes me as unlike him. For all his faults, he is at least superficially considerate and a keen observer of social form. Yet, the clock ticks away two minutes without introductions.
Finally, I introduce myself; but the man in blue doesn’t acknowledge me.
“He’s the quiet type,” Richard says. “He can talk okay, but he chooses to keep to himself. What’s for dinner?”
“Tuna casserole,” I answer, going to the oven and removing the baking dish. “I hope there’s enough.”
Richard and the man in blue seat themselves at the table. I ask what they would like to drink.
“The usual,” Richard answers.
I serve them ice tea, set the man’s place, and sit. Richard dishes up the tuna casserole. Richard and I eat. The man in blue eats or drinks nothing. Richard and I eat in silence for a few moments, until I can’t stand the quiet any longer.
“Are you from here?” I ask.
He ignores me. In frustration, but nicely, I ask Richard, “Who is your friend?”
Richard praises my tuna casserole profusely, as if I’d fished for a compliment instead of inquired about the mysterious man.
I ask again.
Richard, finally, tells me the man is a job candidate.
Ignoring the man, I ask, “But he doesn’t talk. He hasn’t said a single word since he’s been here.”
“No,” acknowledges Richard, “but he’s an authentic closer. Best closer I ever met.”
Closer scares me.
Richard detects the fright in my eyes. “I mean, Bleu ,here—that’s his name, Bleu, Belair Bleu—Bleu can sell up a storm. He’s a very persuasive fellow, when he wants to be. Isn’t that right, Bleu?”
Belair Bleu remains as he has been the entire time, impassive, the anomalous closer.
Richard clamps an arm around Bleu, who has stood in unison with him, and they start for the doorway. Bleu stops abruptly and Richard falters. Bleu leads Richard to the stove. He whispers in Richard’s ear. Richard nods, and I hear him breathe, “Yes, gas.” Bleu twists a knob. They whisper again. I can’t understand them, until Richard shakes his head and says, “I don’t know.” I can’t control myself. I’m shivering and I form horrid ideas about Bleu, and about Richard, who I find I distrust immensely. I suspect the two of hatching a plot, something evil. I flash on Samantha in her crib, helpless.
I envision her in a roasting pan, and I bolt from the kitchen, by way of the living room to avoid the pair, on my way to the stairs and up to her. But what I see parked in our driveway through the panoramic living room window stops me. It’s an old car, which I assume must belong to Bleu, and it’s familiar. I’ve seen Bleu’s car, but as hard as I try I can’t recall where. I should remember, because the car is distinctive. It is bright blue, like his clothing, the color of the sky on a clear summer’s day. The hood is badly dented in two places in the front and on its surface near the windshield. And the windshield, it’s cracked, fine spider threads spreading from the center where something has struck it. I’m reduced to cold tears partly from fear, and partly from my inability to recall where I have seen Bleu’s car. I know the car. I know remembering is important. But my memory is erased.
I gallop up the stairs and into Samantha’s bedroom and I fall into another world; I cannot comprehend the change. Samantha is there, but not in her crib. She is in her big girl bed, the very bed I sometimes imagine her in when she is older. There she is, now grown, in the bed. The cover, a ubiquitous saccharin princess counterpane, is pulled up to the middle of her stomach, and she is upright, reclining against the backboard. She appears to be eight. She sees me and smiles and hides her mouth with her hands and giggles manically. I watch her and I struggle to breathe. Unexpectedly, the cover near her feet writhes and I hear a squeaky roar.
Samantha reacts to my expression of deepening terror. She squeals, “Mommy, it’s not a real lion. Look.” She yanks the cover to reveal the lump.
A little girl with dark hair in princess pajamas pops up. She exclaims, “Surprise, Mommy, it’s me.”
I blurt, “Me who?”
“Me, Emily,” she shouts, jumping up and down on the bed, to the consternation of Samantha.
My confusion consumes me and instantly I’m afraid I will collapse. I can’t remain a second longer in Samantha’s bedroom, yet I am reluctant to leave for fear Bleu may harm her. But I can’t stay, and I bolt the room to the hilarious shrieks of the girls.
As I cross the threshold into the hallway, the chorus merges into one sustained wail.
Samantha, infant Samantha.
Her cry compels me to return and scoop her up and flee, but I see Richard and Bleu climbing the stairs. I’m rooted and can only watch them step into the hallway. Richard smiles, but without an ounce of warmth or kindness, like burning ice; it is more grimace, engendered not by worry or concern, but anger. I know Richard’s moods. He is adept at disguising his anger, but I know; I read it in his eyes, in the way he narrows them to reptilian slits; the way the whites grow redolent and slowly blink at me like tired warning lights. He disguises their intent with patter, pretty and soothing.
“Babe, you’re tempting when you are like this. What’s wrong with you, anyway? Let me take you into the bedroom, lie you down. You look like you need to rest.”
I feel naked, exposed, vulnerable, trapped. I turn my head around, swiftly, beyond its normal arc until the strain hurts, hunting for an escape route from Richard and Bleu, who is standing directly behind Richard, inscrutable under his bizarre fedora, yet still managing to transmit rays of menace, like in the old comics, visible, pulsating vectors of threat that vibrate me, rattle me top to bottom with terror.
I have no alternative but to back into Samantha’s room. It’s infant Samantha’s room again and I’m relieved, but terrified too, because I know she is in danger. I must save her and me. She is sleeping. As panicked as I am—my arms and hands tremble, my legs wobble, clammy sweat drenches me, I reach down and tenderly lift her, and she comes to me without a hint of stirring. I can’t decide what to do, so I do what I can, and that is back into the corner farthest from the door and pray for the best.
And I begin to believe my prayers are answered, for the door remains closed, the room empty, except for us, and silent.
After a long while, I creep to the door and, with Samantha settled in the crook of an arm, I open it. I peer out, up and down the hallway. It is clear. I tiptoe into the hallway and over to the stairs. I look down and see nothing. It occurs to me Richard and Bleu could be in our bedroom or Richard’s home office, waiting for me. I decide my best course is down the stairs to the main floor, where I can escape to the outside.
I retreat into the family room, where Samantha has a playpen. If I have to act, I want my arms free—though I have no idea how I will use them, not an inkling of how I will repel their assault. I gently place Samantha in her playpen. She mutters, but remains asleep, for which I sigh with relief.
Now I hear footsteps. They are in the kitchen. I hear a voice buzz. Richard, I assume, is whispering to Bleu. I presume the worst. For reasons I can’t fathom, Richard wishes me harm, just me. What is my offense? Loving him beyond good sense? Bearing him a beautiful daughter? Relinquishing control of my life to him? What crime have I committed against him?
The whispering stops. What are they planning? I am tempted to peek in the kitchen, but I know I can’t, not safely. I find myself staring at Samantha. I know my little girl. She’ll sleep for at least another hour, maybe two. I decide my best option is to flee the house. I hate leaving her, but now, inexplicably, my heart changes and I’m convinced Richard will not hurt her, or allow Bleu to. I am the victim, only me.
I tiptoe to the slider. I pause and listen. I flip the lever to unlock the door. Slowly, I slide it open. Again I wait. The house is silent. I stand and gingerly step outside. I’m sweating into my eyes, and they sting. My muscles are taut. I expect one of them to materialize in front of me and grab me, and the other to seize me from behind.
But neither happens and I dart across the patio. I turn and race down along the side of the house toward the front. Just as I clear the house I see them. Richard and Bleu are loitering near the bright blue car. I stop abruptly and twist my ankle. I yelp in pain. Like somnolent retiles aroused, their heads pop up and they swivel and spot me. I should flee into our neighbor’s house. But what if they aren’t home? Instead, I hobble straight ahead, down our front lawn, across the sidewalk, and into the street. I’m limping as fast as I’m able, but the injury hampers me; the pain increases; I’m grunting and mewling like an animal.
I don’t know where I’m headed. I’m just moving, getting away, when I hear a strange whir behind me. At first it’s low and hardly penetrates the thumping in my ears, the rattle of my chest, the ragged whoosh of my breath. I turn back to see what it is, and I see the unnaturally bright blue car swing out of the driveway and plunge forward after me. I can see Bleu behind the wheel. Richard is on our front lawn. He’s holding Samantha and watching. I want cry out for him to protect our daughter. But I can’t. I have to turn and concentrate on the road and my escape. I must move fast, faster, or Bleu will catch me, and I will add to the dents on the hood of his car.
I hobble until I can’t take another step, until I think my heart will explode. But I don’t have to go any farther, because Bleu has overtaken me, and he is slipping the hood of the blue car under me, and he is scooping me up, and I am bouncing on the hood, into the dents, and skidding into the windshield, adding a new crack, sliding up and over the roof, and bounding off the trunk lid, and landing, crumpled and broken, on the payment. I’m nearly dead but still alive enough for a last vision of my house and Richard with Samantha cradled in his arms entering through the front door.