by Louis Gallo
Cat munches on a potato chip as she navigates the Subaru towards Blue Ridge College, I driving, she directing. The cartilage in my neck has stiffened in this sudden Arctic blast and I can no longer swivel it to check for maniacal drivers zooming out of merge lanes. That’s her job now, assessing who’s coming and going.
Dozens of police cars pass us, sirens screaming. A murderer is loose in the nearby mountains. A twenty-year-old military deserter who slaughtered his stepparents with an ax after years of abuse, even rape. Residents warned to lock down, schools closed. We worry about our daughters living in an apartment in Blue Ridge City, center of the action.
But the show must go on. Cat and I are en route to accompany the girls to a poetry reading sponsored by the College. A renowned poet paid fifty grand for a performance that will last half an hour.
We got off to a slow start, the postman late as usual. I didn’t want to leave mail exposed in the box, especially the debit card scheduled to arrive. Thursday. We also want to minimize the traffic on Route 11. We avoid interstates obscenely bloated with eighteen-wheelers riding your bumpers.
Cat brings her knees up to rest on the dash above the glove compartment. ‘Wish they would catch that guy.’ I admire the shape of her thighs in black leggings.
I nod as still more squad cars whiz by. So much for avoiding traffic. We’re late. The reading starts at seven and we still need to eat.
Dulce greets us at the door. Her teacher, on lock down, cancelled class. Her sister, Trina, is still in class. The murderer has reportedly hidden in Parkway brush. He’s said to be heavily armed and dangerous. So now it’s waiting for Trina.
She rushes in breathlessly around five. ‘Sorry, he kept class overtime. What are we doing for eats?’ This of course after hugs and greeting. We haven’t seen our daughters in nearly a month.
We sit in conference at the dining table and plan out the night. Dulce suggests Popeye’s, a bit out of the way but doable. I yearn for Popeye’s red beans and rice, a smoky taste I have never forgotten
We misjudge the traffic again, I driving hastily in mostly terra incognita, this time Dulce navigating since she has learned the geography of the area. Cat and Trina on the back seat whispering about something. Popeye’s is so crowded that the line bends twice outside in the cold around the building. A spiffy new place, everybody after the new chicken sandwich voted best in America! We’re worried about time—but too hungry not to eat. We decide on take-out so we can drive the food back to the College and eat in one of the Student Center cafeteria rooms if there’s time. Otherwise, we will leave it in the car and reheat later at the apartment. Trina is starving. So am I.
No red beans and rice or fried chicken for murderers hiding out in the wilderness.
We manage to finish in the Student Center then trek to the Main Building where the reading will soon commence. The doors are locked. It’s cold. A security guard finally opens up. A group of us hustle in and head towards the reading room, a beautiful place furnished with antiques, ottomans and Oriental rugs. The place fills quickly, mostly young people, artsy types, lots of ego and pretense. ‘I was reading Kierkegaard . . .’ I overhear. And ‘Derrida’ and ‘Lacan.’ A studious crowd. Some beautiful, stylish young women. One of the most tuition-expensive institutions in the country. Boasts its horses and stables. Could the murderer be out stalking the stables seeking a getaway horse? His vehicle has been found and impounded.
I choose a stuffed vintage armchair, Duce, Trina and Cat, the institutional chairs lined in rows. I’m surrounded by chatty, enthusiastic students and guests, three of them on the sofa behind my chair, one coughing violently. I shift my chair to the left. It’s the moment before the famous poet, who sits up front beside his official escorts, one of whom will introduce him. I feel wedged in, bloated from Popeye’s, out of sorts. I’m slightly envious of the besieged murderer camouflaged in underbrush, desperate, frantic.
The great poet rises to the podium. He recites short poems, one about pumping gas at a filling station, another, an anthill he accidently demolished with his shoe, still another, his tenth birthday when he noticed only nine candles on the cake. And so on. About twenty or thirty minutes worth for fifty grand.
Darkness envelopes us as we emerge from the Main Building, its porticos glistening with bluish fluorescent light. Light snow falls gently and silently. Reminds me of a painting by De Chirico. The moon has been full for two weeks. It’s so cold I actually shiver as we make our way back to the Subaru parked across campus. It seems so long ago that Cat munched on the potato chip on our way here. I liked that moment, still like it. It seemed timeless and perfect.
Cat has clutched the girls by their hands and tugs them along, ahead of me. She looks back and signals. ‘Hurry, Daddy-O, we’re scared and cold.’ They swerve onto the grass because the sidewalk is blocked by a woman lying flat on her back and EMS people checking her out with blood pressure machines and syringes. Their halogen lights cast an eerie glow on the scene. I too swerve onto the grass but not before gazing into the prone woman’s face, her eyes wide open. I’d seen her a while before at the reading. She had rushed out in medias res which, at the time, seemed rude. Had she been murdered? I did not want to know.
I plod on trying to catch up with my family. Dulce looks back and smiles, waves. The snow has thickened, huge, wet discs now sticking to our caps and coats. It occurs to me that the murderer may have frozen to death in his cul de sac in these blue, blue mountains. Sirens still blare throughout the city. The Parkway has closed down. Apparently, more lock-down tomorrow for the area and environs. Indefinite lock-down.
The road leading back to the apartment is narrow, dark and lonely. We drive by headlights and the light of the moon. We’re almost out of fuel. The only gas station on this stretch is a vintage, no-brand dump only slightly refurbished since the 1970s. I pull up to the pumps, insert the credit card and smile to see ancient mechanical numbers clanking slowly along on the screen. Figure I may as well head for the bathroom while the deliquescent remains of dinosaurs fill the tank. Outside bathrooms! The station rises in front of a slope of bushes, trees and uncut grass. I’m thinking of the great poet’s poem about pumping gas.
No sooner do I clutch the doorknob when it swings forcibly open, jerking me backwards. I now stand face to face with a crazed, dazed, desperate and haggard kid, his face pale as the moon. Our eyes lock and he oozes displeasure and anger. At first I thought stoned, drunk, a homeless wretch . . . but suddenly it dawns on me.
‘You’re the murderer,’ I gasp, realizing instantly that I’m at his mercy. Why did I say anything at all aside from immediate gut reflex?
‘Nah, you are,’ he laughs and scampers off into the woods, nearly slipping down the hillside. I hear the snapping of branches and commotion of something sliding down the hill.
‘Good luck,’ I cry at the blackness surrounding us.
I don’t bother to do my business inside the bathroom. I sort of zoom back to the Subaru to check on Cat and the girls. I slide breathlessly behind the wheel.
‘You ok, Daddy? You look frazzled,’ Dulce’s voice from the back seat. Now they’re all staring at me. ‘Something happened over there?’ Cat asked. She has propped her knees against the dash again. Those wonderful leggings.
‘Just tired from all the driving and rushing about. I’m ok. Let’s just go home and take it easy for a while.’
Trina wants to know what I thought about the poetry reading. Many of her classmates and professors attended. She was assigned to write a response.
Frenzied sirens recede from us in another direction. ‘Sounds like they found him!’ Cat exclaims.
‘Could be,’ I grunt, and ‘Best poetry reading ever, Trina.’ I buckle up, slip into drive and step on gas.
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared or will shortly appear in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.