The Father Hennepin Bluffs rise on the east side of the Mississippi River, facing the Minneapolis skyline. Below the bluffs is St. Anthony Falls—the only falls on the more than two thousand miles of the Mississippi. It is at the falls that the Mississippi gives up its casual, low-banked meandering and begins to take itself and its journey to the Gulf of Mexico seriously.
Evelyn Rau pulled up and parked on the railroad tracks that ran in front of the historic Pillsbury A Mill on Southeast Main Street. The mill’s windows—opaque with milled flour dust—stared out blindly over the cobbled street, toward the river. Directly across from the mill was the west trailhead for the paths that crisscrossed the bluffs below.
Evelyn would have liked to keep the car running. She’d been cold since waking. But sitting alone in a car with the engine running on a nearly deserted street might draw attention. So she stayed cold and got in position, adjusting the seat back so she could lie low enough to avoid being seen by someone looking in, but still able to catch any action from behind in the rearview mirror.
Two months from now, and a block or so farther up on Main, the street would be swarming with people wandering between the bars and restaurants that filled the warehouses facing the Mississippi. But before noon on a cold, damp April weekday, the street was empty. Which was good. What was better was that Main was neither residential nor were there small business. Homeowners and small-business owners were the worst when it came to people with their noses up for deals going down.
But her real risk was always the buyer. That he’d been hustling stuff to get money and the cops had turned him. So she always gave the buyer a short rope for getting the deal done. She’d called this morning’s buyer from a Super America where she’d stopped for a coffee. He had less than a half hour if he wanted to make a buy.
Remembering the coffee, she leaned forward for the cup she’d wedged between the gear box and the seat. The heat of the cup in her hands felt good. On reflex, she glanced at the side-view mirror—and froze. A dark green BMW had made it within a half block of where she was parked. The car moved slowly. It wasn’t the buyer. She knew his car and his license plate. And there were two people in the BMW. She wouldn’t sell to two people. Her buyers knew that.
The Beemer slowed to a stop maybe thirty feet behind her, then pulled in and parked. The front parking lights flashed and died, and from the driver’s side, a tall, good-looking guy eased out. His eyes took in everything as he moved to the backseat door, opened it, leaned in and took out a narrow brown bag. A young girl—younger than the guy—came from the other side of the car. He wasn’t paying much attention to her. He was paying attention to the street, his eyes landing for a moment on Evelyn’s car, then darting up at the mill, across the road toward the river.
Another dealer? The guy wasn’t a cop, she’d put money on that. But he was thinking hard about something. The couple crossed Main to the trailhead. In moments they’d disappeared down the trail. A shudder hit Evelyn before she knew it was coming. Without knowing why, she was spooked.
Something wasn’t right. Reaching down to the side of the seat, she flipped the seat back into position, let it push her upright, and cranked the ignition. She stopped just long enough to take a deep gulp of the coffee. Then, rolling down her window, she dumped what was left, throwing the empty cup on the floor.
Without turning her head, she pulled out, hung a right on Third, and drove up the hill above Main, then circled back to Main to come up behind the BMW. With the car idling, she focused for a moment on the plates: VSW 341. An association from her past life entered her consciousness like a ghost. Virginia Stephen Woolf. A twinge of emotional pain twisted in her gut, and she pulled back out onto Main, away from ghosts, buyers, and mystery couples.
Back at the apartment, Evelyn sat in the underground garage for almost ten minutes. With any luck, Gary would either be sleeping or would have gone out after she left. Scooping up crap from the car floor, she dumped it in the barrel by the elevators on her way in. Keeping the car neat was one of the things she did to create the illusion that her life was under control.
She held her breath as she turned the key in the apartment door. No luck. The door wasn’t half open before the sound of the TV from the living room told her Gary was in and up.
He was standing directly in front of the TV. Shirtless, watching cartoons and drinking a can of beer. His hair, long and shapeless, hung forward over his unshaven face. He had on a pair of unzipped jeans; the skin of his belly looked soft and white.
He didn’t look up from the TV or say anything as she walked through the living room into the kitchen. She was bent over in front of the open refrigerator when he called to her.
“Where you been?”
She straightened up and shut the refrigerator door without taking anything out. She didn’t move from where she was standing. “I was supposed to do a deal down by the river. The buyer didn’t show.”
Gary walked into the kitchen, crunched the empty beer can with one hand and dropped it on the counter. It rattled briefly, the only sound between them. He leaned against the wall and fixed his eyes on her.
“How much cash we got?”
She shrugged and turned away. “I don’t know exactly. Seven, eight hundred, maybe.”
She heard him blow air through his lips in contempt.
“Eight hundred does diddly if I’m gonna get more stuff from Howard, which I need to do pretty quick, or he’s gonna start treating me like a stranger. Meanwhile, we’re sittin’ on practically everything we bought last month, which I don’t much like having around. What’s the problem, Evie?”
She hiked herself up on the edge of the counter and concentrated on a rough cuticle. “I told you. The buyer didn’t show.”
Gary left the room, leaving her sitting on the counter edge. He came back in with a pack of cigarettes. Holding his hair back from his forehead, he flicked, on one of the gas burners on the stove, bent forward, and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and blew smoke directly at her. Picking tobacco off his tongue, he said, “Far as I can tell, you haven’t sold hardly any stuff in the past two, three weeks. The deal we had was, I handle wholesale, you do retail. Now, anytime you want to trade places, say the word.”
She knew they were both thinking about the one time she’d gone with him to buy from Howard. In a downstairs room of a ramshackle duplex, Evelyn and Gary did business with four black men and one woman. The woman was grossly overweight and had no upper teeth on the right side of her mouth. Two thin, ill-tempered German shepherds could be seen down the hallway, tied to doorknobs with ropes.
Howard and Gary sat on a couch that was missing a front leg and two seat cushions. In front of the couch, a board had been propped up on cardboard boxes. On the board were maybe a dozen brown paper bags, the kind kids used for school lunches. Gary and Howard were counting capsules into piles, after which they’d dump them into one of the bags. When they’d finished with the capsules, the woman brought in a cardboard box filled with plastic bags of coke. With surprising delicacy, Howard would open a bag and offer it to Gary, who’d touch his finger to his tongue, dip the finger into a bag, and touch it again to his tongue. He made a small sound of acceptance after each of these gestures.
Gary put the bags of capsules and powder into a canvas bag. “Give me the money,” he said, without looking at Evelyn. Evelyn, who’d left her jacket on, reached inside the jacket to pull out the thick rectangle of cash Gary’d given her to carry. Gary passed the cash to Howard.
Howard’s eyes went from the cash to Evelyn.
“You wanna throw in piece a tha for a one-day-only discount, Mistah Gare-uh Say-hen?”
Gary joined the others in snickering at Howard’s suggestion. He glanced over at Evelyn, not to let her in on the joke but to suggest to the others that she was his to do with as he pleased.
He was slow in answering. Then, as if it didn’t much matter, he said, “We got our deal, Howard. Leave it like it is.”
“You member tha woman wit you first time you an me did business?”
Gary sucked on his cigarette, blew out, and looked up at Evelyn. He looked at her without meeting her eyes. He tapped the ash off his cigarette and with great concentration, eyes downward, ground the ash into the bare wood floor with the heel of his boot.
“Yeah. Romona,” he answered.
“Thas it. Rah-moe-nah. Big titties on tha Rah-moe-nah girl. Member I tol you five hunnert off for a squeeze on Rah-moe-nah’s big titties and what she done when I says tha?”
Gary gave no sign of answering. Howard looked around at the others with a wide grin. “This Rah-moe-nah girl, when I says I wanna squeeze on her big titties, she come over, pull her shirt off, sits right down on my lap, pulls my face down on them big titties and says, ‘You give me ten dimes worth a coke an I fuck you right here, right now,’ and she did. She did Eli for nuthin, too. But then she’d blown through so much stuff, I doan think she knew no more wha she’s doin. Wha ever happened to tha Rah-moe-nah girl, Mistah Say-hen?”
“I had to cut her loose,” Gary said, standing. “She was doing more stuff than she was selling. Come on, Evie. We got places to go and people to see.”
“You come see me again, Mistah Gare-uh Say-hen, and bring some other big-tittie girl. I like this Evie all right, but she ain’t got them big titties like I like. You see that Rah-moe-nah girl, you tell her come see Howard.”
Evelyn couldn’t remember how she got out of the house and back to the car. Sitting next to Gary in the front seat, she hissed, “You shit! You let them think I was some piece of crap that’d do whatever you said. You jerk-off!”
Gary hadn’t answered her. He’d reached into his jacket to a paper bag he’d stashed separate from the canvas tote and pulled out a handful of colored capsules and bags of coke. He’d dumped them in her lap and kept driving.
More or less like he’d done the first time they’d met.
A friend asked her, “For God’s sake, Evelyn, what do you see in him?” The question had come soon after she’d started seeing Gary Sehen, when she thought the answer was simple.
The first reason: he wasn’t an academic, a qualification of some significance to Evelyn after four years as a floundering Ph.D. candidate.
The second reason: he’d been kind to her, and she wasn’t used to people being kind to her. “Are you okay?” he’d asked, looking at her through the rearview mirror where she huddled in the back seat of his cab. His voice had been quiet, respectful.
Surprising herself, she’d answered honestly. “Not okay. But I’ll survive. Thanks for asking.”
“You’ve got a west bank address—teach at the U?” He kept his eyes on her in the mirror.
“Sort of. I’m a graduate student.”
“Really? Maybe that’s why you look familiar. What’s your degree in?”
“English literature.” She paused, then tested him a bit, the way academics always did in social situations. She disliked herself even as she did it. “Early-twentieth-century English novelists. The Bloomsbury group is my specialty.”
He smiled at her, shaking his head. “Definitely not why you looked familiar. One of the reasons I haven’t finished my econ degree after six years is I’ve still got the English comp requirement hanging over my head. That, and driving a cab full-time.”
Pass. He hadn’t pulled any phony bullshit to try to impress her.
She tried to think of something to say in return, but she was too tired to be clever, and nothing came. “Sorry,” she said, “I’m not much for chat tonight. I’ve had a long trip and I’ve got a stack of midterm papers to correct before lights out …”
He held up a hand in response. “No problem. Take it easy.” And he’d been quiet the rest of the ride, talking in a muffled voice into a handheld mike now and again and scribbling on a clipboard lying on the seat next to him.
At the apartment entrance, he’d hopped out of the cab and carried her luggage into the lobby before she had a chance to get out of the backseat. When she handed him cash for the fare, he’d held up a hand in resistance and instead put an envelope in her hand, pressing her fingers closed around it.
“You look to me like somebody who could use a good deed. Let me recommend my little friends. I couldn’t get through finals without them.”
In her apartment, with the door closed behind her, she’d opened the envelope to find a couple dozen red-and-orange capsules. Speed. Evelyn’s undergraduate roommate sophomore year had relied on these guys to stay thin and get through finals. There was a message scrawled on the envelope: “Take two as needed. Call me if I can help again. Gary Sehen, 331-8979.”
Evelyn looked at the capsules in her hand and then at her watch. She contemplated her briefcase, stuffed with the ungraded midterms, due to be returned to students in less than ten hours.
What the hell.
Within a half hour, a smooth, internal warmth was moving through her veins, into tight muscles, through frazzled nerves. She’d expected—what? Maybe frenetic energy. What she felt was a calm intensity. She worked through the night with a concentration she’d not been able to muster since her first year of graduate school. Her comments on the midterms were detailed and on point. She felt confident about the grades she assigned.
She completed the last paper just after dawn, stacked it neatly with the others, and decided to shower and change. She could have gone to bed for a catnap, but the prospect of an early start had an inexplicable appeal.
Coming out of the shower, she realized the effect of the capsules was wearing thin. She felt jangly, warm, and slightly dizzy. She walked back to the desk where she’d left the envelope. She took one capsule out, went into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, and washed the single capsule down with hot coffee. By the time she left the apartment for campus she was back on track.
The English Department office looked and felt like a high school principal’s office. The de facto principal of the department was its senior secretary, Rita Hoehne. Rita was a squat, tightly permed divorcee who’d worked in the department for more than twenty years. Her dominance of the department was founded on a genius for organization, abundant energy, a self-defined sense of moral purpose, and a deeply rooted anti-intellectualism. In combination these qualities had the effect of making the faculty and students she served feel incompetent with respect to the basic functions of daily living. Their resulting insecurity kept them slightly off-balance and squarely under Rita’s thumb. Which was just where she wanted them.
Among the current crop of graduate students, all of whom depended on Rita in important ways, only Evelyn escaped Rita’s contempt. Evelyn chalked this up to Rita’s recognition that, like Rita, Evelyn was an outsider in academe. And Evelyn knew that being a graduate student wasn’t really important. Evelyn’s self-knowledge relieved Rita of her duty to remind Evelyn of these truths on a daily basis.
“So. You’re back.” Rita greeted Evelyn without looking at her.
“Yup,” Evelyn said, and walked over to her mailbox. “Back last night, after midnight.” She grabbed the mail from her box, dumped it on a table, and helped herself to coffee from the department pot. Then she opened her briefcase and removed the midterms, plopping them on the counter next to Rita.
“For John. He in yet?”
Rita pulled a face and looked over the top of her glasses at Evelyn. “At eight-thirty in the morning? You have been out of touch.” She scooped up the term papers. “When did you find time to get these done?”
“I didn’t go to bed last night. I expect, John’s nose is sufficiently out of joint, my being gone for almost three weeks in the middle of the term, much less my coming back without the midterms graded.”
“You got that right. Dead dads don’t count for much with our John Oswald. He came close to doing an honest day’s work once or twice while you were gone. Made a lot of noise while he was at it. Drove us all crazy. When was the funeral?”
“Thursday. I finished going through my dad’s things on Saturday and got a cheap flight back last night. So I take it I still have a job? I called John from Texas just after Dad died to say I’d be a week longer. He all but told me I needn’t bother to come back.”
Rita snorted. “Ha. Fat chance. You don’t come back and he’s got to finish the research on his MLA paper, write the final for the senior seminar, and grade the honors papers. I won’t live long enough to see him do as much as that for the rest of his life, much less between now and the end of the quarter.”
Rita’s recital of what Evelyn had left to do for John Oswald—not including Evelyn’s own work—deflated the thin layer of control the pills had laid on her psyche. As she loaded up her mail and walked back to her desk, a familiar sense of dread began to gather. Standing over the disorder of her desk, she doubted she had the energy to get through the day, much less the term. Most pressing was the as-yet-undone research for John Oswald’s MLA paper. The Decline of Literature: Galsworthy and the Masses. The paper’s theme grated on Evelyn’s intellectual soul. It had been her enthusiasm for Galsworthy in a graduate seminar that had confirmed her as a heathen in the groves of academe. During a discussion of character development, she had used a Galsworthy character as an example of complex, multilayered personality development. The professor leading the seminar had looked slowly around the circle of aspiring intellectuals. An uneasy silence gathered heavily in the room. Then, with a glance at his wristwatch, the professor said, “Well, Miss Rau. It’s almost two-thirty. We must be keeping you from your soap operas.” Her fellow graduate students had laughed loudly, nervously. The experience was the starting point of a cynicism that took on ever larger proportions in Evelyn’s life as a graduate student.
Damn. Why had she left the pills at the apartment? Why, for that matter, had she taken just one before leaving?
The third reason Evelyn had gotten involved with Gary Sehen, and the one she was least willing to admit to herself, was that she wanted more orange-and-red capsules. What she told herself was that if she hadn’t gotten sick two weeks after getting back from her father’s funeral, she wouldn’t have noticed that she didn’t have any pills left.
It had been almost two days since she’d taken the last pair of pills when she woke with a stiff neck. Her throat was sore by the time she got to campus. At the end of the day her eyes were bright with fever and a cold had turned the inside of her head into wet cement. The thought of being sick threw her into a dead panic.
The empty envelope with Gary Sehen’s note and number was still in her desk drawer. She sat at the desk with the envelope pressed against her warm forehead for a long time. Then, reaching for the phone, she punched the seven digits.
An answering machine picked up. “Hi, it’s Gary. Leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you.”
So she did. And so he did.
THIRD PERSON SINGULAR. Copyright © 2001 by K J Erickson. All rights reserved.