In Chicago, while taking the El from Wrigley Field to Evanston, Rudy O’Hara was certain he recognized the woman sitting across the train’s aisle, but he couldn’t place her. He wanted to lean forward and say, We know each other, don’t we? but years ago in New York he had asked a woman on a train if they knew each other, and when she looked up at Rudy, she screamed, made whooping sounds, then started blubbering. She was crazy, of course, a lunatic, probably homeless, but Rudy hadn’t realized any of this until it was too late. The other passengers glowered at Rudy. An employee from the train arrived to see what the problem was. Only then did Rudy notice the contents of her two shopping bags. Packing peanuts. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of packing peanuts.
Rudy was certain, however, that he did know this woman, that she was someone he had known years ago. Someone’s mother, perhaps? Someone’s older sister? He felt on the brink of recall, but he needed a spark to bring it all back, a name, a place. Each time she looked up and caught him staring, he averted his eyes. Twice he caught her staring. At the stop before Howardthe end of the line, where Rudy would need to change trainsthe woman abruptly stood and exited. Rudy’s heart clenched at the thought of her gone, the mystery unsolved. But once on the platform, the woman stopped walking. Squinting, she peered in at Rudy. Rudy leaned forward. The woman tilted her head, then mouthed his name: Rudy? Rudy nodded. And then it came to him: It was Leila Jacobs, his ex-wife.
Oh my God, Rudy thought. He hadn’t seen Leila in fifteen years. He’d spent the two years after their marriage had gone sour telling his story to anyone who would listen, mulling over every detail of their breakup. He bored his friends to tears by laboriously sifting through the relationship’s minutiae. He scared total strangers by appearing as an obsessed ex-husband unable to discern the appropriate detail from the inappropriate. “She was terrific in bed,” he had told one older couple who, having stopped at their local bar for two glasses of port to celebrate their forty-third wedding anniversary, made the mistake of sitting near Rudy. “No, no, not just terrific,” Rudy said. ” Un-fucking-believable, if you want to know the truth. Kinky stuff.” And then, to their horror, he told them.
He had temporarily become another person. An insufferable person, he later realized. And yet telling the story so many times helped to exorcise the entire episode. Repetition diluted its emotional impact. The more he told it, the less real it felt. In time, he was able to hover above the story when he told it, and it began to sound to his own ears like a description of somebody else’s lifethe curious tale of some poor schmuck’s sharp descent after his wife dumps him. But there was always the faint hope that in telling the story he’d stumble across the very thing that had alluded him: the precise moment things started to go wrong. If he could pinpoint that moment, if he could reach into the story’s viscera and remove the black spot for others to see, he might be able to undo the damage.
Fifteen years later, Rudy understood full well that there was no specific moment, that there were no definite answers to what had happened. He and Leila had been in their early twentiestwo kids, really. But something about seeing her after all these years triggered an irrational desire. He wanted to ask her what had gone wrong. He wanted her to point to a moment and say, “There!”
It was snowing and windy, and everyone on the platform shielded themselves against the elements. Through smeared Plexiglas, through blowing snow, Leila appeared ghost-like, staring into the warm train and mouthing Rudy’s name. He wanted to speak to her, he wanted to ask her those all-important questions, but it was too late. The train’s doors suctioned shut, and the train rocketed north.
Rudy and Leila had met as undergraduates at Illinois State University. They first saw each other from across the shaggy expanse of their friend’s carpet while listening, along with a dozen other college students, to the ins and outs of Artemis Internationalhow much money there was to be made, how to shimmy up the corporate ladder, how incredibly easy it would all be. And it did seem easy. Artemis International, specializing in household cleaners, was the last successful door-to-door operation in the country, and their friend Larry Borkowski was the regional rep.
During a cigarette break, Rudy stepped up next to Leila, who was dipping herself a cup of spiked punch. He introduced himself, and she introduced herself.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
“I heard there was going to be some good pot here,” she said. “WHERE’S THE POT?” she yelled, then smiled. Rudy, startled by the outburst, looked around, but no one else paid her any mind. She was wearing a tie-dyed cotton dress and flip-flops. A paperback was tucked under her arm. “From what I hear,” she said in a stage whisper, “this company is a pyramid scheme.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I heard it was a cult,” Rudy said, also in a stage whisper. “I heard they recruit devil worshippers.”
“Really?” she said. “Maybe after the break we can sacrifice a freshman. Who shall it be?” She surveyed the room, her eyes hooded.
Larry nodded at the paperback under her arm. “How’s the book?”
“Huh?” Leila looked down as if someone had slid the book in place without her knowing it. “Oh. This. You’d like it. It’s ancient Arabian erotica.”
“Arabian erotica?” He laughed. “What makes you think I’d like it?”
Leila took a step closer. She said, “You’re flirting with me, aren’t you?” When Rudy didn’t answer, she said, “It’s about sex. Here. Take a peek.” Before he could protest, she’d given the book to him and then returned to her place on the carpet.
The book was titled The Perfumed Garden, translated by Sir Richard F. Burton. The actor? he wondered. Surely not. Rudy sat down and opened to a chapter titled “Names Given to the Sexual Organs of Women.” It consisted of a list of nicknames, and although the names themselves were rather silly, such as “the swelling one,” “the crusher,” and “the hedgehog,” each name was accompanied by a startlingly graphic description. Rudy looked up at Leila. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor and peering up at Larry Borkowski, who was demonstrating his product’s ability to remove mustard stains from a satin blouse. What kind of girl carried around a book like this? Rudy read a few more pages. It was, he hated to admit, gripping. A real page-turner. Who’d have thought there were so many varieties for a single body part? And who’d have thought to give them names? It was like that old folklore about Eskimos having a hundred different words for snow. By the end of Larry’s demonstration, Rudy had learned the fine differences between “the glutton,” “the fugitive,” and “the humpbacked,” but he was also mildly depressed by his own fumbling and limited experience with women.
He found Leila outside afterward. She was smoking a cigarette. After each intake, she leaned her head all the way back and blew a stream of smoke straight up into the air. Rudy watched the smoke dissipate into a mushroom cloud above her head, and he wanted to say something clever, like, “You must be thinking about Hiroshima,” but he didn’t.
She took her book and said, “What did I tell you?” And there was something about the way she looked at that precise moment, the way smoke spread above her, the way crickets moved languorously around them as if sensing cooler weather on the way, something about the graphic descriptions he’d read in a book now tucked under her damp, warm armthere was something so desperate and sad about all of it that encouraged him to reach out and touch her bare elbow. He did ithe touched herand she said, “I knew you’d like it.”
They moved in together one month later. They divvied up the city to canvass. They hosted their first Artemis get-together, serving cheap wine in boxes. Leila broke out her stash of pot, rolled several joints, and passed them around on silver trays, like hors d’oeuvres. One night, after everyone had gone home, Leila put a scratchy show tune on the turntable. Brigadoon. While lip-synching one of the songs and offering a dramatic interpretation, she slowly removed her clothes, transforming a Broadway musical into whorehouse burlesque, until all that she was wearing was a pair of Rudy’s old tube socks. Rudy sat on the couch and watched, amazed at the fortunate turn his life had taken.
They married less than a year after that first night at Larry’s. Their friends gave them enough money for a trip to the Florida Keys. Artemis headquarters sent them five hundred dollars’ worth of cleaning supplies. Rudy was so happy he could barely concentrate on what people were saying to him. What more could he possibly have asked for?
One year after he’d seen Leila on the train, Rudy returned to Chicago for the annual Artemis conference, where he, as senior vice president, delivered the keynote address. Artemis had survived a tough year of downsizing, slim profits, and devalued stock. It was Rudy’s job tonight to rally its regional reps, who, in turn, would reenergize its workforce. At one point, while on a roll, Rudy ditched his notes. He leaned forward, nearly touching the microphone with his mouth.
“ARTEMIS,” he said, and his voice, deeper and louder, sounded eerily God-like in the auditorium. “Who was Artemis? Let me tell you, my friends. Artemis was the daughter of Zeus. She was one of the immortals. No one has to tell you about the tough times we’ve been through lately, especially in the media. The media!” Rudy, huffing, shook his head. “Well, listen up, folks. Artemis International, like its namesake, is immortal too. And I’m here tonight to tell you that we’re here to stay. That’s right. We. Are. Here. To. Stay .”
For this, Rudy received a standing ovation.
After the speech, Rudy headed straight for the hotel bar and ordered a vodka gimlet. He needed to unwind. He finished his first drink quickly, then nursed a second one. He was about to spin the Japanese lantern hanging above his head when a woman sidled up to the bar and said, “I loved your speech.” She was wearing a dark business suit, and her red hair was piled up behind her head, twirled like a cinnamon roll.
Three hours later, they were both drunk. Her name was Jennifer, and she worked for a chapter of Artemis in Florida. She was a talker, freely doling out company gossip, one story of impropriety or weakness after anotheremployees who’d embezzled from Artemis, those who’d had breakdowns, men and women who’d cheated on one Artemis employee with another. Rudy was finding it difficult to focus on anything Jennifer was saying, all the names, their various problems, the way one person was connected to another person. It was like listening to someone dissect a calculus problem. But then Jennifer told him a story about a woman from Tampa, and because of the hushed tone in her voice, a reserve that hadn’t previously been exhibited, Rudy paid closer attention.
“I met her last year,” Jennifer said. “A friend of a friend. Or maybe a friend of a friend of a friend. She worked for Artemis in the ’80s. That’s how we got to talking. And then a few months ago I saw a newspaper article about her in the Tampa Trib.”
Rudy felt Jennifer’s thigh pressing against his. “What about her?” he asked.
“She was decapitated.”
Jennifer said, “Oh, what was her name? I showed the article to some of our Tampa reps, but no one remembered her. I thought maybe you might, since you’re higher up the food chain. But now I can’t remember her name.”
“Decapitated?” Rudy asked again. He moved his leg.
“She and her husband were on a boat in Tampa Bay, and she fell off. Apparently, the blades on the motor sliced her head off.”
Jennifer’s eyes widened, coming into focus for the first time in an hour. “I know!” she said. Her eyes went back out of focus, and she sucked up the last of her margarita through her straw.
Rudy and Jennifer rode the elevator up to Rudy’s room. While Jennifer used the bathroom, Rudy swept his bed clean of pamphlets, receipts, and still-damp towels. He tossed his suit-bag across the room. It slammed against the air conditioner and landed upside down, its pouches blooming knots of socks. Jennifer emerged from the bathroom, completely naked except for dozens of gold bracelets. She rattled when she walked, as if she were made of nuts and bolts.
In bed, she yanked on Rudy’s belt, trying to loosen it, then worked on his shirt buttons. Rudy kicked off his shoes and, using his big toes as hooks, peeled off his own socks. He was on top of her, moaning, when she whispered into his ear, ” Leila Jacobs.”
Rudy arched back. “What did you say?”
“Leila Jacobs,” she said. “It just came to me. That’s the woman I was telling you about.”
“Which woman?” Rudy asked.
“The one who got decapitated.”
“Leila Jacobs?” Rudy rolled off Jennifer. “Oh, Jesus. Leila Jacobs? Are you sure?” he asked. He was trying to make sense of what he was being told, but the jagged pieces of information weren’t fitting together. Leila? Dead? Impossible! He had seen her only a year ago, on the train. And wouldn’t someone have told him? Not that they’d had any mutual friends, not since college. But still … When your ex-wife dieswhen she is decapitated wouldn’t someone do the legwork to find you?
“What’s the matter?” Jennifer said. “Did I say the wrong thing?”
But Rudy could barely hear her. She might as well have been asking questions from the far end of a tunnel. Leila, Rudy thought. My poor Leila. He wanted to break down in tearsit’s what he thought he should dobut he couldn’t conjure a clear image of her, except for the one on the train and then, moments later, on the platform. But even those images were blurry, like a pair of double-exposed photographs. And the scary thing was, if Leila hadn’t mouthed Rudy’s name that day, he wouldn’t have known what she looked like at all.
One year after the wedding, Leila came home from a night of door-to-door sales, sighed loudly, and dropped her bags in the middle of the kitchen. Rudy was making macaroni and cheese. He was prying open the miniature can of cheese when Leila announced that she was bored.
“Want to go to a movie?” Rudy asked.
Leila shook her head. “That’s not going to do it, boss. Nope. I’m bored with this Artemis crap. I don’t have time to study anymore. But I’m bored with school too.”
“Bored with Artemis? What do you mean?”
“I hate knocking on strangers’ doors. You never know what kind of hairy ape’ll answer. And their kidsugh. This kid tonight had peanut butter all over his face, and the parents stood there like it was normal. My mother would have told me to go wipe my face. Not these parents. God forbid.” Leila shivered at the thought. “And these parties we throw. They were fun at first. It was something, you know, different. But the people who come. I mean, you stand up and start talking about how much money they’re going to make, and they get all glassy-eyed. Have you ever seen the look they give you? No wonder people think it’s a cult.”
Rudy said, “What are you talking about? What’s wrong with the look they give me?”
“It’s a pipe dream,” Leila said. “It’s a scam, and they can’t see it. They buy every last word you say.”
The muscles in Rudy’s neck tightened. “A pipe dream? A scam? You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“Hold on,” Leila said. “You don’t really think we’re going to be millionaires one day, do you? Don’t tell me you’re like the rest of them.” She plopped onto the sofa. She stared at Rudy a good long while, then leaned her head all the way back and said, “Oh, boy.”
One month later she filed for divorce.
The last time they meta week before their divorce was finalwas at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant. Neutral territory. A place neither of them had ever been before. Rudy had arrived first. After the waitress delivered Leila to their booth, Rudy demanded to know what she had done with their photo albums.
“I took them,” she said.
“You took them? You’re the one who doesn’t want to be married, in case you forgot.”
“It’ll be easier on you in the long run.”
Leila, absently stirring salsa with a chip, took a deep breath. She said, “Years from now you’ll try to remember what I looked like and you won’t remember. And guess what? You won’t have any photos to remind you. It’ll be like I never existed.”
“Oh,” Rudy said. He considered this. “And that’s a good thing?”
Leila nodded. “Trust me.”
Her reason for taking the photos had sounded preposterous, but with each passing year Rudy had a more difficult time remembering her. At first, her features shifted ever so slightly. Eventually, her face had begun to melt. In its final stage, she simply faded. By the time Rudy saw her on the train, that whole two-year period of his lifemeeting, marrying, and then divorcing herhad seemed like something he’d invented. After the divorce, Leila moved far away and Rudy never saw her againnot until the day on the train.
After the Chicago conference, Rudy returned to his home in Bethesda, Maryland, and arranged for an indefinite leave of absence from Artemis. At the end of the week, he took a flight out of Reagan National, arriving a few short hours later in Tampa. Even after years of airplane travel, Rudy still savored the disorientation that accompanied flying. When he’d left D.C., it was overcast, drizzling, and from the airport terminal, you could barely see the Capitol’s dome. The only evidence of the Washington Monument’s existence was the pulse of light at its tip, the obelisk’s steady heartbeat. Otherwise, Rudy couldn’t see much of anything across the murky Potomac. A few hours later, Rudy stepped into brain- piercing sunlight and rows of ludicrously lush flora. Lizards scattered at the sight of him. It was as though, having left behind the moonscape of D.C., he had landed not in another city but on another planet. His clothes were too dark, too drab; his skin, bleached of color. Everyone at the airport in Tampa wore bright colors, peach or mauve or banana-yellow. Some wore stylish straw hats. If he ever wore a straw hat in D.C., he’d likely get mistaken for a vagrant. At the very least, people would point and laugh. But not here in Tampa.
Rudy had brought his sample kit with hima boxy suitcase about the length and width of a briefcase but much deeper. Inside was a variety of cleaning supplies, plus pamphlets and order forms. It had been years since he’d actually been in the field, working door-to-door. He’d spent the greater part of his career in management. He wasn’t a millionaire, as he’d been promised all those years ago at Larry Borkowski’s house, but he did all right. Low six figures per annum. Not bad for the son of an electrician. He had no complaints.
At the hotel, Rudy generously tipped the bellboy for carrying up his luggage. He plopped down onto the bed and idly flipped through the dozens of cable stations, finding nothing. The air conditioner was on high, turning everything ice-cold, including pillowcases. Rudy pulled the comforter to his chin. Every time he’d tried sleeping since Chicago, the word decapitated came tapping. Decapitated. Decapitated. What did it look like? What were the logistics? Had Leila thought of him in those final seconds? He knew the answerof course she hadn’t thought of himbut he couldn’t help entertaining the notion that the final image that came to her, the person she thought of, was him. Decapitated. “Jesus,” Rudy said.
Back home, Rudy would fall asleep for only five or ten minutes at a stretch before waking up in a cool sweat, but here, mid-afternoon in Tampa, city of Leila’s presumed demise, Rudy fell sound asleep. He woke up once in the middle of the night to cartoon music coming from the TV, but then he didn’t wake up again until the maid keyed into his room the next morning. Rudy, blinking at her, couldn’t for a moment remember where he was, so he smiled at the maid, waving away her apologies, as if nothing in the world could possibly ruin his day. No, no, he said. It’s okay. Everything’s okay. There was a lilt to his voice, and in that waking moment of bewilderment, he must have sounded to the maid like a man on his first honeymoon.
No one answered when Rudy rang the bell, so he carried his heavy sample kit back to his car, loosened his tie, and waited. He’d forgotten how much work it was to carry supplies door-to-door, even though he had walked no farther than from his car. It was over one hundred degrees, and he was wearing a suit. He’d have taken off the jacket except that his shirt was now ringed with large damp stains under his arms.
Last week, Rudy had searched Tampa newspapers online until he found the small article about Leila. There were no photos. The article itself was short, inconsequential. Rudy vacillated between believing it was indeed her and writing it off as a coincidence. What, after all, had Leila been doing in Tampa? How long had she been living there? And when had she remarried? He certainly hadn’t heard about any of this. Of course, he hadn’t heard anything about Leila one way or the other. After reading the article a dozen times, Rudy remained skeptical. The information in the newspaper seemed remote. There was no mention of him, for instance. The only man named was Robert Haines.
Robert “Bobby” Haines. Forty-six years old. Tampa Bay native. Owner of a chain of bagel stores. Leila Jacobs’ husband. They had been married for ten years, and Bobby had been the only other person on the boat when Leila fell overboard. There was, according to the police, no evidence of foul play. The medical examiner had ruled her death an accident.
One of Rudy’s motives for flying to Tampa was to confirm Leila’s death. If it was indeed her, he’d find out. If he never went to Tampa, her death would never seem, well, real. But there was another motive as well, a motive Rudy hated to admit even as it nagged him. He wanted to know why Leila had left him. He wasn’t sure why he still cared after all these years. He shouldn’t care. And yet here he was, sitting in a rental car and waiting for Bobby Haines to return home.
Bobby lived on Tampa Bay in a home that must have been worth a few million dollarspossibly more. Stucco with orange clay tiles covering the roof, the house was a monster, at least six thousand square feet. If Bobby’s house had been as nice as Rudy’s or slightly nicer, Rudy might have been jealous; but this house was so far out of his own league he could only be impressed. After four hours of waiting, Rudy was about to give up, afraid neighbors were going to call the police, but then the garage door started to crawl open. A forest-green Jaguar turned onto the driveway and zipped into the garage. The garage door hesitated a beat, then scrolled back down.
Rudy gave Bobby a good twenty minutes to get settled in. Then he walked up to the house, sample kit banging against his knee, and rang the man’s bell. He was about to press the button again when he heard the unclicking of several locks. A heavy wooden door opened, but the outer door with wrought iron bars remained between them.
“Good afternoon, sir!” Rudy called out. “My name’s Mike, and I’m from Artemis International. Are you familiar with Artemis’ line of world-famous cleaning products?”
Bobby opened the wrought iron door. What struck Rudy was how much Bobby was the antithesis of himself. Bobby had an athlete’s build, thick, jet-black hair, perfect teeth, blue eyes. Rudy had a paunch, his reddish-blond hair was starting to thin, he’d never gotten his teeth fixed, and his eyes were the color of dishwater.
“Did you say Artemis?” Bobby asked.
“Yes, sir. Artemis International. What you get with Artemis is industrial strength for a price that’s lower than your average household cleaner. We have a proven forty-year track record, sir. Consumer Reports consistently ranks our products as the very best in the categories of quality and cost.”
Bobby opened the door wider. He moved aside and said, “Come on in.”
The air conditioning, potent as a drug, reminded him of a theory he’d heard about Vegas, that the casinos blew cold air out onto the sidewalks to lure the sweating masses inside, and then pumped extra oxygen into the casino itself to keep them there. Who could resist?
Rudy pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed away the sweat. Was the floor in the foyer marble? Jesus. There couldn’t have been a greater divide between the house he now stood in and the student ghetto where he and Leila had lived. Bobby’s place had solid oak bookcases; Rudy’s, plastic milk crates. Bobby’s walls had original artwork; Rudy’s, a poster of Che Guevara alongside a velvet “Dogs Playing Poker.” To Rudy’s credit, he knew that the real title of his velvet painting was “A Friend in Need,” that it was from a series of such paintings with dogs, and that the series parodied the work of a 17th-century artist, but none of this negated the fact that, fifteen years later, he still owned “Dogs Playing Poker.” It hung in his basement, across from a foosball table.
“Let’s go over here,” Bobby said, motioning to an overstuffed couch. “What can I get you to drink? You want a beer?”
“A beer? Sure. A beer sounds great.”
Photos lined the fireplace mantel. Rudy wanted to examine them, but Bobby returned seconds later with two bottles of imported beer. A parrot took up most of the label. In the background sailed a pirate ship. Given what had happened to Leila, Rudy would have thought the sight of any kind of boat, real or fictitious, would have been too much to bear. Clearly, he was wrong.
“Artemis,” Bobby said. “That’s funny.” He wagged his head.
Rudy took a long swig, waiting.
“I knew someone who worked for Artemis,” Bobby said. “Not in Florida. She worked for them in Illinois. Years ago. Before I knew her.”
“Really?” As he raised the beer again to his mouth, Rudy noticed the thumping pulse in his own wrist. His breath had become so shallow, he could barely swallow the beer.
“A long time ago,” Bobby said. He didn’t say who, and Rudy wasn’t going to push him. “I’m in the bagel business,” Bobby said, changing the subject.
“Good business,” Rudy said. “Twenty years ago, no one could have told you what a bagel looked like. Now it’s a dietary staple. I don’t know who got the marketing ball rolling on that one, but they did a great job.”
“Another beer?” Bobby asked.
Rudy examined his bottle. It was still half full. “Sure,” he said.
Bobby headed for the kitchen, but then Rudy heard a door open and shut, followed by the muffled purr of a fan. The bathroom. Rudy walked to the fireplace, took down a framed photo from the mantel, and examined it. It was Leila all right. Though she looked at some angles like the Leila he once knew, at other angles she looked nothing like Leila at all. She could have been Leila’s older sister, or her cousin.
The photo had been taken on a windy day. The scarf on Leila’s head gravitated to the right, and Leila had one eye partially closed. She was giving the photographer one of her trademark looks, a look Rudy had forgottenLeila, clearly pleased and smiling but trying not to reveal the smile, a teasing, tight-lipped look of mock anger.
A toilet flushed, and Rudy carried the photo, frame and all, back to his sample kit. He slipped it inside and clicked the lid’s hasps.
Bobby had changed into shorts and a Polo shirt. “Oh yeahthose beers. Almost forgot.” He disappeared again. Rudy drained the bottle.
They drank the next two rounds without saying much of anything, then Bobby said, “Let’s get the hell out of here. This place is driving me nuts. Ever been to Beach Bums?”
“It’s a roadhouse,” Bobby said. “Only locals. No tourists. You up for it?”
“Good,” Bobby said. “You’ll love it.”
They took Bobby’s Jag. Rudy set his sample kit on the floorboard, braced between his legs. Bobby wheeled the air conditioner’s knob to HIGH. Even though the sun had gone down, it was still as deathly hot outside as it had been at two in the afternoon. How did people live like this? Was there ever any relief?
“Artemis,” Bobby said, tapping the steering wheel with his forefinger. He was doing at least a hundred. “Artemis, Artemis. Who was Artemis? Someone from Shakespeare?”
“She was Apollo’s sister.”
“Apollo? Apollo who? Oh, wait. Apollo. You mean Apollo Apollo. That Apollo?”
“Yep,” Rudy said. “From mythology.”
“Ah,” Bobby said. “So what’s her deal? Was she the one with snakes all in her hair?”
“You’re thinking of Medusa.”
“That’s right! So which one’s Artemis?”
“Goddess of the animals!” Rudy said, as if he were standing behind a podium. “Queen of the hunters!”
“Really? Goddess of the animals? Queen of the hunters? How can she be both?”
Rudy shrugged. He hadn’t considered this discrepancy before. Now that he thought about it, all he knew about Artemis was what the company had put in its brochures and what a few mythology geeks had told him in passing at conferences. Perhaps he should have done a little more research. He should have gone to the library and checked out a book.
“I don’t know,” Rudy admitted. “She’s one of the immortals.”
“One of the immortals. Ha! I like that.” Bobby turned on the radio. He kept his finger on scan, pushing down each time a station became audible. When he couldn’t find anything that suited him, he turned the radio off. They started crossing a bridge that connected Tampa with St. Pete, a bridge so long that at a certain point in the night’s darkness, Rudy began to imagine the slab of highway connected to nothing. He pictured them on a large concrete raft, floating aimlessly on water.
“This is wild,” Rudy said.
“This bridge. It just keeps going.”
“You’re not from around here?”
“They sent you all the way from D.C. to sell a few boxes of laundry soap? That’s a little strange, don’t you think?”
“We’re getting a better feel for the market down here,” Rudy said.
“Oh. Well, then you probably don’t know about the bridge that collapsed,” Bobby said, “the one that connected St. Pete to Bradenton. In 1980, I think it was. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Fishermen miles away could hear the bridge breaking. They heard people screaming. One fisherman told me he thought it was the end of the world. He said he sat in his boat and waited for the nuclear blast, or whatever the hell it was, to wash over him. Can you imagine?”
“Jesus,” Rudy said. “The end of the world.”
Bobby reached over, slapped Rudy’s thigh, and said, “Welcome to Florida, friend.”
Bobby took the first exit off the bridge, then, after some time on the main road, wheeled into a jungle-dense stretch of road at the end of which was Beach Bums. Constructed out of unpainted plywood and with open walls on either side for the wind to sweep through, Beach Bums looked like a long-abandoned hideaway, the kind of place bank robbers might have holed up inside while on the lam. Rudy took his sample kit with him, setting it down next to a barstool.
“Look who’s here!” the bartender said. “The old crowbar himself!” The bartender was tall and sunburnt. His head and chin were covered with gray stubble. He shook Rudy’s hand and introduced himself as Phineas. Finn for short. “Name your poison, boys,” he said.
“Two cyanide and Cokes,” Bobby told Finn. “And make the cyanide Meyer’s. None of that rail shit.”
“What did he call you?” Rudy whispered. “The crowbar?”
“My wife,” he said. “That was her nickname for me. Finn overheard one night and has given me grief about it ever since. It’s hard to explain. She had this old book The Perfumed Garden.”
“The Perfumed Garden? My ex-wife had a copy of that too.”
“You’re shitting me. Really?”
“It’s how we met,” Rudy said. “Sort of.”
“Same here!” Bobby said. “Well. Sort of.”
“How weird is that?” Rudy asked.
“Weird,” Bobby said.
Rudy forced himself to meet Bobby’s eyes. “So … Are the two of you still together?”
“Oh, no. Didn’t I tell you? I thought I told you. She died. An accident.” Bobby held out one of his hands, as if checking to make sure that his fingernails had been clipped, then he reached up and scratched his head.
“Oh, Jesus, I’m sorry.”
Bobby said nothing. The drinks came. Bobby took a sip, stirred it with his finger, and took another sip. “What about you, old sport?” Bobby asked, perking up. “You said ex-? What happened?”
“I don’t know. One day we were married, and then one day we weren’t. Maybe we were just too young.”
“Sounds like my wife’s first marriage.”
Rudy nodded. He waited for more, but nothing more came. Bugs, searching for light, banged against the screen door. A lizard army-crawled across the bar.
“Darts?” Bobby finally asked.
Rudy’d hoped darts would set the stage for personal revelation, but this didn’t happen. By his fifth rum and Coke, Rudy missed the dartboard more often than he hit it. His head started to feel puffy, as if a pound of air had been pumped into it.
Rudy picked up his sample kit and carried it to the men’s room. Inside the restroom’s only stall, he sat down, opened his kit, and pulled out the pilfered photo of Leila. The bathroom’s bulb was dim, but after turning the photo back and forth, he finally caught a swatch of light. The longer he studied the photo, the more familiar she became. There were so many things he’d forgotten about her. Her lazy eye, for instance. My droopy eyeball, she called it. Or the scar on her chin, a wound from childhood. The scar was probably only a fifth of an inch long, and it was semihidden by a natural contour, but Rudy would touch it as gently as he would have a fresh wound. How could he have forgotten? There was the extraordinary thickness of her eyebrows. They were exotic, especially with that whisper of hair between them that could be seen only close-up. Rudy wiped his eyes. He was drunkhe realized thatbut seeing the photo had miraculously resurrected all that he had somehow buried.
Rudy returned the photo, snapped shut his sample kit, used the urinal, washed his hands, blew his nose, blew it some more, wiped his eyes again, splashed cool water onto his face, dried off, then walked back to the bar. A shot of whiskey was waiting for him.
“You could’ve left that thing here,” Bobby said, nodding at the sample kit. “I promise I won’t rifle through it.”
The bartender said, “I can’t make that same promise.”
Rudy stuck his finger into his shot, pulled it out, then licked his finger. “When did your wife pass on?” he asked.
“Six months ago,” Bobby said. “Six months ago today, in fact.”
Finn reached over the bar and squeezed Bobby’s shoulder.
Bobby said, “She fell off my boat. The blades from the motor … they decapitated her. The Coast Guard recovered her body, but that’s itjust her body.”
Rudy wanted to ask what that meantjust her body. He knew what it probably meant, that they’d never recovered the head, but what were the theories about what had happened to it? Could it still be retrieved? Was anyone still looking? The more scenarios Rudy imagined, the weaker he felt at the possibilities of what might have become of it.
“What have you got in that damned thing, anyway?” the bartender asked, nodding at Rudy’s sample kit.
Rudy threw back his shot. “Personal artifacts,” he said.
Finn stared at Rudy. Rudy was getting the feeling that Finn didn’t much care for him. Then Bobby said, “He’s a rep for Artemis. You know, cleaning supplies.”
“Oh,” Finn said. “Isn’t that a cult of some kind? That’s what I heard, at least.”
“Leila worked for them a long time ago,” Bobby said. Rudy recognized in Bobby’s voice the same tenor of grief that had once haunted his own voice. Everyone, everything, was somehow connected to Leila. All Rudy had neededand all Bobby needed nowwas a bridge to join one subject, any subject, to her. “Leila,” Bobby continued, “she always claimed it wasn’t so much a cult as it was a pyramid scheme. We’re talking fifteen, twenty years ago. I’m sure it’s not like that now”he winked at Rudy”but what she said was that each person would rope in a certain number of people and then get a kickback for each person roped in, and after you’d recruited so many people, you moved up this seemingly endless chain. The salesmen had to pay for their own products out of pocket, so it was a good idea to recruit as many people as possible so you could start getting some fringe benefits, like deeper discounts on the cleaning supplies. Or something like that. She didn’t work for them too long, though. A year, I think.”
Rudy said, “Was this when she was with her first husband?”
“As a matter of fact, it was.”
“Did he work for Artemis too?”
“Oh yeah!” Bobby said, smiling. “According to Leila, this poor guy fell for the company hook, line, and sinker. They said jump, he jumped.”
“But if you want to move up,” Rudy said, “wouldn’t you jump when someone said jump?”
“Absolutely,” Bobby said. “Unless you’re part of a pyramid scheme. Then what’s the point? You end up looking like a sucker. And then your wife leaves you.”
Finn said, “That’s why I like my job. Someone says, Jump,’ I say, Fuck you. You jump, shit-for-brains.’”
Bobby said, “You still keep that baseball bat back there?”
“You bet your ass,” Finn said. He ran a hand over the stubble on top of his head. He smiled. In the dark recesses of his mouth were two gaps where teeth should have been. There was gold back there too.
Bobby turned to Rudy. “Let’s take a walk, buddy. I want to show you something.” When Rudy reached for his sample kit, Bobby said, “You can leave that here.”
“I’d feel better if I had it with me.”
The two men walked outside, then followed a stone path that curved around, and then behind, the building.
“That’s my boat down there. This is where I dock it.”
It was so dark out, Rudy couldn’t see any of his own body parts let alone a boat. “Where?” he asked.
Rudy saw nothing. He followed the sound of footsteps, consciously lifting his foot high for each step so as not to tumble down the stone pathway. As soon as Rudy opened his mouth to ask how much farther it was, he ran smack into Bobby, who had stopped walking. Apparently, they’d reached the end of the dock.
“Whoa,” Bobby said, turning to face Rudy. His breath was fumy from the alcohol, and a brief whiff made Rudy weak in the stomach. After Bobby composed himself, he climbed down into the boat and said, “Here, give me that damned suitcase.”
Rudy surrendered the sample kit. Carefully, he made his way down into the boat. Rudy didn’t know the first thing about boats. Did it have an inboard motor? Was it an inboard/outboard motor? Was the boat wooden? Aluminum? Fiberglass? At least it wasn’t inflatable.
Bobby turned a key, and the engine coughed several times. Once it fired up, Bobby powered ahead, taking them quickly away from shore. A light mist touched Rudy’s face. He hated to admit it, but this was nice. A boat. Maybe when he got back to D.C., he’d start pricing around. He liked this particular boat, too. It had padded seats, probably enough seating for a half-dozen people. Its headlights allowed Rudy to watch water slice and roll away beneath hima dangerously hypnotic sight. In a matter of minutes they were far from land. Rudy, hearing something rolling around near his feet, reached down and picked up a flashlight. He turned it on, but nothing happened. After he shook it a few times, a dim spot of light appeared, surging. Bobby cut the engine, and the two men sat quietly in the listing boat, staring up at the night sky like a couple of castaways.
Bobby lit a joint. Rudy hadn’t smoked since he’d been with Leila, but the familiar smell of pot instantly brought her into sharp focus. As if he’d read Rudy’s mind, Bobby said, “This is the last of her stash.”
“I rolled it at the house,” Bobby said, “before we left. She liked it to take the edge off. I never much cared for it.”
“Me neither.” Rudy, after taking a deep hit, handed it back. He held the hit for a long time, until he couldn’t stand the burning in his nose and throat any longer, and then he let go.
Bobby took a hit. He said, “I was asleep when it happened.”
“When what happened?”
Bobby coughed a few times, then sat with his elbows resting on his thighs, his head hung low. “The accident,” he finally said.
“Was it this boat?”
“Yeah. And it happened right about here.”
“More or less. We used to come out here every weekend.”
Rudy and Bobby continued smoking the dope until all they were passing back and forth was an ember. “Ouch!” Rudy said and dropped it. “Welp. I guess that’s that.” Rudy shook the flashlight, and the bulb brightened. He aimed it at the distance, illuminating only a wall of darkness. Darkness and water. He then aimed the flashlight into the water, studying the depths. The pot had unlocked a long-forgotten memory: a mythology geek he’d met at a conference, a man who’d come up to him after a speech, told him that mythology was full of contradictions, and that Artemis embodied one of them. On the one hand, she was the protrectress of dewy youth. Like a skilled huntsman, she was careful to protect the young. On the other hand, she wouldn’t let the Greek fleet sail to Troy until they had sacrificed a maiden to her. The mythology geek had been pleased with himself, pleased with his knowledge. Rudy had politely thanked him, shaken his hand, and then, before the night was through, forgotten all about him. Until now. He was about to tell all of this to Bobby when he spotted something in the water.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Look, look.”
Bobby sat up. He moved to the edge of the boat and leaned over.
“Right there,” Rudy said, pointing to something that appeared to be the size and shape of a human head.
“What is it?” Bobby asked.
“I think it’s her,” Rudy said. “It’s Leila.”
“It can’t be,” Bobby said.
“It is.” Rudy moved the flashlight until there wasn’t as much light reflecting off the water. “Look,” he said. “The scar! Just below her mouth. It’s there. See it? And her eye. Look. The lazy eye. It’s her. I swear to God, it’s her.”
Bobby dipped his hand into the water, but the sandy bed was too far down, way beyond his reach. He dipped his hand in again, more desperate this time, trying to touch her. Rudy, squinting, realized that what he was looking at wasn’t a head at all: it was only a large stone, or possibly his own head’s shadow. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not her. I’m sorry. Jesus, what was I thinking?” Rudy leaned back. It was the pot. He was so messed up. Why hadn’t he looked a little closer before saying anything?
Bobby removed his hand from the water. He sat down. Rudy expected Bobby to ask how he knew about the scar, the lazy eye, but Bobby didn’t. Rudy was starting to drift in and out of sleep. Every so often, he’d open his eyes and think, I’m in a boat, I should stay awake, something terrible might happen, but then he’d slide back into the comfort of his subconscious. He was about to go completely under when he heard a voiceBobby’s: “She was going to leave me. She said I reminded her of her ex-husband.”
Rudy couldn’t open his eyes; the lids were too heavy. “How so?” he heard himself ask.
“Always thinking about myself,” Bobby said.
Bobby continued talking, but Rudy couldn’t hear anymore. Bobby sounded so far away. Rudy tried to picture Leila but saw only an image of himself in Chicago, snow blowing all around him. After the train had taken him to the Howard stop, Rudy stood on the platform, shivering. He turned up his collar and tucked his gloves into his shirtsleeves, but he couldn’t stop shivering. He was shivering because of Leila, because he’d seen her again after so many years. He wondered what it would be like if the two of them got back together. Surely they were different people now, no longer so impetuous, and maybe it was possible to have a deeper, more mature relationship, given all that they had been through these past fifteen years. It was a silly thought, but what if? What if? he asked himself. Didn’t such things happen?
Rudy had considered crossing over to the other platform and then taking the next train back to Leila’s stop, but he was afraid that she, having realized her mistake, would be on her way to the Howard stop to catch up with him. If he moved, he might miss her. And so he waited. He let trains he needed go by. He paced the platform. He imagined her waiting for him, too. He imagined her thinking that he might be heading back to her. It was maddening, not knowing what to do. He waited almost an hour, hoping. He’d never wanted anything in his life as much as he wanted this. It was the exact same feeling he’d had when he first fell in love with her, when he was aware of every little nuance in their relationship, when he wasn’t yet sure if she, too, loved him. The tightening in his chest. The shortness of breath. Rudy waited and waited, willing her to appear each time the train doors opened. But by the end of the hour, Rudy knew the truth. Leila wasn’t coming. She’d had no intention of following him. Not now, not ever. And wherever it was that she was going, she was probably already there.