Backroads Ch. 06byAdrian Leverkuhn©
Jennie waited in the hall outside Madeleine's room; if I had expected sadness or horror I would have been disappointed. Jennie seemed at peace with herself, at peace with the world, if only because Madeleine had found her measure of peace in that twilight.
"I want to go home, Jim," she said to me as I came up to her.
"Dublin. Home. I want you to take me home."
We walked away from Madeleine's room, walked away from death that was, from what death had just been; we walked toward a dimly perceived future along a path neither of us had known until just a few hours before.
I knew another death waited along the road ahead. That didn't matter, though.
The decision I made in that shadowy instant resided less in understanding and hope than it did in simple instinct. An instinct towards faith, perhaps. Faith in ourselves, faith in that voice, that something greater than ourselves that Jennie was compelled to listen to, that faith in the idea that our coming together did indeed have some purpose. As we talked we had decided to be true to that faith, and I had decided to follow through with that decision no matter the cost, and while it staggered me to think about what I was turning my back on I knew I had come to that stretch of the road where there was no turning back. Yet even then something bothered me.
I couldn't get those last few minutes with Madeleine out of my mind; they followed me everywhere, but especially when I closed me eyes. I'd seen death before; that wasn't the problem. Something, however, had fundamentally changed – some way of looking at the world. I began that day to see myself as fundamentally alone in the world. Anything else was an illusion. All the things, all the people I'd surrounded myself with over the years… it was all an illusion. How could I reconcile Jennie with this feeling?
And there were practicalities to be taken care of too, but they could wait; they'd have to. We drove to my place and I threw some things in a grip, she got her backpack together while I made reservations and called a taxi.
A couple hours later a commuter jet took off for Seattle; the flight was shirt and rough over the Cascades, and the whole thing felt like a jailbreak. We changed to a British Airways flight to Heathrow, then flew on to Dublin the next morning. We arrived a day later, tired, worn down from the past few days upheaval, and of course Jennie was met at the airport by almost a hundred reporters. A few camera crews were on hand just for good measure.
All in all, it had been a strange day, and it was just getting started.
"There's a rumor you're ill?" one of the reporters yelled over the clattering herd.
"Are you traveling with this man?" shouted another.
"Where's your husband?"
"Do your children, your family, know where you've been?"
Jennie nosed through the crowd, her practiced smile moved people aside as efficiently as an icebreaker. Police officers recognized her and were on their radios the minute they recognized her; soon a phalanx guarded her and she moved off down the corridor trailing a mob of screaming reporters and jostling cameramen. I seemed to have dropped off their collective radar screen and was left standing open-mouthed in the middle of the stunned departure concourse. Jennie walked away, never once turned back. She disappeared.
I felt very small, and suddenly very alone. A cold, hard not formed in my gut.
"You must be James, uh, Dr Winchenbach," a short, round man said as he came up to me. I greeted him with silent disapproval born of an instinctual disrespect for reporters. He held out his hand, waiting.
"Who are you, and why should I care?" I ignored his outstretched hand – for now.
"Sorry?" He made good eye contact, didn't impress me as a reporter.
"And you are? You know? Name? Namu desu ka?"
"Oh, right. Didn't Jennie… Ah, no, of course she wouldn't. Ian. All you need to know for now, really. I'm her chief of staff."
"You don't say. And you're waiting for me?"
"We need to get you out of here. If you'll come with me, please."
Two officers and a customs official waited for us by a stairwell and escorted down to the tarmac; an unmarked police van whisked all of us off to the main terminal, weaving between parked airplanes and rumbling baggage carts with practiced ease. Once processed through Customs and Immigration, "Ian" led me off down empty corridors to another less conspicuous car and we were off for the drive into the city without so much as a word from anyone. Jennie was nowhere to be seen; she certainly wasn't with me now – unless she had been stashed in the trunk or strapped to the roof. I was disconcerted and pissed off. Ian was, I said to myself as I considered his weak chin and thick glasses, an unrepentant asshole. To cap off the day my eyes burned, I had to pee, badly, and there was a dried-up bullet-hard bugger up my left nostril the size of Rhode Island – and all I wanted to do was get it out before I sneezed and put somebody's eye out.
I was summarily stashed in a bland little downtown hotel; Ian said Jennie would be "along shortly," God bless him. I trudged up dark stairs and down a dingy corridor, found my room and put the key in the door, expecting the worst. The simple truth of the matter was that the room was far worse than anything I could have ever imagined. Entering the room, my mouth dropped open, I'm sure, about a foot. I half expected the bullet-riddled body of a crack-addict to come sliding out of the little standing wardrobe cabinet at any moment; the room smelled like a cross between ultra-ripe tennis shoes and dill pickles that had been left out in the sun a few days. The bathroom, naturally, was down the hall. Shit, were there bars on the window?
And where the fuck was my bag!
In another hotel, as it turned out.
Later that evening, a knock at the door, another anonymous gnome, a furtive ride in a little black sedan. Service entrance to another, much nicer hotel, into a smelly service elevator. Long walk down nice hallway. This is a nicer place, I remember thinking. No rat shit on the carpet.
Coded knock on the door, all very hush-hush, all very juvenile. Pushed into a nice hotel room. Ian. Just Ian. Dear old Ian, waiting, knives drawn, ready to move in for the kill.
"We need to get some things out of the way," dear old Ian began. His pasty skin and rheumy eyes bespoke of back rooms and dark deeds, and all too easily done. "You've put us in quite a bind, you know."
"I have, huh. Imagine that. The story of my life."
"Well what; fire away, Ace." This guy wasn't a gnome; he was a troll, an ogre. A high-grade asshole. I was to blame. I was at fault. His agenda was in danger. His world had become unnecessarily complicated. Because of me.
Black and white. Cut and dried. You're either with me or against me.
Jennie might be over later, Ian said. He didn't know yet, or wouldn't tell me. He had put me in my place, and smiled in triumph. She had the press to attend to, fences to mend, so I'd just have to be patient. We couldn't damage her reputation now, could we?
I walked over to the room phone and dialed the concierge.
"Yes, could you tell me when the next flight to the US is?"
"Two this morning? Aer Lingus? Boston?"
"Fine. I'll be right down."
"What… where…" Ian stammered. "You can't…"
"Ian? Get out of my way or I'll toss your fat ass out the window." My suitcase was by the door. I picked it up and pushed past the troll and made my way down to the lobby. The concierge was most helpful. The flight back to America was bumpy, and I slept poorly.
There were violent storms all over the Pacific Northwest; the 757 swayed and lurched to a nauseating rhythm all its own, rain streaked across the window, and I could see my reflection in the plastic against the night sky. I looked down, looked at streetlights amidst trees and dark meadows and the taillights of cars moving down country roads between gaps in the cloud; the pilots struggled to keep the wings level, the engines roared to life then cut back unexpectedly, then roared ahead again. The ground seemed to rise up for me, wanted to take me in, swat me down, houses and shopping centers loomed ahead, then the pulsing strobes leading the plane in those last few yards to the shelter of hard ground. Over the runway, flaring, settling to earth again – the roar of thrust reversers, the seat belt digging into my gut. People standing, pushing, crowding.
Another baggage claim, another taxi. Familiar streets, broken dreams.
I took a shower, unplugged the phone, crawled into bed.
Why had I allowed myself to be swept along so easily?
Had it all been a dream?
A week, nine days really, of vacation left. On autopilot now, I repacked the Wing, zeroed out the trip odometer and started the engine. She purred insistently, her sound meditative, a song of myself, a longing chord that yearned for release. Up the ramp. out of the garage, let me fly fly fly. I expected to find Jennie at the top of the ramp, standing on the sidewalk, backpack in hand. She would be there, an expectant smile drawn across her face, waiting for me.
She wasn't, of course.
I rode a few miles through the darkness to an all night diner; my jet-lagged internal clock had told me it was time to get out of bed and roll. It had lied. Smells inside the diner said breakfast and the clock above the counter said four thirty. Eggs, bacon, pancakes and a glass of whole milk; I could feel my arteries packing up and calling ‘uncle' with each and every bite. Then I felt the cell phone in my coat pocket beating like a broken heart and opened it up, turned it on.
Five messages waiting.
All from Ireland. My, my; what a surprise.
It would be late morning there. I turned off the phone, stared at the thing, suddenly grew tired of its insinuating presence in my life and thought about drowning the fucker in my milk, but decided I really wanted the milk, so screw it all.
The food settled in my gut like embers; it glowed and moaned for release. I watched condensation form on the little glass of water, turned it round and round on the slippery Formica counter while I listened to the grizzled waitress barking orders to the cook. What the fuck was I doing here? Where the fuck was I? Suddenly I wanted to go back to bed. I wanted to hold Jennie. I wanted to never see her again. I wanted to find a backroad and drift though lazy sweeping curves, find the right line and hammer the throttle, feel the floorboards grinding under my feet as I leaned into each new curve. Left – right – left and on and on forever, nothing but open road ahead.
But every road seemed to lead back to Jennie. She was there, wherever I went, waiting by the bike, smiling, seducing, waiting and ready to tear me apart, chew me up, spit me out.
I paid up and saddled up and headed up city streets toward the Interstate; instinctively I headed east along the river again, retraced steps from an earlier ride, hoping against hope everything would happen as it had once again, that I could somehow hit the reset button and do things differently, change the outcome. Make things right.
Once again the miles rolled by, the highway loomed ahead like a friend and a curse, endless, unforgiving, accepting. I pulled off into a rest area as the sun came up, took out the cell phone and powered it up. Another call – from Ireland. Good signal strength. I called information and figured out how to make an international call, then punched in the numbers, hit send.
My finger rested over the end button; the call connected and someone answered on the first ring.
"Hello," I said.
"It might be. I'm not sure anymore."
"Jim? Why? Why did you leave?"
"Ask Ian. He's your Pit Bull, not mine. You're my pit bull."
"Listen, Jen. That man has plans, plans for you, and I'm in his way. As long as he's in charge of you, don't forget that. You understand? There's no room for me back there. I'm sorry. That's… you're part of another world, and I'm not, Jen. I'm not a part of that world. Understand, Jen? I… uh… well, goodbye…"
"Jim… Jim… Don't hang up." Her voice was catching now; she was going to cry.
"I don't know what's left to say, Jennie. You've got your life there, and believe it or not I think you've got a purpose there. You need to lead your life as you always have, in the public eye. You need to be an example now, and there are people who need you. I'll just be in your way."
"But we talked…"
"And you walked away from me, Jen, at the airport. Not a word; you didn't say a word to me. You just drifted into the role you're comfortable with and left me to that piranha. You don't need me, Jen; that was clear to me in that instant. You don't need me now, and I doubt you ever did. You've had your fun, your fling, Jen. Now I guess it's time for you to get back to work."
"Jim, I'm going to fly back, now, tonight. Will you meet me at the airport?" She was pleading now, in tears.
"I'm not in Portland, Jen. I'm back on the road. I may just keep on going ‘til I run out of road. Or one good reason why I should give a damn anymore about anything."
"Jim, why, why are you doing this?" Open tears, hard time catching her breath.
"Maybe for you, Jen. But I know I'm doing this for me. I don't know a lot anymore. But if you fly back here you'll be disappointed, alright? So don't bother. And I'm going to turn off the phone for a few days. You need to move on, Jen. We can't do anything but hurt each other. I'm afraid it's all we know how to do… it's what we do best."
"Jennie. Don't make this any harder than it already is."
"Jim. Call me, in a day, two, when you've settled down. I'll wait for you, as long as I can. But don't leave me now."
"Goodbye Jen." I hit the power button, shut the phone down, slipped it in the saddlebag and closed the lid. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if we could simply shut off our emotions as easily?
The exit for Waitsburg was just ahead and I wondered what to do about that for a moment, but really, I already knew. There was no point in thinking anymore. I pulled off the highway and gassed up, had a Coke. A young couple came up and admired the bike, while they asked questions about the bike and the backroads I had traveled I longed for the simple outlook of youth. No thoughts and expectations other than which toys to buy next and how soon could you get laid. No guilt, no headtrips, just pure selfishness.
What a blast it was to be a kid.
I turned east, returned to the backroads of my life, rode off towards Waitsburg and a memory worth chasing. I hoped the other little Jennie would be around tonight. Three was an interesting number.
A blast, as a matter of fact. A fucking blast.