A Novel

Chapter 10: Agent

Fernando left the Wagon Wheel, left Elmville, on Route 26: two and a half giant, eleven-mile, sideways-stretched-sloped-and-swerved "S"-shaped curves hugging hills (so gracefully that, like all most expertly artificed things, you forget man made it and instead think it natural; you forget that grace comes from man) right into Bureau Junction.

A gas station attendant back in Elmville had said: "Bureau Junction? From here? Oh, take twenty six all the way, ten to fifteen minutes I'd say. You really can't miss it."

The gas station attendant was right: the motel's big neon sign was indeed unmissable, in the nighttime, the only evidence of civilization along the deserted, tree-canopied road. Fernando could not comprehend the road he traveled as itself evidence of civilization.

The sign, however. . . The sign reminded him of an unexpectedly beautiful but cheap whore lying on a motel floor. That motel floor? Wishing. Perfectly beautiful: if she had been beaten, her flawless body revealed no sign of it. Beautiful but cheap whore waiting to be fucked. Beautiful and open: "You can cum inside me." Beautiful and faithful: "You don't have to wear a rubber." Christ! In that state, with that option, what man would? Life is so risky, so riskily replete with beauty and faith.

The sign: its neon letters burned into the darkness as a tatoo is burned into skin. Fernando thought that whoever invented neon must have been a genius. Neon was light that existed for its own sake and its own sake alone: you couldn't, for example, read a newspaper by it; you could only read the neon itself, whatever it had been shaped to tell you. That whore again: you couldn't do anything with her but bend her and shape her, bend it and shape it: completely self-fulfilling and self-sufficient in function. You couldn't use it; it used you. Part of her genius was in making you think that you used her.

Fernando also had a use Delaney sent him to confirm the arrival of two people: a man in his early thirties and a boy in his late teens. The older would be wearing a Seattle Super Sonics t-shirt, with the number "09" on the back. "He's got this black barbed wire tattoo around his left wrist."

The younger of the two would be wearing a black GMC trucker cap and a white t-shirt.

Fernando was not to make contact with them—only confirm their presence. Delaney hadn't even given Fernando their names.

Delaney: "I've told them to stay at the motel, and to spend the evenings in the bar until I receive confirmation from a third-party that they had arrived as instructed. You are the third party, Fernando.

"Once I get your confirmation, I'll wire them money, along with further instructions. The money is their incentive to do what they're told, and be where they're told to be. They are like rodents: you have to lead them along a trail of cash. Like a rat with cheese. They don't understand complicated instructions. Their 'further instructions' will be to move on, immediately. Another freight train, into Chicago, and from there down to New Orleans for more cash and more instructions. You should stay at the motel long enough to verify their departure."

Delaney, who had become increasingly secretive and paranoid in the past few months, had also insisted that Fernando not tell Kathy his reason for staying in Bureau Junction instead of Elmville.

Inside the motel » inside the cocktail lounge » a few rough-looking whites stood jocking around one end of a very long bar, and an older blonde sat at the other end. A man and woman snuggled in a booth along the wall, and at the far end of the cocktail lounge, a young man sat on a barstool feeding bills into a video poker machine. Country music honkey-tonked out of a jukebox. Everybody was white.

Fernando decided to sit near the woman at the bar. Her side of the lounge provided the best vantage point from which to surveille the entrance. It also seemed the safest.

The bartender took his order.

"Jim Beam, please. Neat."

Closer now to the woman, Fernando saw that she was elderly, her face covered in a heavy layer of makeup that looked almost theatrical, it had been applied so thickly: she would appear normal from a balcony seat in the Auditorium Theater, but any closer and she looked more like a drag queen. Her lips remained glossy red, despite the large amount of lipstick that had smeared onto her cigarette butts and her martini glass.

He must have been staring at her longer than he realized, because she turned to him and hostilely said, "Take a picture—it'll last longer. Yes, I'm a hag. Had your fill of staring yet or do I have to move down there?" She gestured toward the other end of the bar, as if invoking the protection of the white toughs who, engrossed in their raucous conversation, had yet to notice him.

Fernando apologized quickly and sincerely; he knew what it was like to be the object of a stranger's stare, "Sorry about that." Then he smiled—he was almost invincibly, charmingly handsome when he smiled—and jokingly said, "You're a hag; I'm a fag."

"That so?"

"No, but I'm Hispanic, which is worse, isn't it."

She raised a penciled eyebrow. "I guess that depends. A man like you would be able to hide the one, not the other. But I think you've probably got the wrong idea. People around here aren't as bad as you seem to think. Or at least they're not bad in the way you seem to think."

Incredulous, he said, "You mean you think they aren't racist?"

She shrugged her shoulders. She took a drink of her martini. She said, as if she had been reflecting on his statements, "Oh, they're plenty bad. But if you get yourself beaten up here, it won't be because you're Hispanic," and she took a deep drag off her cigarette.

"Then what'll it be because of? If I get myself beaten up?"

Exhaling a cloud of smoke, she said, "For starters, you're too preppy looking. People 'round here don't like that."

He sipped his whiskey. "You said for startes—what about for enders?"

She rolled her eyes, "Is that supposed to be a joke? Jesus Christ."

"I want to know. Let's see what I ought to be afraid of?

"When you learn the answer to that question, you'd better be ready for the fight of your life."

He thought of the gun in his shoulder holster. "I'm ready."

"Don't get over-eager to prove anything. Nothing good ever comes of it. I'm living proof."

"What do you mean by that?"

For the first time since he met her, she smiled. Brown and yellow stains streaked her teeth, like hardwater stains in a trailer-home toilet, giving a grim, caught-beneath-the-heel, ground-down grotesqueness to her face; but the smile also revealed a flicker, like a puddling-out candle-flame, of a happiness that hard experience had almost extinguished. Hard experience, which she had, in turn, plastered over with cheap make-up and hair-dye. She said, ignoring his question, "I'm Blondie."

"I'm Fernando."

"That your real name?" she asked, finishing the last gulp of her martini and calling to the bartender, "Jimmy, can I get another when you have a chance?"

Fernando was offended by her question. Why didn't she just straight out ask whether he was an illegal? That's certainly what she must have meant. He could practically see the racism seething inside her ugly, old, white-trash head.

"I can't believe that a woman who calls herself Blondie just asked me if my name is real. Not that it's any of your business, or I should have to justify myself to you, but I'm a United States citizen. My parents immigrated, legally, from Puerto Rico, but I was born and raised in Glenview, and my family owns the Pedrosa Stables there. My parents knew Helen Brach."

"Sorry, never heard of her. Am I supposed to be impressed?"

"Helen Vorhees Brach? The candy heiress?"

"Not a clue."

Then, with a shade of affronted haughtiness, he said, "Well, I'm not a Mexican, or an illegal immigrant, if that's what you're thinking."

"Sorry. I seem to ask everyone I meet that same question, almost out of instinct. Instead of 'How do you do?' I'm always saying 'Is that the truth?' Living in the valley of lies here, I assume people are lying to me even when they have no reason to, and even when I like them. Just about everything here is a lie. If you find yourself caring about something you have been told, and I wouldn't even do too much of that if I were you, but if you do, then don't believe it until you can prove it. Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of place to go looking for proof, unless you're also looking for trouble."

He said, "Okay, fine, but if you think I might have lied about my name, then why ask if I'm telling the truth? Wouldn't I lie twice, just as well as once?"

"Of course. But I want to believe you. It's one of my weaknesses: I want to believe men, especially attractive men." She paused for a moment, and then, as if to clear up a misunderstanding, said, "Don't worry, I'm not coming-on to you. I wouldn't be speaking so frankly if I were. Trying to pick up men, that's one weakness I've defeated, or at least one that age has defeated for me. I'm 70 years old—how do you like that truth?"

"But if you've overcome that weakness, then why—?"

"Then why do I paint myself up like a hideous whore? It's a good question. I've been doing it since, well as long as I can remember; since I was thirteen, maybe younger. At this point almost my whole life. I haven't seen my real hair color since my thirteenth birthday, when my mother first let me dye my hair and pierce my ears. The lipstick, mascara, and eye-liner came a little later. By now, I'm afraid to show myself without the makeup and the hair-dye. Despite all the mockery and ridicule. I see it in people's faces when I'm not actually hearing it come out of their mouths, which, after about ten o'clock on a weekend night, is pretty sure to happen at least once. Even all that ridicule is less painful to me than the idea of showing myself without all this," and she gestured to her face and hair. "Isn't there anything you fear that much? A fear that all the reason on earth can't conquer?"

He had no answer to that question, but in the moment that he considered it, he felt an awful void within himself, an absence of self-knowledge, self-awareness. He quickly ended this line of questioning by asking her, "So is 'Blondie' your real name?"

She smiled, "Actually, it is," and continued, "But I've told you one of my weaknesses, and one of my fears. If you won't share one of your fears, at least share a weakness."

He sipped his bourbon, thinking about his weaknesses. Again he could not answer her question. His self-awareness was not so shallow that believed he had no weaknesses. On the contrary: he could feel weakness within himself. But he could not identify it. A little defensively, he said, "Well, being Hispanic in a place like this—isn't that weakness enough?"

"Do you really believe that? A place like what? Not ten miles from here, on the river, is a town full of Mexicans. They work in the coal mines. They come in here to drink; I know them by their first names and they know me. But they are not like you. They're more like me than they are like you."

"You have your nerve, don't you. What can you, a white person, know how it is for us?"

"'Us?' Well, maybe I can't. But I have eyes that see, and ears that hear. You don't dress like them; you don't talk like them. In everything but skin color and name, in everything that I see and hear, you are more like somebody from Elmville, someplace even finer than Elmville, than you are like one of them. I can promise you their parents don't own horse stables in Glenview or go to tea with the candy heiress."

"Maybe you are right. Maybe. And maybe I don't know what my weaknesses are, or maybe I just don't wish to share them with you."

"Maybe," she said. "I think you are a man not at ease with himself. A man like you—handsome, strong, intelligent, probably went to college—a man like you doesn't react so defensively when he's at ease with himself."

"I guess you know everything about me," he said sarcastically.

"Well am I right?"

He refused to answer.

She said, "You look like a movie playboy, but inside you are hollow and insecure."

Still he would not respond.

"If I had to guess. . .girl trouble. You love someone who doesn't love you."

He realized he was clenching his fists.

"Well, am I right?"

After a long hesitation, he answered, "She's like a lot of you white women: she loves her career more than she can ever love another person." He tried to think of something else to say, some other way to explain, but there was only silence.

"I was hurt that way too, but it wasn't by a woman. It wasn't by a woman, but I blame a woman for it all the same." She finished her martini, and said, "My shift ended several hours ago. It's been a long day. I'm going home. It was a pleasure meeting you."

Fernando smiled, "You'll probably be seeing more of me. I'm staying here at the motel, and I'll be here a while."

She said, "I hope you find whoever you're looking for?"

Taken aback, Fernando asked, "What do you mean by that?"

"You've been glancing around the bar all night, especially toward the entrance. At first I thought it was because you were afraid. Of the racism and all that stuff you talked about. But you don't look like somebody who's really afraid of racism. You look. . .more like the one doing the hunting than the one being hunted. Then I thought maybe you were looking to see if there were any pretty women you could pick up, but I don't think you're the one-night-stand kind of guy. I have the feeling you are expecting somebody. Maybe the white woman who loves her career more than she can love a person? Sorry if I'm wrong."

Her perceptiveness surprised him, and, thinking he could use it, and that she would be willing to help him, he admitted, "Actually, I am looking for somebody. Maybe you've seen them?"

She began to answer, "I might have—"

Eagerly, he cut in, "An older guy and a younger guy. A pair. The older guy is probably about—"

"I wish you hadn't interrupted me. You are impulsive. It's an attractive quality; women like it in men, in men who aren't their husbands. But it could get you into trouble too. I was about to say, that I might have seen them, but part of the job here is keeping other people's secrets, so I really couldn't say even if I had."

He hated her for that, but she was right about his impulsiveness. He had said too much, and she had corrected him, taught him a lesson too, he hoped.

He pointed to the young man playing video-poker. "What about that guy over there? You know him?"

She seemed agitated by the question. "He's not the person you're looking for."

"How can you be sure?"

"I just am."

"Well, do you know him?"

She waited too long to answer: he could practically see her grasping for the best response. "I don't know him, but he's in here all the time."

"Really, because he doesn't seem to know anybody. If he's in here so much, you must know his name; somebody must know him."

"I don't know his name, but he's always in here alone, and you said you were looking for two people: an older and a younger. That kid over there is always alone."

She gathered her things and, sliding off the bar stool, said, "Well then, have a good night and I will look forward to seeing you again."

After she left, Fernando continued sipping his bourbon and watching the room.

The young man who had been playing video poker was now using the payphone. Despite Blondie's denials, maybe even especially because of them, Fernando wondered if he could be the younger of the two whom Delaney had sent him to find. Delaney seemed to know very little about the younger, and consequently Fernando possessed only a vague idea what he would look like. Delaney had given a much fuller description of the older, and Fernando's ability positively to identify the pair depended mostly on the appearance of the older.

The only interesting fact Delaney had shared with Fernando about the younger was that the older had picked him up somewhere in southern California. Fernando was surprised that Delaney would even reveal that much information. Why did Delaney have to be so damned secretive?

Delaney or Jackson or John fucking Doe—Fernando increasingly wondered, and worried, about who or what he really worked for.

The young man, a kid really, talking on the payphone was not wearing the black GMC trucker cap, but he was wearing a white t-shirt. Then again, a lot of people around here wore white t-shirts. Still, nobody else matched Delaney's descriptions. If this kid wasn't the younger half, then the two obviously weren't showing tonight. Nothing else to do, Fernando decided to track his lone candidate, the young man talking on the payphone.

Fernando studied his subject. Fernando speculated: does he have any idea he is being watched? Fernando reflected: how interesting, to be observed without knowing.

Fernando was accustomed to being watched, but watched by people who wanted him to know they were watching, with suspicion and hatred.

To be watched, on the other hand, when you don't know that you're being watched; and to watch when the object of your watching doesn't know he's being watched—that was interesting, thrilling even. Fernando could understand the frisson of the voyeur.

Fernando wondered, while watching the kid, what Blondie, with all her perceptiveness, would be be able to see in him? Fernando saw desperation, a desperate kid willing to do just about anything for just about nothing. The younger of the two men would probably look a lot like that. He must be desperate, or have been at one time, if he had been willing, at so young an age, to run away from home and throw in his lot with a dirty vagrant, as Delaney had described the older. Fernando tried to imagine how the two would even have met, and what the older could have promised the younger to make such a life sound appealing.

The kid finished his phone call and hastily departed. Fernando waited two minutes, then laid a five dollar bill on the bar, and followed the kid out the front door. From the motel porch, he spotted his quarry walking briskly across the parking lot, toward a sky-blue pickup truck.

Fernando's own car, a 1987 BMW 3 Series, could hit zero-to-fucking-sixty in under nine seconds. He follow the pickup truck's tail lights, leaving plenty of distance between.

Just north of the motel, the road forks, with 26 continuing northwest towards Elmville, and 29 bending to the east with the river. The pickup truck took 29.

On the edge of Bureau Junction, Fernando passed an empty baseball diamond brightly illuminated by blazing, mercury-metal halide vapor lamps, which were mounted on tall wooden poles. The empty baseball diamond, empty dugouts, empty bleachers, and empty parking lot—the whole empty scene, incandescent as a July afternoon, but surrounded by night. Numinous, unsettling emptiness and the smell of creosote through his open windows.

After about ten minutes, the pickup truck made a sharp right turn towards the river. The road was marked with an unlit sign for the "Rainbow Cove Marina." Fernando followed, but could no longer see the truck, because the road wound its way through heavy timber. Eventually he saw light, and then the road emptied into a large parking lot.

The kid was standing outside the marina smoking a cigarette. Fernando grabbed his Nikon SLR and took several long-exposure photographs. The kid threw his cigarette onto the ground, appeared to hesitate, and then stepped inside.

Fernando followed.

Inside, he approached the bar. He scanned the beer taps; he ordered Budweiser; he took his drink to a corner seat, by two windows, overlooking the river and the docks.

Outside, a small motor yacht had just pulled into one of the boat slips. The first man off the boat, a man in his late twenties, was dressed rather outlandishly in yachting costume. This man tied the boat to a cleat hitch on the dock, lowered the gang plank, and then proceeded to signal with his arms, after which five Hispanic men left the ship, followed by a white man in business suit, who carried an attaché case, and three other white men, dressed more casually.

Fernando ordered another beer. Fernando returned to his seat by the window. After he had almost finished his second beer, his patience was rewarded when the kid he had followed walked onto the dock, accompanied by the young man in yachting costume.

Fernando left the bar, making his way to the docks. By the time he arrived, however, the two young men had disappeared. Fernando looked around, but could see no obvious place where they might have gone. Probably one of the boats, but which one? While thinking what to do next, he looked up and saw, high above him, a large spiderweb stretched between an oxidized metal, gooseneck barn lamp and the tall wooden post to which the lamp was screwed. Moths that had fluttered to the lamp's exposed light bulb struggled against the web in which they had become entrapped.

Again he noticed the scent of creosote. He sort of liked it.

Feeling he had already hit a dead end, Fernando turned to leave but found a man blocking his way.

Hostile, the man said, "Can I help you?" He spoke the word "you", as if he were speaking through the cross-hairs of a gunsight, pronouncing the vowel in "you" like the vowel in "shoe", linear as the bore of a rifle, his lips forming a tight, perfectly rounded aperture.

"I was just looking for somebody I thought I recognized."

"Well, I'm the only one here—do you recognize me?"

"No, but the crew and passengers of that boat," he said, pointing to the boat he had just seen dock, "I thought I recognized one of them."

"Are you from De Pue? You don't sound like you're from De Pue, but you sure as hell look like it. You're Mex, aren't ya? Is it one of the wetbacks you thought you recognized? They aren't from Mexico. They're from Pekin. I'm the dock-master."

Fernando asked, pointing to the boat from which the original group had disembarked, "Did they reboard that boat?"

"Look here Mexy, I don't know where they went and it wouldn't be any of your goddamn business if I did. I suggest you high tail it back to De Pue, get me?"

Fernando looked around, at the river surrounding him on three sides, and the dock-master on the fourth. Time to conciliate: "Sorry about that sir. It was just an innocent question—thought I recognized somebody. I'll get out of here."

"That sounds like a good idea. Don't show up again neither—that sounds even better."

Fernando climbed back up the wooden steps and walked straight to his car.

He returned to his motel; he called Delaney. No answer, but he left a message: "Delaney, Fernando. I'm in Bureau Junction, and so far no sign of the two you sent me to find. There was one person I thought might be the younger of the pair. He didn't seem to know anyone at the motel bar. An older woman I was sitting with at the bar—she works here—claims she doesn't know him, but that he's a regular. There was something funny about her manner. We had been talking for quite a while, very pleasantly, but as soon as I asked her about this kid, she started acting nervous, became evasive, that kind of thing. Anyway, he played video games all night without speaking to anyone. Very juvenile like you said he would be. He called somebody on a payphone—maybe it was even you. But then he left and here's where the case for him falls apart: he got into a pickup truck. You said they wouldn't have a vehicle. Maybe they've been here long enough to buy one or steal one, but that seems unlikely from what you told me. Still, I followed him and he drove to a marina a little way up the river. I managed to get some snapshots, and will mail you prints after I have them developed. At the marinia, he entered a bar on the top floor, and I followed but when I entered the bar he was gone, I have no idea where. I saw him again, this time on the dock, with a young man in a yachting suit—the guy in the yachting suit was older than the first, I'd say, but still young. Younger than me, anyway. The personnel didn't appreciate my snooping, so I left. Anyway, that's my report. It probably isn't him, and like I said I didn't see anyone who I thought could be the older of the two. Maybe they haven't arrived yet, or maybe they've already left."