A Novel

Chapter 33: Panic Rack

Same night » Wednesday, September 30, 1987. Ellen West: just off work, heading home » about fifteen miles from the Marina—fifteen miles as the crow flies, much farther by car. Once out of the river valley, she tracked the upland prairie, along a route of rectilnear roads cut through cornfields all identical in appearance: straight, same, and symmetrical; cornfields and conformity.

When Ellen was nine, her father gave her a book of mazes. She loved the book, loved doodling through the mazes and getting lost in them. Her imagination ran wild and free inside a maze. Inside a maze, there were no straight lines or right angles.

But her real world was...straight lines and right angles: the roads, the corn rows, and the pasture fences; the townships, the sections, the acres, and the plats—all formed a rational framework devised by men who swore allegiance to reason. And in the winter, the long, flat horizon seemed almost to ratifty their attempt at squaring the circle: "The surveyors shall proceed to divide the said territory into townships of six miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles, as near as may be, unless where the boundaries of the late Indian purchases may render the same impracticable. The plats of the townships shall be marked by subdivisions into lots of one mile square, or 640 acres, in the same direction as the external lines, and numbered from one to 36. The surveyors shall pay the utmost attention to the magnetic needle; and shall run and note all lines by the True Meridian. There shall be reserved the lot N16, of every township, for the maintenance of public schools, within the said township."

Reason couldn't conquer this place, though. If it could, and if the land had been platted as rationally as the school-teachers said, then why did so many of her town friends get lost trying to find her house? All the geometry in the world could not make intelligible a countryside that looked the same, mile after mile, cornfield after cornfield. Caterpillar earth movers completed what multiple millennia of glaciation left unfinished: a perfectly graded landscape. These long, straight roads puzzled her far more than did the winding paths in her maze book. Confounding the compass, a long straight road—a corridor, really, through fields of corn seven feet high—had a disorienting power of its own, with an effect all-the-more unsettling because straight lines should be so easily comprehended.

She grew up assuming that a maze world existed only in her imagination, never guessing how near she was to it, that it lay just fifteen miles to the south, as the crow flies, in the river valley. There, the roads obeyed not the laws of men, but the laws of the river, curling through canopy of timber and looping around backwaters and bluffs. Irregular river. Down there, the towns were platted according to the river, the True Meridian be damned. Now part of her life was of that world, but every night after work, she returned to the straight, flat world of her childhood.

Racing down those straight, flat roads in her mother's four-door, 1985 Chevy Impala:

→65, 70, 75 miles per hour

→Ten o'clock at night

→Listening to a new mix tape

→The cool evening air blowing through the open car door windows

→Just off work

→Feeling good

→Flush with cash from the night's tips

→Erasure on the car stereo

→"Sometimes" in her mind: in her mind and her body and her soul

→Still trying to shake-off seeing Camden at the Marina. She had been counting her tips at the bar. He came up from the basement. He looked at her; she looked at him. He said nothing; she said nothing. They hung fire. They said nothing. Then she looked down at her tips, and when she looked back up, he was walking away.

She liked her job at the Marina. She liked working among strangers. It made her feel free to be whoever she wanted, or to be nobody at all. She understood why her father chose to earn his living on the road: anonymity furnished the cover for either adventure or repose—whatever one wanted. That kind of freedom only possible among strangers.

Where she was from, people distrusted strangers. Strangers raised unanswered questions. What long, inscrutable chain of motives, actions, and consequences brought them out here? Because nobody ended up in the country for no reason. And the certainty of some hidden reason engendered suspicion.

Down at the Marina, in contrast, people felt at ease among strangers: strangers engendered trust, not suspicion. That's what kept the Marina in business: its ability to bring strangers together, and the desire of strangers to come together. She saw it in the customers' eyes: the yearning for new strangers, and new possibilities. From upriver and downriver, Todd brought them together on his boats for evenings of freedom and possibility.

But where Ellen was from, there existed a geography of limited possibility. The land had been divided by a small number of roads into a huge, grid-like surface of action, with few options: turn right, turn left, or continue traveling straight, until the same options presented themselves again. A fourth option, to turn around and go back, signified surrender, an acknowledgment that you had lost both your way and your confidence.

Out in the country, strangers stirred shit up, like a harrow that, in breaking the sod, uncovers a root-like network of facts and feelings and thoughts—best left buried deep. Sometimes, a stranger's very presence disrupted routines and arrangements, and these disruptions had consequences. A strange, young man in town could incite jealousy in a boyfriend, and a jealous boyfriend could become a violent one. A few years ago, Brandy Wallace was seen talking—Tara Grant said flirting--with a Sissler's deliveryman nobody had ever seen before. Brandy's boyfriend must have heard about it, because Brandy ended up with a broken nose and a blackened face. A lot of people thought Brandy had it coming to her. Ellen's mother said, "I'm not saying she had it coming to her—no one deserves what she got—but she should've known better. And that deliveryboy should've known too. I hope he realizes what he's done." In the country, a stranger could cause a crime, and yet not be guilty of it.

Down at the Marina, if a stranger caused a crime, he was usually guilty of it too. Ellen thought of Arlie Boswell. God, why did she have to remember him? But that was the price you paid for the freedom of life among strangers: uncertainty and danger. Down at the Marina, the only force that could control the actions of a stranger was counter-force. In order to survive, violence must be met with violence, and down there, Todd Menocken had a monopoly on violence.

Todd used the threat of violence to keep the whole system functioning smoothly. Word got around. Even among strangers. Something connected them. Somehow they knew about the guy who did what he wasn't supposed to do, and who spent a month in traction as a result. And when the cops asked him what happened, he could never tell, no matter how badly he wanted to see Todd punished. Assuming Todd even could be punished. It would be a long, zig-zagging, and dangerously dotted line that would connect any crime to Todd Menocken. Yes, down at the Marina, when strangers caused a crime, they were usually guilty of it. And the man who killed Arlie Boswell was as guilty as anyone in hell.

Far ahead, down the road, flashing lights disrupted her thoughts. It was a car, stopped on the narrow shoulder, with its hazards flashing. She would soon pass the car. Why did the idea of that fill her with misgiving? Probably because she had been thinking about Arlie Boswell. Probably, if she hadn't been thinking about strangers, and the danger they sometimes posed, the scene ahead would not have unsettled her so. After all, the car's passengers could be friends or acquaintances. She should probably stop and offer assistance. And yet nobody she knew would be on this road at this hour.

About a hundred feet from the car, after she had decided not to stop, but to speed past instead, her front tires burst. Her car rolled to a lumpy stop. At first she wondered if the same accident had befallen the other vehicle, but she quickly comprehended the situation when she saw two men rushing toward her. She began rolling up her windows, and locking her doors, but she realized she could never roll up all four windows, and lock all four doors, before the men would reach her. She left the car, and ran into the cornfield across the road.

Once inside the field, she cut across the corn rows, which ran parallel to the road. But running across corn rows was more difficult than running down them. And the corn had begun to dry, so that as she moved through the rows, the embrittling leaves rustled loudly. She could not hope to flee quietly, but then the men, once they entered the field, would make as much noise as she, probably more, since there were two of them. Her one advantage, therefore, was that they would have to stop and be still before they could locate her by the sound of her movements.

As she ran a flashlight beam opened onto the dark field, into the dark field, though it did not penetrate very deeply. She bolted left, running about forty feet down a row, hoping to frustrate her pursuers. She felt lost in a labyrinth with no idea which direction she should choose. She turned again and began moving across the rows, away from the road, more deeply into the field. She realized that she had never before experienced true fear. Pure fear. It had a clarifying effect on her emotions, even as her mind reeled in confusion. The fear was like CT scan contrast dye spreading an unpleasant warmth through the body, from the inside out. It became her completely, so that she felt nothing else. She realized she had pissed in her underwear.

Bursting through corn row after corn row, she passed through a spider web, which clung to her face like Saran Wrap. She inhaled a spider, then fell to her knees, abdomen contracting fiercely as she tried to dislodge the spider from her throat. Her eyes moistened with tears.

There's a pretty piece of ass in the cornfield tonight,
It's hot and it's moist and it's nice and tight.
You can run it to ground, I just swear it, Jared.
Get your shotgun;
She's ready for your hotgun.
Her pussy and her mouth want to share it, Jared.
She's got eyes like slag,
A mouth you can gag,
And a pretty face that wants to wear it, Jared.
Breach bolt, gun stock, ejection port;
Field strip, fist rip, philly sport.
Her pussy's so tight, you will tear it, Jared.

Ellen heard something in the row ahead of her. Looking up, she saw that it was a deer, brightly illuminated. The deer gracefully tip-toed away, and then leapt like an angel down the corn row. Centerfire. Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul. The deer was gone, but the light that had made it visible was not. At that moment, she was seized from behind, her arms bound, her eyes blindfolded, and her mouth gagged. She soon ceased struggling. The men led her out of the field. They pushed her into an automobile. A man, standing outside the car, said, "You're gonna find out what's it's like, you conniving, little bitch." Someone sat beside her and shoved the muzzle of a gun into her side. The car made a three-point turn and sped away back south.