"Hey, Eddie, Eddie, Eddie... do you have a smoke I could maybe borrow?"
I was still coming up the stairs when I heard Henry's voice drip onto my head from the second-story landing. I looked up and saw him in his trademark wife beater and Bermuda shorts, both of which he must have put on when he was a hundred pounds lighter and simply grown around. His flitting eyes danced around my face expectantly as I hauled my groceries up the stairs.
"Sorry, Henry, once again I chose not to start smoking today," I said, not slowing down in the hopes that he would read my impatience and drop any attempt at conversation, a strategy that had proved about fifty percent effective. Today, I got a bad toss.
"Oh that's right, sorry, Eddie, sorry. I could really use a smoke, though, just to take my mind off this goddamn sunburn, look at this shit."
Against my better judgment I looked at that shit. Every exposed piece of skin, which was the lion's share of the total, was radiated to an angry iridescent salmon color. My mom had been something of an olive-toned sun worshipper and had a hard time getting it into her head that I required a constant supply of SPF to keep from broiling. As such, I'd had some doozies of sunburns and could sympathize. Henry must have been in his early fifties, but he was incredulous about everything that happened in his life. Once I had seen him in a rainstorm hold out his arms and stare at the sky and cry out "Can you believe this?" as if he had never seen such a thing before. In Seattle, mind you.
"Good Christ, Henry, when I go out later I'll get you some aloe vera, that's what you need for that," I said.
"I really just need a cigarette," he puffed back at me, and I didn't argue. He had a voice that hovered on the edge of whining and could tilt into weepy, then run back into breathless enthusiasm when he forgot to complain for a moment and became excited by something. "Loretta just let me sleep there at the park, can you believe that?" Loretta was Henry's wife, or girlfriend, or sister, or cousin, or caretaker, or something... all I know is they shared a room and never displayed the slightest shred of affection under any circumstances, but I didn't see her all that often. Apparently she worked and when she didn't work she slept, and Henry was banished to the stairs to hit up every passerby for a cigarette. What they were doing living in a motel on Aurora Avenue just one notch above flophouse I had no idea and wasn't eager to find out.
I tried not to, but the imp of the perverse directed my attention down towards Henry's feet. Henry never wore shoes, and I admit it would be hard to imagine his getting them on, with the corn chip nails that jutted from the ends of his toes, Nosferatu-like, twisting and curling up and under; they undoubtedly scraped against each other when he walked. The sight made me ill each time my eyes caught sight of them, but some masochistic trait in my brain simply couldn't look away. The spectacle had sparked a sea change in my own hygiene, however: I had purchased an assortment of nail care equipment and sat in front of the TV buffing and trimming and polishing at least every other day. Many of us don't give it adequate attention, especially those of us sandal-averse, but it is gratifying, and I had even visited a nail salon run by a Vietnamese family and received a spa pedicure from a tired but friendly woman whose powerful hands had exorcised the final remnants of road-trip cramps and muscle deformities.
"Get her to put sunblock on you, all right?" I said. He started to follow along after me, tottering a bit the way a kid does, but I darted into my room and shut the door behind me. Body language and verbal niceties didn't cut it with him, I had learned. Once I had let him in, thinking I could get rid of him after a few minutes, and he ended up watching TV and petting Gracie for well over two hours. It was that prolonged exposure to the sight of his bare toes so near my bed that had prompted my trip to Walgreen's for forty dollars worth of podiatry tools.
I turned on the radio when I got inside to drown out Henry's occasional entreaties to strangers passing by on the street or tenants coming back to their rooms. It was getting on toward five o'clock, and Gracie barely lifted her head when I came in the door. Being in one spot for almost a week had allowed her to revert to what I assumed were her pre-existing sleep patterns, and I knew that I wouldn't expect her attention or company until around six o'clock, when she would lazily jump down from the easy chair by the window, arch her back in a deep stretch, and consent to some petting en route to her food dish.
The Thunderbird Motel, my latest domicile, was as decrepit as one might expect from the name, but unlike a lot of the rundown pay-by-the-hour hotels in this part of town, the rooms were clean enough and the water pressure steady; the bed was comfortable only on one side but I didn't roll around much when I slept anyway. And you couldn't beat the rates. Paying by the week, I could have prepaid my bill for the next thirty years and still had pocket money left over.
I cracked a beer and sprawled out on the bed, which hadn't been made. I told Francis she only had to make it when she felt like it, and I guess today she hadn't felt like it. I reclined against a stack of wafer-like pillows and closed my eyes and slept for maybe half an hour. I had been cleaning out my system for the last four days, going cold turkey on everything but two beers and a joint in the evening to improve the entertainment value of late night television. It hadn't been too bad, if you don't count the forty-eight hours I shivered in my hotel room unable to get the wind-through-a-canyon-like howl out of my skull. My sleep patterns still hadn't returned to normal and I wasn't hopeful that they would. Plus I was on reconnaissance tonight, so I felt like a brief nap would do me some good. I closed my eyes and replayed the scene where Kay had driven away that night in Austin, something I had done several times since arriving in Seattle. There was someone else in that car, the car registered to my father. Who was it?
The smell of cat breath woke me, as I had expected it would: it's an unpleasant alarm clock but an effective one. Gracie was on top of me, her bird-like frame in full rumble, jonesing for her evening meal. Bruce Springsteen was singing on the radio something about "the work, the working, just the working life," but I couldn't place the title of the song although I knew that I knew it. I made myself a note to look it up, knowing that note would just get tacked to the bulletin board in my head from which everything blew away in the constant wind of distraction.
Gracie got her dinner, one of those wet cat food pouches that always seem like they should be less of a mess than a can, but I got the sauce all over my fingers pinching it out. Washing my hands, I studied myself in the mirror, the sound of Gracie's ravenous devouring audible over the radio, and I was almost impressed by what I saw there. Blood had started to flow to my face, and the pockets under my eyes had tightened up. I was beginning to look my age instead of five to ten years older, and I dumped the rest of my beer down the sink. I would have to drink later for professional reasons. My reconnaissance consisted of sitting in one of three tables at the Nickerson Street Saloon, a middling quality sports bar next to the Fremont drawbridge, which I still took child-like delight in watching when it parted in the center and folded up to let boats through. From each of those three tables I had a clear view not only of the bridge to the east, but more importantly to Jesse's Self Storage just across Nickerson to the south. Jesse's was not only a storage facility but apparently did equipment rental, too. The fenced yard was filled with an assortment of construction and industrial supplies, a couple of cherry pickers and an assortment of flatbed trailers. Jesse's Self Storage rested at the north end of Queen Anne Hill and had so far resisted, along with a handful of other businesses along the canal between Lake Union and Puget Sound, the siren song of gentrification that had sprouted condos up along both sides of the lake. It was remarkable for that, but also remarkable in that this quiet and at times seemingly abandoned business was the home address given on the car that was registered to my Dad.
And so each of the last three nights, now that my system felt less twitchy inside, and I felt reasonably sure that I had eluded the men who were following me, I had gone down to the saloon, which was not only conveniently located but had a good menu and cadre of pretty waitresses, and there read a book and watched whatever ball game came on the TV, the whole time keeping an eye across the street, seeing who came in and out, trying to get the lay of the land, to figure out the next step. The last two nights I'd seen nothing, just the occasional raccoon run across the floodlit yard. That wasn't remarkable; I'd only spent maybe ten hours staking it out, but what was remarkable is that about half of that time was during business hours, and I had never seen a soul arrive there to work, to rent something or to access their storage unit. Yet an Open sign hung out front with their hours (nine to nine each day) and a phone number with a hand-printed sign saying to call ahead. I had called from a pay phone but got no answer, not even voicemail.
So I would keep watch, and eat another fajita chicken salad, and flirt with Karen or Rebecca or, with luck, Stephanie, and I would wait for a car to pull in or out, and then I would...
I sighed and splashed water on my face. Well, improvising had worked so poorly for me until this point, it only made sense that eventually my luck would turn. "Right?" I said out loud to Gracie, who stopped in to drink the apparently superior water available around the bathtub drain. But if she had an opinion she was wisely keeping her mouth shut. She probably knew it wouldn't have made any difference.