The north end of Seattle's Aurora Avenue had survived the gentrification that had crawled up from the Ship Canal and pummeled many a seedy abandoned storefront into shape, "shape" here being synonymous with a condo. The poor John looking for a meth or pussy fix had to drive all the way up well into the hundred thousands before finding appropriate merchandise. I mention all this because north Aurora also contained that other throwback to a lost civilization: the pay phone.
When I was a kid, there was a pay phone directly across the street from our front window, an anachronism from when the telephone company was located in the adjacent building sometime back in the first half of the 20th century. I used to watch the thing obsessively, convinced that if I waited long enough some kind of nefarious business would occur, and I could put my long days of reading Encyclopedia Brown to use. Besides, the air conditioner was set into a window right there in the living room, making for a convenient convergence of interests. Sure, I never saw anything, but my conception of pay phones as being inherently secretive and under-handed remained. As caller ID became more and more ubiquitous and the proliferation of cellular heralded the end of the phone booth, I became more nostalgic each time I saw one. I suppose that's simply the nature of getting older and watching the world change around you. Every time you encounter something archaic it re-ignites the part of you that had promise. When you were a kid sitting in front of the window waiting for a man in a trench coat, you could have done anything with you life. And now here you are, some loser feeling fuzzy because you saw a pay phone.
I gave in to nostalgia and found not only a pay phone but a full-on phone booth in the parking lot of an Arco around the 175th block. The only thing that appeared to be less than forty years old was the Arco sign, clean and blue above the dingy boxes of buildings and a handful of barely functioning pumps.
It was there that I called Jesse's and left a message saying that I had some fish I was hoping I could store there and possibly get some help loading them for transport. I left the number of the pay phone and got back in the car to wait.
When I had just started out from Boston I had stopped and spent a couple of days--it may have been more than that; those were hazy times--in Lewisville, Kentucky at a place called the Silver Cup. I met a guy there who claimed to have worked as a private investigator for about ten years after being a detective somewhere out west for about twenty. He told some stories that could be classified as exciting, mostly revolving around folks with handguns who didn't care much for being pursued, or the occasional husband in denial who blamed him for the photos of his wife in sexual congress with someone else. But what I remembered was his talking about the waiting, the interminable waiting for something to happen, knowing that you couldn't let down your guard for even a minute for fear of losing your chance and blowing an entire day's or week's work. In retrospect, I suppose I should have found it ironic that he railed against having to sit around doing nothing at the same time he was sitting on a bar stool next to me doing nothing, but irony is often lost upon the drunk.
His complaint came back to me as I sat in the Arco parking lot. I went inside a couple of times, struck up a conversation with the young Pakistani guy working the counter. I imagine he was used to the lot being used as a drug exchange, so I think he was flattered that I would even bother concocting a story for him. I told him my cell phone had died and I was waiting on an important call about my mother who was undergoing surgery. He feigned sympathy--perhaps it was genuine; I've grown cynical, I guess--and didn't raise a fuss when I dropped a twenty-dollar bill in the leave-a-penny tray.
The phone rang three times before my call came. The first two were hang-ups, the third what seemed to be a group of college kids stoned to the bejeezus looking for someone to mess with. I thought about trying to figure out a way to turn the tables on them, but I just wanted to free up the line, so I growled "Wrong number, asshole" and hung up on them.
It was about forty-five minutes later that the phone rang and a man's voice asked, flatly and unhurriedly, if I had called looking for a storage unit. I said I had. "Where did you hear about our cold storage service?"
I started to sweat that beyond the fish there would be some other code words that would trip me up. I decided I could only play the hand I had. "A woman named Kay, with whom I did some business in Texas, said you could help me out."
"How long would you be looking for?"
"Just two nights. I've got a truck coming in Thursday but the guy just can't get the boat rigged until Saturday midnight, and of course the guy with the truck's got some sister having goiter surgery or some such bullshit." I hoped I was coming across like some obnoxious player who true operators tolerate, take their money and send them on their way without much fuss.
"Do you know the Fiddler's Inn?"
"I know of it. I got a yellow pages. I can find my way there."
"Ten o'clock tonight."
"I'll be there. Thanks much," I said and hung up, the sweat from my palm glistening on the receiver as it lay on the cradle. I jumped back in the car and found a valium and held it under my tongue until it dissolves--the taste was something like sucking on a penny with your head in an outhouse. The call had riled me a little, but mostly I was feeling the high-density caffeine in the burnt and burnter Arco coffee that I'd been downing all afternoon.
I hadn't recognized the voice but in my head imagined it was one of the figures in the car following me from Oregon. His tone became neither warmer nor colder as the conversation had progressed, the way it goes dealing with most humans. He had maintained an utter insensitivity to the normal ebb and flow of conversation. I wondered if it was an acquired skill or an innate one.
I went back to a freshly cleaned motel room and a mellow Gracie lying squarely in its center; it was all she could do to open one eye and glance at me when I arrived. I suspected that when Flora made up the room she spent an inordinate amount of time giving Gracie attention. Occasionally it made me jealous, since it always meant that Gracie was not her normal needy self when I came in, but in this case I was relieved, since it meant I could focus on my preparations for my rendezvous. I had a little over four hours to get to the Fiddler's Inn, which was plenty of time, I knew, but I wanted a chance to clear my head with a long shower and practice grabbing the .25 out of my boot. I also figured I'd head out there about an hour early so I could scope the place, make sure I knew where all the entrances and exits were. Then there was the time allotted to spend in front of the mirror practicing my story, that of a lieutenant for a guy operating out of California who had a stray shipment make its way up here that he just needed to get sent back. I wasn't looking for a great deal, just a fair one.
What I planned to do--even if this worked--I didn't have a clear idea, but I kept thinking that if I could just get past whoever they sent out as the front line, I might find someone who was close to my father, or knew him, and that I could be within grasp of what I'd come for. But it would take discipline and a clear head.
Which is what makes it hardly surprising that I somehow fell asleep, waking up with a brutal headache at 9:48 p.m., Gracie staring at me intently, as if she knew that with every additional moment I slept she could confirm that she had the world's biggest moron as a caretaker.