S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: "The Long Road Ahead," by Mark Sumioka

The heat continued. With it came horrendous Santa Ana winds and subsequent allergic reactions. In order to steer clear I would have to stay inside with windows and doors shut. But it was sweltering and this was not possible. I took a stiff hit of Gale’s old nasal spray and felt the sting and uplift that halted my sneezing spell. There was the sound of a dog yelping at his owner, and the owner’s dangling keys as he shouted, “Good boy! That’s a good boy!”

The phone rang and it was Alexandra panicking that her father wasn’t home.

“He’s a big boy. Leave him alone,” I said, going outside and taking a seat on the deck.

“Hank, you must know where he is,” she said in her throaty smoker’s voice.

“What am I, his mother?”

“You’re his brother. You’re like the Hardy Boys but a century older.”

“That’s no way to talk about your father.”

“Are you going to tell me where he is?”

“You’re barking up the wrong tree. Why don’t you go and ask Squeaky, or maybe Samantha?”

“I did. They don’t know.” And then her voice changed to one of reasoning. “Look, Uncle Hank, it’s not normal for Dad to be gone all day and not call or anything. He’s been gone since early this morning before any of us were up.”

“Sounds like old busy-brain, all right.”

“I wasn’t finished,” she said, “He left his cell phone on the dresser.”

“That damn thing is only there because you gave it to him. He doesn’t need a cell phone. The landline is fine.”

“No, it’s not fine. Because if he took his cell phone we’d know where the hell he is!”

Alexandra didn’t understand us. Teddy and I were older. Cell phones were nuisances. This business with personal phones accessing the Internet, there was less and less focus on the activity at hand. People were lost inside a search engine, staring into their palm computers, tuned into their social networks, and out of palpable life.

“Teddy’s not a child,” I said.

“Damn you, you stubborn son of a bitch.”

“If I hear from old busy-brain I’ll give you a holler. Otherwise, don’t worry so much over it. He’s fine.”

“And how do you know he’s fine?”

I gave a long sigh and said, “Intuition, little Alexandra,” though she was middle-aged and far from little. Then I thought it over. I had patronized with no jab back on her part, and she was probably gulping with worry. The silence on the line floated to the surface like an expired body. “Fine. You want me to go find him?”

She chuckled.

“And how do you suppose you’re going to do that?”

“Oh, it’s a thing we twin brothers have naturally. It’s that ‘you poke one and the other one feels it’ thing. I’ll just meditate a minute and get my E.S.P. warmed up.”

“Don’t be a dick. I hate it when you’re a dick.”

“I’ll call you when I find him,” I said and hung up.

How hard could it be to track him down? Teddy was nearly as predictable as I was. There were only a handful of places he frequented, and two were already eliminated from the mix – his place and mine. So I got on my shorts over my plaid boxers, threw on a worn white V-neck, and slipped into a pair of flip-flops.

It seemed the heat intensified around four o’clock. The sun was lower, and beaming through my car window. A ring of wetness developed around my collar, heavier than the patches of sweat at my back and underarms. It was like a restraint, and for a moment I thought about dogs and their collars that kids or bad owners tugged in order to direct them. And then I recalled that time when a boy nearly passed out in the alley and how Gale had panicked and became overwhelmed with worry, though there was far more to it than that. This heat was distinctive in these ways. It told me yes nature could do what it wanted to us, now or whenever it pleased, and you never knew what was around the corner. You never had the right to assume you had it made. I suppose that was what got me thinking about Gale. She was gone now, and when the cancer was bad I knew she was in a hurry for it to end. All that time and hope and struggle so that nothing would improve, and she would want it over with just the same.

This was why I went to the hospital first, to get it over with. I was slow, and it took me a while to find the right area. Nobody saw me, only past me as they passed. Even when I got to the counter where the nurse was, she looked past twice before focusing on me.

“Can I help you with something?”

“Is that it?” I said, already annoyed. “No ‘Hi how are you?’ Or ‘Are you sick and need help?’”

“Well do you?” she said in a tone.

“I can see you’re busy, but do you really think I came here just to bug you?”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I’ve gone and done it again. I apologize. You see, my brother is missing and I came to see if he was here.”

She eased back into her chair, giving me the once-over.

“What’s his name?”

“Teddy…Theodore Wood.”

“Teddy Theodore Wood?” she said typing the name into her computer.

“No, just Theodore Wood. Teddy is for loved ones.”

The woman gave me a look when I said that. She kept typing, and then waited. Her eyes scanned the screen that I couldn’t see. Then she sighed. Her eyes went busily down the screen. She clicked the mouse, typed again, clicked and waited. Then she shook her head over and over, her eyes still searching.

“No Theodore Wood. No Teddy Wood.”

I looked around at the people who were either scurrying about or moving at such a zombie’s pace it irked me.

“Sorry to bother you,” I said and got the hell out of there.

I went to the Yacht Club. Some knew me there, though most didn’t. They knew I wasn’t a member, nor was I sponsored by a member, so when I strolled through the entrance into the air-conditioning and right past the front desk toward the meeting rooms where Teddy might be found playing cards with his member pals, a man stuttered something behind me and I kept going. I poked my head into each of the chilly meeting rooms and all of them were empty. The sweat on my brow was stifled by the cold of the building and it felt great to wipe the beads off. The view through the wall-sized windows caught me; the low sun, the shade, the clean white shapes of the boats in the slips and the lapping water splashing gently against them. I was thankful I couldn’t feel the lingering heat from outside, but couldn’t resist temptation and put my hand against the warm glass. Teddy once told me that the Yacht Club had views so magnificent a man would never forget their imagery. He said they were ingrained in his memory and nothing could carve the son of a bitch out. So I stared hard because it was beautiful.

A guy in a bright striped shirt stopped me on my way out.

“Are you a member here?” he said in a tone.

“No,” I said and walked past. He was in his twenties, and green as a freshman at a high school prom.

“Sir?” he followed.

“I’m looking for Teddy Wood. He isn’t here,” I said heading for the doors. Just to be an ass I added, “Have a nice air-conditioned day.”

Parched and hungry I went through the drive-thru at a burger joint and ordered a large root beer and fried chicken sandwich. While I waited at the window there was a scrap, a fight, in the parking lot. I watched for a good while, even after the girl had given me my food. She kept asking, “Sir, is something wrong?” and I just watched them scrapping. It was nothing special, just punks swiping and missing, and then, clawing then wrestling on the asphalt. But I stayed there at the drive-thru window, engaged completely. It reminded me of nothing particular. Raw as life can be, I could feel the rage between the two young men, the panic and anxiety, and the egos most of all. Everything was on the line to them, and as I observed, I felt that nothing was on the line for them, only risk and reward or risk and further damage. As I drove on, I felt vulnerable for being an older man. It was humbling to feel as such.

Besides the grocery store, there was only one other place Teddy might be – Elvis’s house.

Elvis’s wife Priscilla – no joke – answered the door.

“Elvis, look who it is!” she shouted.

“Publisher’s Clearing House?” a voice said from inside.

“Oh shush,” she said waving a hand. “It’s your friend, Hank.”

“That son of a bitch still alive?”

I went in. Elvis was at the kitchen table working on a puzzle. I bent over and put my arm around his shoulder for greeting.

Priscilla looked down at the table, and then shaking her head, yanked the book from his grasp.

“Give it here,” he said.

“You’re doing the same one again. I see the eraser marks. You aren’t going to get better if you keep doing the same one.”

“I don’t always,” he said sourly. “It’s just I like that one.”

“You should be progressing to the harder puzzles,” she said and tore the page out, leaving jagged pieces in the book.

“You’re wrecking it!”

“It’s only good for your brain if you challenge yourself,” she said and handed it back.

“What’s that you’re doing?” I said.

“A Sudoku puzzle. It’s his brain exercise,” Priscilla said.

“To hell with it,” Elvis said and closed the book.

“Has Teddy been here today?” I asked.

“We haven’t seen him since the weekend,” Priscilla said quickly and I could tell Elvis was annoyed she’d answered first.

“He was here Sunday! This past,” Elvis shouted.

“Lower your voice, please,” she said to him.

“He say anything about going someplace today?” I asked.

“What day is it?” Elvis said.

“Honey, you know it’s Thursday.”

“I think–” Elvis began.

“He didn’t say a word to me,” Priscilla cut in.

“He did so say something,” he muttered.

“What’d he say?” I said and patted him on the back like I always did and he pulled his shoulder away like usual.

“Well? What did he say?” Priscilla said to him.

He grinned. “I’m getting ready to tell you, calm down.”

“If Teddy said he was going someplace it’d stick out,” I said to Priscilla. “You know he doesn’t go out much. Only with me usually.”

She nodded and said, “It sure is hot,” wiping her brow, though I saw no evidence of perspiration. Women were lucky like that.

“Teddy told me it was the first time in nearly a year you were going to see him,” Elvis said and paused. He was gloating over the recollection. We waited through his prideful gaze, until he was sure we were anxious. “He said you were going to Noble’s, the both of you. He said you were going to drink a case of wine apiece!”

Suddenly it snapped into my mind – Noble’s house! I had thought it was yesterday. It was this morning. And then panic spread throughout me with the heat of fear and overwhelming regret.

Priscilla looked at me as though she knew, but this was not possible. She motioned me to the living room.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Sure, why?”

She looked back to where Elvis sat. “I’m worried about you.”

“About?”

She pretended to smell my breath. “Well, the drinking for one…”

“Oh, I can’t wait to hear the second thing,” I said in a tone.

This got Elvis’s attention and he said, “Who’s that you’re talking to?”

Priscilla and I looked at each other, and then she gave me that hopeless face and I nodded that I understood.

“It’s Hank,” she said. “You already know this. Hank is here.”

“That son of a bitch still alive?” Elvis said and I swear he was messing with us this time. But I was too afraid to ask.

“You know,” I said to her, “I know a guy at work who only gets two shifts a week and he doesn’t have another job. Clears his overhead fine. When he’s not working he sits in his place and smokes copious amounts of pot. He’s happy. And it’s none of my business, Priscilla. It’s just who he is.”

Priscilla became pensive. I saw this as an opportunity to leave and said, “I think Elvis called you.”

“Did he?” she said and stirred. “Elvis? You need me to help you?” She hurried away and I waited until she was at his shoulder again, coddling him like a child.

I left without goodbye and when the door clicked shut I waited a moment for Priscilla to come after me. But she didn’t and I was relieved.

When I got to Noble’s house, the door opened as I got to the porch. He had been waiting. The cold of the air conditioning drew over my face and chest.

“Seriously, Hank. What were you thinking?” Noble seethed.

“I’m sorry. It’s just…” and I couldn’t say anything. The heat inside me had cooled, replaced with disappointment. And the high setting of the air conditioner brought goose bumps to my forearms. Yet I was still outside the door.

“He passed out hours ago,” Noble said as a consolation. “He’s in the spare room.” I followed him inside, into that fine cold environment, secure and peaceful like a picnic under the shade of a tree on the coolest day.

His wife Mindy was at the kitchen’s entrance, hands clasped in front, looking me over with skepticism.

We went to Noble’s den and he shut the door. “Hank,” he said with such inquiry that I felt the interrogation. “Why didn’t you come back sooner? It’s been hours. My wife’s pissed. My daughter’s locked up in her room because she needs to study. It’s not right, Hank. We’re not some babysitting service for you to drop him off and disappear for hours on end.”

“I know,” I said. It was pride and stunning defeat I felt, worse than any fight in the streets. But I couldn’t tell him the truth that I’d not meant to leave Teddy there. I couldn’t tell him I’d plain forgotten.

We had gotten there in the morning. Noble was taking a day off. His wife was out running errands and the daughter was at school. The three of us drank wine, lots of it, and talked about the past, about my late wife, about Noble’s stunning debt, and Teddy’s gushy pride over his three grandchildren. After a few hours Noble had gone to his bedroom and lain down. And I’d left to run an errand. I’d gone to the hardware store to get the halogen light bulb that I’d so wanted at the time. But after I’d gotten it, I’d seen the bar next door and went in and had plenty more. And then, apparently, I’d driven home and passed out until the heat woke me and I was so thunderstruck by my piercing headache that all my focus turned to relieving the pain. I lay in bed and there was no movement on my part, only a distraught mind struggling to quiet the thumps until the Ibuprofen finally set in and I felt better.

“I messed up,” I said despondently.

Noble stared hard at me when I said this. And then his eyes lowered.

“Damn it, Hank,” he said and slapped the tops of his knees with his hands. The gesture told me he’d put it behind him. But I hadn’t put it behind me, and it loomed so that the room grew quiet again.

“I’ll get out of your hair now,” I said and got up slowly so that my knees cursed me.

I left Noble in his den and made my way toward the door, passing the chic living room along the way. Mindy was on the sofa. At first I thought to leave quietly. We worked better that way. But then I felt the guilt again, only this time it was thicker.

“Sorry for the mess,” I said to her.

She regarded me contemplatively. I hesitated noticing she was doing one of those Sudoku puzzles. Then I proceeded to the front door and put my hand on the knob. There was another pause, my panic flashing again and filling me with deep worry as I remembered, “Oh Lord…Teddy.”

Turning back I went to get him, but stopped short where the expensive white shag carpet met the tile of the foyer. Mindy could see I was affected.

“What is it?” she said. I believe she knew what it was, though she asked anyway. We were alike in that respect.

“Before I get Teddy out of here can you teach me how to do one of those puzzles?”

It felt silly to ask, but I didn’t want to leave. That damn Sudoku was the only thing I wanted to do.

Mindy looked at me searchingly, and my eyes traced her strong jaw line.

“No kidding around this time,” I said.

“Then sit.”

I went to her and sat awkwardly so that my rear hit the armrest. Humility had that effect on a person.

She looked at me differently now.

“It’s all right, Hank. It happens.”

I shook my head at her. “Not to me it doesn’t.”

“I think we both know it’s bound to happen on occasion.”

She waited, until finally I nodded in confession.

“Don’t worry. Noble thinks you were busy with errands. I reinforced that idea in his head.” She looked away and I realized it wasn’t as easy for her to lie as it was for him.

“So you knew?” I said.

“It was the only logical answer.”

“How come you didn’t call me?”

“Hank…” she said and lifted her eyebrows. “You’re not my friend. You’re my husband’s friend.”

“You’re right, Mindy. You’re right.” Then I asked, “And what about Teddy? He should’ve called one of the girls.”

She made an impressed face, “He seemed to be having a good time. He was in no hurry to leave.”

She waited for me again, for what I didn’t know, but it made me say, “This is the first time it ever happened,” and she gave that exacting nod like Gale used to do, her eyes undeceived and all-knowing as hell.

“Regardless, I think you should go see a doctor and make sure it was just an episode. And not…forgetfulness.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. This was unwarranted because I knew exactly what she meant.

“Hank, really…”

I closed my sad eyes and exhaled. I hoped it had been a drunken blackout and I was ashamed. But her inference was far worse in my mind, though for many it was all the same.

Mindy waited with me through my long silence. Eventually I gestured to the Sudoku. So she began slowly, teaching me about the numbers in the puzzle.