Wednesday, December 5, 2007
by Pa Rock
The shiny little BMW was weaving its way across the warehouse district like a mouse scuttling through a maze, unmindful of danger and hopeful that the cheese was only a few turns away. The driver, angry and overbearing even in the dark silence, slowed at each cross street to read the signs. The evening mist, Eleanor realized, was quickly swallowing the few landmarks that she had been able to commit to memory during her trial run the weekend before. She was not one to frequent the seamier edges of the city, particularly at night. Tonight however, Eleanor was on a mission, and she would not be deterred by fog, the felonious nature of the neighborhood, or the hostile indifference of her chain-smoking passenger.
The boy, a belligerent youth of fifteen, focused on seeing how much smoke he could generate inside of the small car and how oblivious he could be toward his downshifting parent. It was one of many humorless games they played with what seemed to be an ever-increasing frequency and intensity. Eleanor finally conceded this contest of wills and rolled her window down a few inches to ventilate their close quarters. Ethan, satisfied with the minor victory, rolled down his window and flipped the glowing cigarette butt at a couple of vagrants sitting on the curb nursing a bottle of rotgut.
“That’s class – sharing with the unwashed masses.”
“Shut up, Eleanor.”
“You are such a thoughtless bastard.”
“A tribute to truly bad breeding.”
“Or truly bad timing.” Eleanor allowed herself the briefest of smiles for that little zinger. Somewhere out of the great cosmic playing field of life, she had just scored a point.
“Kiss my pretty white ass, Eleanor.”
“Apparently that’s why we’re paying Consuela, your hooker in training.” Another point. Now she was smiling openly.
“Paying crap wages to an undocumented domestic doesn’t exactly make you Mother Theresa.” Ethan turned to face his mother before lobbing the shot that would even the score. “Lucky for her Bax is a great tipper.”
“Him or me?”
Eleanor reverted back to her comfort zone of ignoring Ethan. It was a skill she had developed and polished through years and years of practice.
“But I’m still her favorite.” The boy added that personal insight with a smirk that his mother could feel, if not actually see, across the car’s darkened interior.
Eleanor Windham decided to put their game on hold while she settled back into her search for Oriental Avenue. While jumping the Beemer from block to block she ruminated on how her son had constantly endeavored to ruin her. A lifetime ago she had been a bright and vivacious college coed with dreams of conquering the social register with her witty intellect and striking beauty. She planned on living a life of unrestrained privilege amid sumptuous luxury.
After college Eleanor had married wealth and power in the personage of Baxter Windham, heir to a national furniture chain and twenty years her senior. The life of a trophy wife suited her well, but after several years of expensive pampering, she had finally relented to Bax’s incessant whining to produce an heir. That momentary lapse in judgment resulted in nine months of nausea and vomiting, twenty-five hours of unforgiveable physical torture, and fifteen years of hell. Well, perhaps not hell exactly. Eleanor felt that parenting Ethan was more comparable to being hopelessly mired in the putrid sewage pit that boils just beneath the diseased and perpetually defecating bowels of hell!
Bax had lost interest in the boy years ago, and Eleanor had given it her best, more or less, for a while longer. Her resolve to be an effective parent, while never being her primary focus in life, was eventually eroded completely away by endless streams of governesses and tutors fleeing the house in fear for their lives (or sanity), and the decreasing availability of private schools that were willing to put up with Ethan in order to pick the pockets of his emotionally detached parents.
Eleanor had suffered tattooed and pierced strangers strolling casually through her home in varying states of sobriety and undress, throngs of therapists, police-a-plenty, and the occasional odd reporter. Last month she had returned from Barbados and found that Ethan and one of his delinquent friends were repairing a motorcycle in his bedroom - and the month before that it had been sex stains on her lambskin leather sofa! Life’s greatest truth, according to the martyr behind the wheel, was this: motherhood sucks. Eleanor had decided long ago to have those words engraved on her tombstone.
Ethan, of course, was equally certain that life had crapped on him from the get-go. He had entered the game by being expelled from the womb of a self-absorbed hyena, and was greeted with less motherly love than she would have shown to an eight-pound kidney stone. Ethan had spent his whole life feeling alone and betrayed, as if some understood contract at the time of his birth had been discarded or sold to a management firm. Every time that he needed a parent, some underpaid flunky was trotted out to deal with him and clean up the mess. Living in a state of lavish abandonment had made it necessary and fairly easy for Ethan to establish life on his own terms.
Two things had happened when Ethan was twelve that clarified and hardened how he felt toward his mother. Grandfather Windham, the only adult relative to ever openly seek Ethan’s approval and love, died unexpectedly at Thanksgiving – an event that seemed to make the greedy, self-serving Eleanor unusually thankful. Ethan suffered through his loss in silence – for he would never give his heartless mother the satisfaction of seeing his pain.
The loss of his grandfather was soon followed by a personal affront perpetrated by Eleanor, one that Ethan would never forgive. Walter, the family collie and Ethan’s most dependable friend, consumed a glass of eggnog that someone inadvertently set on the floor at the Windham’s annual Christmas Eve party. The eggnog had played hell with Walter’s bowels and he wound up relieving himself in a dark corner of the living room. When Ethan woke up on Christmas Day, Walter was gone. That had been the last time that Ethan cried, and he vowed that he would never cry again.
Eleanor won the day that Christmas, but in the years that followed Ethan always found an opportunity to leave her a gift “from Walter” at some socially inappropriate moment during the holidays - a smelly gag that resulted in him being sent to the analyst’s couch on multiple occasions.
Ethan and his mother were both proud and tended to give as good as they got. Each treated Bax benignly, and he was content to stay out of their way. The verbal exchanges between Ethan and Eleanor, however, were becoming less guarded and meaner. They fed each other with escalating rhetoric and growing hostility, and both had a sense that the battleground was becoming infinitely more risky.
Eleanor had driven to Figueroa Brothers Warehouse the previous Sunday afternoon just to be sure that she could find it when the time came to bring Ethan. But the sun had been out on Sunday. Sunday it had all been clear – the sky, the problem, the solution, everything. Tonight, with the fog rolling in off of the bay and mixing with the yellow haze of the depression-era street lamps, everything was swimming in distortion and creating an illusory world of misty peril.
“Shit!” Eleanor cursed as she hit the brakes and swung the car into a sudden ninety-degree turn onto Oriental Avenue. “You could be helping, you know!”
“Yeah. And I could be laid back in the sauna smoking some fine ganja.” Ethan pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and lit another one. “Thanks for making this evening so special.”
“Five hundred dollars should be enough to keep you brain dead for a week. Not a bad wage for a couple of hours work.”
“Stuff it, Eleanor. You need me; you pay me – plain and simple. And when the job is some cloak-and-dagger shit in an old warehouse after dark, you pay me well.”
Eleanor let the subject drop and refocused her attention on finding Figueroa Brothers Warehouse. Arguing with Ethan was as pointless as cooking. Hunger and disrespectful children were among many things that could be taken care of with a phone call and the right amount of cash. Of course with Ethan the amount always seemed to be escalating.
“A beer would be good.” Ethan said as they passed a rundown tavern called the Ancient Mariner. The front door was open, allowing the raucous noise and cigarette smoke to spill out onto the parking lot where a pair of large, roughneck patrons were busy hosing off a truck tire with their recycled beer.
She ignored Ethan and the roadside attraction. It was familiar territory now. A bar, an abandoned garage without a front door, a dumpster displaying a colorful array of gang graffiti, a rusted car on blocks sitting in a patch of weeds, and then…the cheese!
“Here we are,” Eleanor said, whipping the Beemer into an alley that bordered the north side of Figueroa Brothers. As she shut off the car engine, Eleanor turned to her hostile son. “You’re going to be unloading some very expensive antiques off of one truck onto another. They have been purchased legally and are headed to our stores in Canada for resale. There is nothing shady or dishonest going on, so you can just leave your attitude in the car and get the hell in there and do what I’m paying you to do!”
“Whatever,” the gangly youth said as he climbed out of the car.
“And if you have any pot, leave it in the car. The Port Authority will be coming through with dogs.”
“Bloody hell!” Ethan pulled a fat number out of his cigarette pack and tossed it onto the passenger seat. “That better be here when I get back.”
Eleanor Windham stood beneath the bare bulb that lit the area around the side door to Figueroa Brothers. She checked her face in a compact mirror and ran a hand through her hair.
“Expecting to meet up with one of your old johns?” Ethan asked as he stepped past her and knocked loudly on the old metal door.
“Presentation is everything,” she replied smugly. As Eleanor prepared to try her hand at knocking, the rusty door swung open. A tall, silver-haired man dressed for a day at the office rather than a night at the warehouse stepped out to greet them.
“Mrs. Windham, you’re right on time.”
“Promptness is everything,” Ethan interjected before his mother could reply.
“Good evening, Mr. Hendershot. This is my son, Ethan. He is here for the transfer.”
Hendershot extended his hand to Ethan, but the boy stepped by him and into the dark warehouse. “Get the lights. I can’t see dick in here.” Ethan flicked open his lighter and struck up a flame. Directly in front of him stood a massive trailer with the words, “Hendershot Collections” painted on the side. “Jesus, you could fit the mall in that thing. We’re going to have to renegotiate my pay.”
Hendershot came up behind Ethan. “Don’t worry. It won’t take long.” He blew out the light. “No open flames allowed in this building. Put your hand on my shoulder and follow me.” Hendershot led the youth to the back of the trailer. He lifted a heavy latch and opened the right panel. The blackness within the trailer was total, leaving Ethan with the sense of staring into the mouth of a cave on a moonless night. “Pull yourself up in there. You’ll find a light bar two feet down on the left.”
Ethan turned toward the warehouse side door where he could still see his mother’s silhouette in the light. Was she smiling, or was the dim light screwing with his brain? “This bullshit is going to cost you plenty, Eleanor.” That was a smile all right, one that she would pay for later. Ethan placed the palms of his hands on the trailer bed and gracefully boosted himself into the dark chamber. “Left wall?” he asked.
“Two feet back on the left, up high,” Hendershot replied. As Ethan stepped into the trailer, Hendershot swiftly closed the door and dropped the latch back into place. His evening’s work was done.
Twenty minutes later as Eleanor Windham left the warehouse district and slid the little Beemer onto the expressway, she fired up the torpedo that Ethan had so generously left behind. The herb was exquisite, the smoke lacing through the petals of her flowering mind and out into the warm sea breeze that would carry it off to a better place, a lovely land where adults could congregate peacefully on lazy evenings and exchange clever pleasantries over cocktails and croquet, an idyllic world beyond the ferocity and stench of untamed youth. Eleanor took another freedom toke and unleashed a mighty howl, a primal proclamation to the world that life, once again, belonged to her!