by Robert Paviour
It was time for our annual migration north to escape the blistering heat of Gritland. I was deputized to call the Bank of the Alleghenies to tell them we would be ringing up charges in New England.
I got ‘Denise.’ “What kind of name is Garou?” Her accent was mostly flat, with a tincture of Redneck. Young.
“Cajun, I was told.”
“You need to study history.”
“Not my best subject, but I’m a star at IT,” she said. “So where are we going?”
“Well, like I said, New England.”
“Very good, Mr. Garou. Which states, please?”
I thought saying New England would suffice, but I was wrong. “Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts. We’ll stop in Plattsburgh New York, too.”
“That’s not in New England, is it?” said Denise.
“Think about it: We have to drive through other states to get there.”
“What other states?” After I listed them she said, “How about Michigan?”
“Is that a trick question? Last I heard Michigan was not in New England. Did they move it?”
“Well, some people go there.”
“No doubt took a wrong turn. Denise, where did you learn about geography and history?”
“Fargo. Been here all my life. This is my dream job, with a chance of promotion!”
“I’m sure you’ll go far.”
“Thanks, but let’s get back to your trip: some of the places you’re going are high risk.”
“You think? Plainfield, Vermont? Freedom, New Hampshire?”
“You’d be surprised. Let’s confirm your phone number in case we need to temporarily suspend your cards.”
A few days later I was packing. My wife Estella was not happy: “You said we’d be gone by 10:00, Beau.”
“I didn’t say AM or PM. I had to water my plants and call the Medicine Man for a refill of ‘Valium.’”
“You don’t need to talk in code to me; what you need to do is lay off weed.”
“When I die.” Both of us got cranky before going away.
Once we got rolling we set a good pace, going northwest from Church Hill, Virginia. It was mid-summer; chicory lined the road, and the incense of blooming mimosas wafted in the air. Much later, I missed a turn when we got into New York State, which cost us 10 minutes. The low fuel light had lit up, addling me. Fortunately Estella was snoozing. I pulled off at Port Crane and filled up, using my BofAl credit card.
I was returning the handle to the pump when my cell rang. “This is Denise. Did you know you could have paid eight cents per gallon less if you had stopped in Binghamton?”
“Binghamton? Talk about high risk!” I made that up. “Anyway, I was lost.”
“High risk? But I see what you mean about that turn on to I-88 -- tricky. I’m looking at Google maps.”
“Right. Thanks, Denise.” This seemed a little irregular, but I knew that the Bank of Al was striving to improve customer relations after bad behavior during the Great Recession.
Estella woke up when she heard me talking. Damn! When I told her what Denise had said, Essie was less patient. “She was too easy on you. You weren’t paying attention — I told you about that turn off 81.”
“Thinking of directions and gas at the same time was too much. I didn’t want to be a distracted driver.”
“You are terminally distracted. Perhaps Denise can find someone else to drive my car.”
I ignored her to focus on driving, going for another few hours then stopping in Schenectady. Estella had reserved a room at the Broadway Inn, one of her favorites. Movie stars, musicians, and celebrities had stayed there in better days. It had a genteel air, but now the carpeting was frayed, the elevator creaked.
Still, the staff knew how to play it up when Estella made her grand entrance: “Ms. Garou! What a pleasure!” I thought they were going to break out the bubbly.
Essie’s hazel eyes twinkled and she said, “Is the media coming?” They laughed. She could light up a scene when she wanted to: bright smile, waves of true blonde, leggy, quick repartee. Flirty in words and dress.
Her mood lifted, and after unpacking we headed out for dinner. We agreed it would be nice to eat outside, and Mexican Radio had patio seats. I tried a “UFO,” a wheat beer with a slice of orange on the plastic glass.
“Not your style,” said Essie.
I tasted it and made a face. She shook her head. The Mexican paella was fine, but the UFO was a dud. I drank it anyway. Essie tried to stop me from ordering a Sierra Nevada to wash away the bad taste. “You’re getting a belly.”
“That’s Baby Beau you’re talking about.” She hadn’t heard that one, and smiled.
We paid up with the BofAl card and were walking back to the Broadway when my phone rang. “I should have warned you not to order that UFO.”
“How would you know what I like or don’t like, Denise?”
“It doesn’t fit your profile. You usually buy IPAs. There was a new Hop-Scallion Rave on the menu.”
“Denise, I already have someone to tell me what to like or not like — she’s called a wife. Anyway, that Hop-Scallion is not a true craft beer — it’s made by Budweiser and is proof that if you put hops in piss, people will drink it.”
“Ugh. I didn’t know that. Bud is Al’s stock pick of the month. I’m trying to be helpful, Beau. The BofAl wants us to be there for our customer.”
Had I gotten carried away? It wouldn’t be the first or last time. “Sorry, honey. You’re only doing your job.”
After I hung up, Estella said, “Was that the generic ‘honey?'” I nodded. “Don’t lead the poor girl on. She doesn’t know that the problem is you won’t listen, no matter how many people tell you.”
I had trouble sleeping that night, thinking that these two women were micromanaging me. I was groggy at breakfast and had several espressos.
Essie was getting into her playful travel mode now, chatty, excited about seeing Dude and Bunny, friends in Plattsburgh. We took the Northway, and traffic faded when we got past Glens Falls. Not long before Schroon Lake there was a sign advising us of no services for the next 70 miles.
After that binge on espresso, I had to make a pit stop at the High Peaks Welcome Center. Estella tried to text Bunny, but we were in a dead zone, surrounded by gnarly mountains. I was coming out of the rest room when I heard a pay phone ring. Out of curiosity I picked it up.
“Leave immediately!” said Denise. “The Zombies are coming — a vicious motorcycle gang! They rape and pillage!”
“In the middle of the week?”
“Step outside! You’ll feel the earth shaking! You can hear their roar. They tore up Fargo like a twister! Get out while you can! You may be big, but you can’t fight off the living dead.”
“Denise, why are you speaking in exclamations? And how would you know how big I am?”
“I scanned your medical records. By the way, you need to watch your cholesterol. I saw your picture — you look like a big cuddly bear, but don’t you ever trim that beard?”
“Gurr! You’ve been talking to Estella.”
“No. But stop wasting your breath — run!”
I hung up. Essie was out by her car. I heard the growl of unmuffled hogs approaching. “Denise says there’s a zombie jamboree coming.”
Essie blew a bubble and popped it, smiling lazily. “Finally I can get someone to dance with me.”
“You’re too old to be chewing bubble gum.”
“I’ll switch to tobacco.”
We were pulling out when a few Harleys chugged in, driven by paunchy grey beards, forward scouts of the Zombies. As they stopped and got off, I saw that they didn’t have that herky-jerky zombie gait, only arthritis. Several more arrived, with faux-trashy fem Zombies in the sidecars.
“They don't appear dangerous,” said Estella. “I’m not sure of intel from Denise.”
“She’s an excitable girl,” I suggested. Indeed, no Zombies gave chase, shooting out tires, swinging grappling hooks.
Before long we were in Plattsburgh, crown jewel of the hardscrabble North Country, a former base of the Strategic Air Command. We checked into Motel 6 - not Essie’s first choice, but it was my turn. “We need to save money after the Broadway. And they don’t charge for Internet service.”
She protested: “There are shifty-looking people in the lobby.”
“Makes me feel at home,” I said. In our room there was a sign from management that the TV would not work if removed. I peered out the window. Beyond the gated parking lot was a shopping center, shuttered except for a “Condoms Galore” store.
We unpacked and went to visit Dude and Bunny. I had lived with them in the “Last Gasp” commune across Lake Champlain in the late 70’s. Don’t ask how I ended up in Vermont; all I am authorized to tell you is that mistakes were made.
Dude and Bunny put out artisanal cheeses and beers from Quebec. We topped them off with a smoke, sitting on the deck. Estella made a show of waving it away.
Dude had set up his laptop so we could Skype with friends. There was a slide show of pictures from the Last Gasp: gathering blossoms for dandelion wine, dancing at a party, bottling that god-awful home-brew – Dude and I came up with my first advertising jingle, “The Beer that Bothers!”
“What a time we had at the commune,” Dude said. “Some certifiably crazy shit!”
“What I can remember,” I agreed, “was great.” Memories came of skinny-dipping in the green Huntington River, incandescent maple leaves in fall, and the Mayor offering us a bucket of fresh perch from his ice fishing. No cell phones, no laptops.
“Folies à deux,” said Estella, interrupting my reverie. “You fed each other’s craziness. Some lost too many brain cells and never recovered from all that fun.” She stared at Dude and me.
Later we went for a walk over to the Boat Basin, speedboats, cabin cruisers, and yachts bobbling in blue waves. “The Quebecoise moor their boats here – cheaper than Burlington,” said Dude.
To the east I could see the Green mountains, poking up like jagged old teeth. I was surprised by a pang of longing to go back. My cell rang.
“What’s that woman got against a little partying?”
“Denise - what, how…?”
“The web cam. What’s a commune?”
“A group of strangers living together in splendid squalor, re-creating families they had run away from.”
“What always happens: we began pairing off and having kids. Nothing spoils fun like kids.” I paused. “Hey Denise, is this a social call? I appreciate you watching my back, but can we dial down the surveillance?”
“I thought I was being neighborly,” she said, sounding dejected. “Guess I’ll never get that promotion.”
“Hey, you’re fine sweetie.”
Of course Essie overheard. “Now its ‘sweetie.’ Things are heating up!”
We followed a walkway back downtown. The temperature was rising, but humidity was low, nothing like the steamy South. As the others talked and window-shopped, I went to get money from the BoAl ATM.
Before I could slip the debit card in, my phone rang. “Denise!” I said. “What an unexpected pleasure!”
Now she was all business. “This is a high risk area.”
“Dangerous like that geezer motorcycle gang?”
She stuck to her script. “I can’t let you withdraw money.”
“Denise it's 3 PM and broad daylight. There’s a Plattsburgh PD squad car across the street.”
“The Russians were in Plattsburgh to spy on the SAC base. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some agents stayed, recruited by the Russian mob. They have a cell in the PD. I have reason to suspect there may be a skimmer on the ATM – I called to get it cleared.”
“Denise, you are whacked. You need to get out, stop learning history from CSI. Give it a rest.”
“Like you say, I’m doing my job. I’m freezing your card until I make sure the ATM is clear.”
“Denise!” She had hung up on me. I thought of calling to complain, but if she got fired, the poor kid might have to be a roustabout or worse in the shale fields.
Estella saw I was jammed and asked, “What’s up?”
“Denise has frozen our debit card. She said this is a high risk area.”
“About time somebody said no to you.”
We made dinner plans with Dude and Bunny, and split to go back to the motel. I took out my laptop to scan emails and baseball scores. Estella said, “It’s stuffy.” She freed up the top buttons of her blouse and went over to the windows but couldn’t open them. She tried the AC to no avail. “It’s too warm! I’m suffocating!”
“Feels balmy. Take off some clothes”
“Your solution to everything. Anyway, it smells rank in here. I’m calling the front desk.”
I shrugged: no one could stop her when she got cranked up.
Soon there was a knock. Essie peered through the peephole and asked who it was.
“Maintenance. We get call from Stella Garoot.”
Frowning, she opened the door. A stumpy man walked in, dressed in shorts and a loud shirt, with gold chains around his neck. She said, “It's Estella Garou.”
“Me Alex. Problem?”
“The AC’s not working.”
“Ah, too hot. I fix.” He turned the dials. Nothing happened. He scratched his head.
Estella stood, tapping her feet. When had she begun to put red nail polish on her toes? “Do we need a room change? Where can I find a competent member of your species?”
“Please pretty Miss. I fix. Two minutes.” I noticed him staring at her partly unbuttoned blouse. So did she, folding her arms. He took out a small rubber hammer, giving the whole unit a whack. It started with a blast of frigid air.
I got the brunt of it. “Too cold! We don’t need another ice age.”
“It’s fine,” said Estella.
Alex reminded us, “Turn dial if you want up.” He made a circling motion in the air at about Essie’s chest level, then bent over to demonstrate. The unit stopped. He turned the dial back down and gave it another smack, creating an arctic gale.
“Perfect,” said Essie. “If you don’t like it, go see if we can change rooms.”
Alex seemed inclined to stay, hoping he could help her with those buttons. “Come on,” I said.
“Leave hammer?” asked Alex, glancing at Essie.
Once we were outside the room, he shambled off, hammer in hand.
I went up to the front desk but the only room available allowed smoking. As I walked back, my phone rang. “Denise.”
“I could see it all on the cam. Does she always complain about the heat?” Her voice sounded slurred.
“It was the second-hand smoke. Denise, I think you’re getting over-involved.”
“Estella treats you like dirt!” She got louder. “I don’t think she understands your needs. I do.”
“Denise, this is way too personal.” I ducked into an alcove with vending machines and ice. “Essie and me are fine. There’s no perfect relationship.”
“I’ve been studying your phone records. I saw a series of 900 calls. Our algorithm indicates potential for infidelity.”
“Is nothing sacred? Now you think you can read my mind! Well, the 900 calls were her idea. Even if my life is an open book on the Internet, it’s not very well written.”
“Would you like to know what I’m wearing?”
“No! Denise, you’ve flown off the rails.”
“Congratulate me, Beau baby! I’m celebrating. I’ve been promoted. Turned out there was a skimmer on that ATM.”
I felt gobsmacked, but managed to say, “Well done, Denise, but maybe you shouldn’t drink on the job.”
“Pshaw! You’re not my Daddy. Look who’s talking about alcohol. Shame on you for making fun of my lack of education. What’s wrong with CSI and a few Buds?”
Nailed. Again. “Just playing, Denise. Sorry.”
“If I had an itchy finger, I’d send in the drones, teach you a lesson.”
Had she flipped? “Don’t joke about that, Denise.”
“Just playing. I can tell you like to play.”
How could I get out of this? “Denise, it’s hard to think of you as other than my IT expert.” Change the subject. “Can we stick to the cards for now?”
I heard a deep sigh. “I’m not sure I’ll ever find anybody.”
“Denise, you’re so hot the phone is sizzling. Besides, you got a great personality.”
“Thanks Beau. I have had a few hits.”
“I’ll bet. Say, can I use that ATM now?”
“Give me a minute.” While she checked, I began to develop a plan that would have me hiding in Vermont, like I did years ago. It might take more work to not leave a trail, though they hadn’t embedded chips in me yet.
Denise clicked back. “Beau honey? It’s all clear.”
Honey? “Great. I’ll head over.”
“I’ll update the traffic patterns.”
“Denise, this is Plattsburgh.”
“Remember, you can get lost anywhere, Beau. Don’t forget your hat. Doctor’s orders. Al and me are always here to serve you.”
Would I be served broiled or grilled? I put the cell carefully on top of the ice machine. I never liked that phone anyway, especially because anyone could reach me anywhere – or follow me. I heard it ringing as I walked away.
I would have to act quickly. Probably I should trash the computer, too. The cost of anonymity is high. I doubted Essie would mind leaving. She likes Vermont too. I’m not sure how she’ll feel about calling her bank to say we’d be using their cards.