Bijou Hair Design sits on the sunny side of the street, the only shop with clear glass panes that reach higher than they need to, leaving furnace ducts and water pipes exposed in the ceiling. Brynn takes a long drag on her cigarette. Hot smoke burns the back of her throat. Today is the last day; ten years finished at age twenty-eight. She does not remember what it is like not to be a smoker.
Sundays are unpredictable. She props the door open with a rock jammed under the bottom like it’s an accident, some gravel kicked in by a careless shoe. Sunshine touches on her arm, warming a large deep blue tattoo, one of many that she has grown accustomed to over time, although they feel as though they belong to someone else.
Video: close up of a man’s scalp Audio: Snip, snip, snip. Heavy sharp steel scissor blades hiss against each other
Time becomes a slow-motion splash, swirled in a glass full of ice cubes. Sullen sunshine weights their limbs. His hair wisps on the floor, orderly and compact. Audio: The chair pump, footsteps, an electric razor. Brynn clears her throat. Men are like oranges to her; thick skinned with dimples or smooth and bursting.
Her: Would you like a glass of water?
Him: Thank you, no.
They become a photograph. Soundtrack is the cash register, a passing car. "My name is Dean." His voice has authority. A muffled handshake, bracelets jingle, her hand bumps against the counter.
"I'm Brynn." He wears dark jeans, a plain dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, rectangular blue watch face with a grey steel strap, and euro street shoes that are neither sneakers nor a version of American bowling sneakers. There is something tightly coiled about him.
Brynn turns over the Closed sign on the door. Two months lie ahead of her, empty of appointments. Her friends believe she is leaving for Cairo: four think she’s flirting with a false idea of herself, three wish they had the guts. The truth is she isn’t going anywhere. She set up a campsite on a secluded part of the railroad tracks along the lake, where pine trees catch still winds and drop needles to muffle the noise of time passing. She leaves a key on the sill inside for the window washer to water her plants and open the doors every week. He works early, when no one will complain about his ladders, how precarious they are on a public sidewalk.
“Celeste.” Brynn holds the phone with her shoulder. Dean’s hair is swept up, the cash box empty. “I think he’s a cop.”
“Wait, my child.” Brynn listens to her friend twist high heels onto her bare feet.
"He could use a skin moisturizer.”
“I assume we’re talking about a client, but you haven’t mentioned his hair.”
“Perfect – short, with some wave, dark brown, a few grey hairs. Old school masculine.”
Celeste lives in a trailer and wears high heels and scarves. She runs an online cosmetics company dedicated to well-being. She does well because what involves women most is their appearance; they are vain and complex. “Listen, if he has a dark past it will come to haunt you.”
Brynn considers the hour of day. “Have you been drinking?”
“May I come over?”
“I’m just on my way out.” The screen door on the trailer slams shut. “You’re sad. Let’s go for tacos.”
“I’m in Cairo.”
“Right.” The deep rumble of an engine comes over the line.
“Don’t drive and talk. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Brynn flips the landline to direct answer. A taxi pulls up outside her brick building apartment. She lives on the top floor, all of it, with a rooftop balcony, bought before it was recognized as valuable and when her father was alive to co-sign the mortgage. A strong, stern looking man wearing a suit that wouldn’t be out of place in the Salvation Army hoists her bags into the trunk. Brynn guesses east European, a youthful 73, hardened by his own culture and the lack of tradition he has found here. She sits in the front. They turn onto the highway and in seconds he accelerates to 120km. The car is powerful. At 140 km she wonders if he maintains the brakes; accident scenes flash through her mind and she has difficulty concentrating on the conversation. His son’s wife left him and now he babysits the kids. He drives taxi at night to get out of the house and because he doesn’t sleep well.
Soundtrack: Fire crackles, sparks. Muted steps, dragging. Branches snapped. Restless sounds of one person settling in for the night.
In a cop’s career the wall hits a few times, crimes that cannot be solved. Some of them linger, a vague conviction, a wisdom tooth that resurfaces long after it’s been extracted. Caucasian woman, 45, disappears from work, home, spouse and children; potentially abducted, potentially criminal, certainly attached to something lethal. In the underground parkade, leaves are caught under the wipers of his car on four consecutive days. He lives in urban Chicago. The wind is strong but it cannot accomplish the impossible. A bucket of sand turns up outside the police department. He begins to notice trains in the reflection of brick buildings, he is drawn to the library and the quiet smell of disturbed books, ideas rolling along the aisles at floor level, mutely excited, charging particles of dust with electricity. When he was a child, Archie comics meant summer. Using rocks as flints to ignite caps and firecrackers, grasshoppers that lived in jars, the aroma of peaches in the air. His sister tried to join their road hockey games in the trailer park. Finally, they tied her to a clothesline. She could easily have escaped. He made sure.
Celeste applies eye shadow. The mirror is an elliptical shape to widen the eyelid. Gold suits her because she wears it with confidence. Slightly metallic earth tones can be flattering to a woman of her age. She rearranges the scarf floating around her neck and lights a cigarette inside the bathroom stall. Secretly, women love smoking because it reminds them of something else – men perhaps. The dizziness is good. Fat free, hedonistic, politically unattractive and yet… what man doesn’t want to lean in closer.
“Celeste. You didn’t flush.” Brynn looks at the cigarette in the toilet bowl. The paper is unbleached. “How do people believe that they can order wellness on line?”
“With PayPal; it’s the world we live in. People haven’t changed.”
Soundtrack: wind. Dean checks into the Super 8 Motel. It’s a step down from the Holiday Inn, but more appropriate. He is 42 years old, unmarried, Canadian. The way he usually spends his time off is on his motorcycle, racing through geography, at one with the asphalt. At speed he achieves something like peace: the absence of distance and ambition. What happens when life hits a flat line depends on the person. It’s been three years since his last trip to Canada. The bagel drops from the four slice wide-mouth toaster in the breakfast room, perfectly motel grilled. He opens a plastic tub of white cream cheese and spreads its entire contents on one side, then opens a second tub for the other half. Three things haunt him: a murder, a false accusation and his parents’ concern.
In high school, he played trumpet and basketball. On weekends, he played hockey and practiced his shot late at night, in the dark of an outdoor rink, until he could shoot without looking or seeing the open space. Dean gets out of the rental car. He is nowhere in particular.
In the trunk is his hockey stick, which could be mistaken for a weapon, but is actually one of his methods for controlling anger and feeling something, anything at all. The stick is aluminum. He plays beer league twice a week in Chicago. In the city, it’s possible to find himself playing with ex-professionals; they have the same moves they had on television, but faster. He has the advantage of being a cop, trained to watch for things they are unaware of and cannot control. His style has nothing to do with finessing fresh tape, a rock or a tennis ball. He plays for twenty minutes in the middle of the highway, stickhandling the centre line. He should have left his sister tied to the clothesline. It would have been safer for everyone.
Dean’s parents are Trevor and Marge. Marge does yoga and lives on smoothies and cigarettes. Trevor is an ace skier, drinks rum and coke and makes a mean pulled pork BBQ for Marge’s book club because no one in his family eats pork, including Trevor. He lives on salad and Thai chicken. Both of Dean’s parents are unhappy about eating cold food and his not living in Canada, although the water does freeze in Chicago. The last time they heard from his sister was ten months ago. She sent them a large amount of cash in an envelope postmarked from Spain. American dollars, which Marge interpreted as an invitation for them to travel, Trevor saw as an attempt to avoid taxes on a shady divorce; neither one wanted to spend the money. They put it in a drawer for Dean to examine, whenever he arrived. What he’d like to do is sit his sister in a chair and see if she can come up with an answer to this question: If you are still alive, who was killed?
"So, in Cairo, I am imagining lots of white linen, feeling dusty and romantic and there will be lots of noise.” Celeste sets her coffee cup down and they exit onto the street. Brynn has tied a scarf over her head which strikes her as ridiculous yet sets off a cold thrill that begins on her cheeks and flushes through her body in a not exactly pleasant way. She is not used to feeling uncomfortable in her body. “Am I wrong?” At times Celeste appears her age. Fatigue swells under her eyes and darkens the corners against her nose. This is not unattractive. In truth, she is even more striking. Brynn takes her elbow and tucks herself against her friend’s height, just slightly taller than herself and more willowy, a suppleness that she suspects has to do with maturity. “What now, am I romanticizing?”
“You know that I have never been to Egypt, never mind Cairo. It reminds me of that book, about the English patient. I can’t stand that idea.”
Brynn spends a few minutes trying to decipher what idea Celeste means; the novel is about an impossible affair, ownership, winds and living overseas. Celeste never married. It’s difficult to imagine why. She is unusually secretive about her love life, past and present. "The idea you can’t stand is ownership?” Byrnn can only grasp half of the idea, at most.
“No, obsessing over a woman. We’re just not that exotic.” When Celeste gets into her car and the engine turns over, she becomes a cat, powerful, stealthy, freed. They pull out of town along the back roads and hit the state highway at 80 mph. “Women are not meant to hold such power; we can’t live up to it. We know that we are mortally flawed.”
70mph. If she rolled down the window, the air could not get in. Celeste’s lavender blue Jaguar XJ6 Series 1 is the kind of aging woman she will be. Luxurious, lithe, confident. Age may give her wrinkles and sagging flesh, but it will not dial down her radiant wellness. Heat from the engine distorts the air as they hurtle forward. 85 degrees is hot, dry. Sage heats up and throws its pungent new growth toward the highway. Brynn would like to ask Celeste to slow down, but it’s not appropriate. She knows better than to put her bare feet on the dash of someone in their glory.“It’s kind of pretentious if you want to know the truth.”
“I don’t care." Brynn wiggles her toes, free inside flip-flops. It's part of her disguise. "What’s that children’s story, I think it’s by Maurice Sendak. ‘I don’t care, said Pierre. And so the lion ate Pierre.’”
“Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters with a Prologue.”
“How do you know that?” Unconsciously, Celeste eases her foot off the gas pedal as she turns her attention toward Brynn. Her hands slide to the bottom of the steering wheel. “Because it's a great title.”
“There’s a moral at the end.”
“Yes; don’t give advice to your friends when they do not want to listen.”
“Before I forget, I have a night cream for you. While you’re camping.”
“The things we worry about the most have the least meaning in the end because they are the things that we cannot control…Do you know what I mean?”
A male voice comes through the speaker of Celeste’s cell phone, set into the hands-free device that was a gift from Brynn, to extend her friend's safe driving life. “Hey, baby.” Brynn switches to her inner hairstylist, the person who can ignore semi-private conversations.
After she finishes her conversation, Celeste adjusts the collection of bead and leather bracelets on her left wrist. Her large silver rings click against the slim, contoured steering wheel. The speedometer creeps up. When she leans sideways, Brynn firmly takes her friend’s wrist and pushes it away from the glove compartment where there is a bottle of gin that neither of them has spoken about. “Do you still park in rest stops on your road trips?” They whir past a pond, fresh in the middle with new growth. Thirsty, dust-laden grasses surround it, flattened by winter.
“Average people are the only ones who stop there; they are by far the safest places to be.”
“I never thought I’d hear you say the words average and safe in the same sentence.”
“Context, my dear. Life is all about context.”
They drive in silence. Brynn cracks her window open to let in the smell of outside. The roar is comforting.
Dean sees the highway as a long tongue of asphalt, Countless escapes have taken place on its straight stretches: businessmen with drugs in the trunk; ex-wives with legal documents; young men afraid of what they feel; girls who don’t want to grow up. Now he rides amongst them, never more insecure or afraid. The past and future collide in his chest and he can’t hear anything.
Beth is his older sister by three minutes. Since the womb she has sucked life from his lips, taking more than her share and yet keeping him alive. Where she thrived, he grew. Where she came into the world first, she stayed there and blocked the light. “There isn’t room for two full moons,” she once told him. “We throw people off balance.” It was a warning to stay out of her way or she would crush him. He puts the hockey stick back in the trunk. Narrow aluminum feels good in his hands, a swift and deadly baton with a wicked flex.
-- to be continued--