It was a gesture of good will for the boy to eat his sandwich. So, that was a start. He was looking at the space between the two crusts like the sandwich itself had a mouth that was about to start eating off his face. The boy was like that. He saw things that weren’t there. He heard voices. He was never honest with me about the voices, but I know he heard them because when he heard them, I heard them. Like we were driving once, down the crooked highway and, I swear, I heard the boy start muttering syllables that didn’t have any relation to the music on the stereo and couldn’t have been directed towards me. He was looking dead ahead with his eyes wide, just muttering these strange syllables. Maybe he was talking to himself, I don’t know, but either way, talking to yourself is a strange thing too, isn’t it?
But, like I was saying, the boy hadn’t eaten anything for two days, and I pulled over to a diner by the side of the road. I had tears in my eyes when I said to him, boy, you have got to eat. I was on the verge of breaking down and he just looked at me and blinked, and I said, ok, we’re going to go inside and I’m going to order you a sandwich and you’re going to eat it, and he just kept blinking, but he ate the sandwich I ordered for him, so that was a start.
That boy could make you break down in tears. He was just inscrutable. It was like traveling with a little spaceman in the passenger seat. The boy never liked me; he held my job against me. I explained to him that it wasn’t my fault. He looked out the window and blinked.
His mother was a beautiful woman, a tall redhead with green eyes. She had her son when she was just eighteen years old. When I met her, she’d just tried to kill herself. So had I. I’d used a razor blade. She’d used pills. She told me all about her son. A beautiful boy, she said. She said the father was a son of a bitch, and I believed her. She said he’d tried to get her addicted to codeine. She said her parents were evil, and I believed that too. She said they were like tyrants, maybe they had her best interests in mind, but what that meant to them was that she should go through life without ever knowing the world – but it was too late for that anyhow, she laughed. She’d seen the face of the world; she knew it wore many masks. She ran away from home when she was fifteen. Her parents sent a detective after her. That was the first time she ever went in the hospital. In another story, I might have been the one to follow her on the road. She would’ve made a fine adversary, with her red hair and green eyes. She was twenty-five when I knew her. She and I slept together once in the ward. It was against the rules, but we did it all the same. She was a beautiful woman, and you have to take chances with a woman like that.
We sat together at mealtimes, and she told me stories about her son. Proud times, things he’d done well at school, art projects. He’d made her a necklace out of macaroni, wasn’t that clever? There was another man in the ward who’d been in adult films. He sat by us sometimes and told us stories from the sets, but they weren’t as interesting as you might imagine.
They let us both out of the hospital the same week. They let me out first. I’d given her my phone number and a week later, she called me. She wanted to meet, so we got coffee in a cafe. They’ve taken my boy, she said. She was hysterical. Her parents, she said, it was her parents. They’d taken her boy and gone to Arizona with him. He’s my son, she said, my son, not theirs.
I told her I would go pick up her son for a hundred dollars, plus gas money for the drive to Arizona. When I got to the house, her son was there riding a bicycle in the cul-de-sac. I presented her parents with an order from the court that the boy be released back to his mother and I introduced myself as a detective. They hated me from the start, but they invited me in and asked if I wanted something to drink. I asked for ginger ale. No alcohol, I said, I have a long drive in front of me.
I took the boy and put him in the passenger seat. He didn’t want to leave his grandparents even though I told him he was going home -home to see his mother. He shouted and kicked, but I got him into the passenger seat. I don’t think his grandparents were very sorry to see him go. They didn’t act like people act when they’re upset.
It was on the third day of the drive when I took us to see a movie. I couldn’t stand it anymore, the silence, the muttering, the blinking. The movie didn’t make much sense, it was something about a rock star who’s angry with his producer about how the record’s turned out. The producer is a big sleazy guy, addicted to cocaine, and there are some gangsters lurking in his office. The rock star tells the producer he won’t cut another track for him, and a couple of the goons go over and trash his place, steal his motorcycle. The rest of the movie follows the rock star as he seeks retribution for his lost bike. The bike turns out to be parked up on the roof of the record label, and in a bizarre final scene, the rock star drives the bike off the roof like Evel Knievel and lands in the road and drives away into the desert.
It was about as good as most of the movies I saw in those days. After it was over, I took the boy to get some more food, and he ate his hamburger all the way down. The boy was like a crime scene, you could look at him without ever seeing past the flashing lights, you could never see all the cracks through which something could slip. I paid our bill in the restaurant and we got in the car and drove the rest of the way back to his mother.
She called me a few times after that, we saw some movies together, slept together a couple more times, but nothing too serious. Eventually she stopped calling altogether. It’s all right. She was a beautiful woman, but her son scared me, and I don’t know if you should take chances with a boy like that, even when a woman like that is involved. I think someday maybe when her son is grown up, he’ll remember traveling with a man, he’ll remember driving for days and nights and sleeping in motels, but he won’t remember who that man was, or what his face looked like. And neither will I.
Ian Sanquist lives and writes in Seattle. His work can be found in Juked, Word Riot, decomP, and kill author. Visit him at morepostexistentialistbullshit.blogspot.com.