Siren Song

            Galen did not think to check the gas gauge when he made his final exit from the parking lot of the Bay View Apartments. He left Ocean View with nothing but the clothes on his back, the cast on his foot, and a three-day supply of painkillers in his shirt pocket.  How convenient, he thought, to have broken his foot and his heart at the same time. That should work out just about right.  After one day, his foot would stop throbbing, and another two should be enough to ease the pain of his heart.

            He pulled into a Shell station outside of Richmond and turned the engine off.  Opening the car door, he swung his legs outside, gingerly, so as not to bump his foot.  He eased his wallet out of his back pocket to check his money and discovered that he had set out on a trip of eight hundred miles with nothing but two dollars in his wallet.  He didn’t even have his credit card; Tina must have taken it.

            Well, then, he would call his parents and ask them to wire him some money.  They were used to it by now.  He got out of the car and hopped to a phone booth.  (He had left the crutches lying in the parking lot of the Bay View Apartments.)  He placed a collect call and listened as the phone rang unanswered.  They probably knew who it was–his calls must have a unique Galen ring by now–and decided not to answer it. They would be sitting at the supper table eating meatloaf and listening to the news from the TV in the living room.  When the phone rang, his father would lay down his fork and raise his finger–wait, don’t answer it, we need to see who it is first.

            Galen hung up the phone and started back to his car.  When he was halfway there, he realized that his bladder hurt almost as much as his foot; he had not been to the bathroom since he was at the hospital waiting to have his foot x-rayed.  He stumbled to the cashier’s office to get the key to the men’s room, but when he reached it and saw a step, he started to cry.  If he stepped up with his right foot, the pain would drop him to the pavement in an instant.  If he stepped up with his left foot, he would lose his balance and fall and break something else.  Yet if he continued to stand there crying helplessly, he would piss his pants and have to sit on the vinyl seat of his car in wet jeans for hours while he tried to figure out how he was going to put gas in the tank with no money.

            A man wearing a faded Shell uniform appeared in the doorway, a cigarette balanced on his lower lip.  “What’s the problem?” he said. “You need to pay for your gas?” He put out his hand.  “Here, I can take it from you.”

Galen shook his head.  “I didn’t buy any gas.”

The man dragged on his cigarette.  “You didn’t? Why not?”

“I don’t have any money.  For God’s sake, I need to use the men’s room!”

“So use it.  The door ain’t locked.” The man disappeared back inside.

Galen stumbled to the men’s room, shoved the door open, and made it to the toilet in time.  As he was washing his hands, he wondered how it would be when he got to Berlin.  He had not been back to New Hampshire since he left home the second time, a year ago.  His parents would not be happy to see him.

He opened the men’s room door and hobbled back to the phone booth to try their number again.  This time a man’s voice answered in French: “Allo, Claude ici,” and Galen dropped the receiver.  His father was answering the phone in French!  Ever since he started high school, his parents had spoken English at home.  For all he knew, they had been speaking in French behind his back all these years.  He grabbed the swinging receiver.  “Dad? Dad?” But his father had hung up. When he tried the number again, it rang unanswered.

He felt the tears welling up again.  He had to get some money.  He didn’t even have enough gas to turn around and go back to Norfolk.  As he pulled the door of the phone booth open, he had a thought:  If he was less than two hours from Norfolk, he could just call Tina and have her bring him his MasterCard.  It was the least she could do, after every­thing.  He dropped his quarter back into the slot for a collect call. She answered it on the second ring, refused to accept the charges, and hung up.  When he tried the number again, he got a busy signal.

As he left the phone booth and headed back to his car, he shuddered, shaking off a cold chill.  A wind had come up suddenly, blowing the cut pieces of his pant leg against his skin.  A Coke can clattered across the blacktop.  He climbed into his car and put the key in the ignition but stopped himself from turning it.  There was no point in getting back on the highway and driving ten or fifteen miles to run out of gas and sit by the side of the road with no plan.

He turned the key, hoping for a spark of inspiration as the engine leaped to life.  The car refused to start, the starter grinding stubbornly.  After more grinding and some whining, the engine finally started, and Galen had his plan.  He would get back on the highway, take the exit to the nearest airport, and abandon the car in the parking lot. Then he would call his parents and keep calling until they couldn’t stand the noise any longer and picked up the phone and bought him a plane ticket.

As the car rolled down the exit from the Shell station, the rain started, crashing onto the windshield in a solid sheet, cascading over the hood, sluicing across the pavement.  Galen coasted to the side of the road.  He could have kept driving, even though he couldn’t see, but the car had stalled, and nothing was going to make it start again until the rain stopped.

He looked out the window.  Sitting in the stalled car, the water only inches from his face, he felt as though he had been pushed into the deep end of a swimming pool, suddenly realizing when he hit the water and it slammed into his nose and forced his eyelids open to confront the blue and green and white choking him that he did not know how to swim.

*                        *                    *

            After graduating from high school, Galen left New Hampshire for the University of Miami to become a marine biologist, like Jacques Cousteau. He had gotten A’s in biology all through school, and, more important, he had grown up speaking French.  He had never seen the sea, but he knew what it would be like: blue and green and shimmering, with brightly-colored creatures swaying and darting in the clear bright water.  As he drove down Route 95 in the suffocating humidity that August, with his clothes and bedding and stereo piled in the back of his car, he could see himself and Jacques together on the bow of Calypso, returning from the open sea triumphant with discovery.

            When he arrived in Miami, the water was as clear and blue and sparkling as he had expected, and each day after his classes were over, he walked on the beach, marveling at the contrast between the ocean stretching before him and the Androscoggin River he had left behind in Berlin. The Androscoggin had once provided passage for logs from Erroll to the paper mills in Berlin and Groveton; it still provided their outlet for waste, the contaminants swirling silently downstream, bisecting the city into East and West Sides.

            After his first few weeks in Miami, he began poking in the sand and the water for marine life he could study as he walked along the beach, but all he ever found were jellyfish, as shapeless and boring as empty plastic bags.  One day, shortly after midterms, he found himself sitting in his BIL 111 class with his notebook open in front of him, his pen in his hand, wondering why he couldn’t make his hand write any of the instructor’s lecture in the notebook.  As he lectured, the instructor, a ‘B. Hayes’, cranked a series of definitions across the overhead projector: amoebocyte, annelid, Arthropoda, Aves, cephalization, Cephalochordata, chordate, clitellum, cnidaria, coelancanth.

            Galen looked around the lecture hall. Most of the students were taking notes at a leisurely pace, a term here, a definition there, their demeanor as casual as their faded tee-shirts and baggy shorts.  Some were asleep.  Others were nearly so, as small tape recorders spun on their desks.

            Galen raised his hand, and when B. Hayes didnt call on him, he stood up. “When do we get to marine biology?”

            The definitions stopped moving, and B. Hayes looked around the hall.  In a voice louder than his lecturing voice, he said, “Who?”

            “We,” Galen said.  “Us.”

            “This class?” B. Hayes said.  “This is General Biology.  You don’t get marine biology in General Biology.”

            “Well, that’s my major, and I want to know when I’m going to start studying it.”

            B. Hayes turned back to the overhead projector and said over his shoulder, “You study marine biology in Introduction to Marine Biology.”

            “But I want to start studying my major now.”

            B. Hayes whirled around, his face above his scrubby beard stained pink.  “You don’t have a major now.  You will have a major only if you pass this class and if you pass chemistry and if the department accepts you to begin with!”

            Galen didn’t say anything as the stain seeped from B. Hayes’ face. Then he bent down and gathered up his notebook and text.  “I’m going to have to think about this,” he said and left the hall.

            He thought about it all through his next class and all through supper and all that night.  He did not go to the beach.

            The next morning he called his parents from the dorm. “Dad,” he said, “I have to come home. I’m strung out on drugs.” He went on to say something about peer pressure.  He loaded his clothes and stereo and bedding into his car and drove back up 95 the way he had come, making it as far as Connecticut before running out of money and calling his parents to wire him some more.

            He met Tina a month later at the Androscoggin County Medical Center, where he had gone with his parents to visit a cousin of some sort, who was recuperating from gall bladder surgery. While his parents settled in to listen to the details of the surgery, Galen headed downstairs to the cafeteria, which was empty except for a bored-looking woman by the cash register and a girl wearing a black sweater drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup.  Galen bought himself a soggy danish and sat down at a small table by the window.

            His future, he thought, did not look good.  He was back in Berlin, living with his parents, rammed up against the bottom of a cliff in their musty old house on the East Side.  He did not have a job, nor any prospects for one.  His father had tried to find him something, but no one was hiring.  Since he had quit without finishing a single course, he could not even qualify as a genuine college dropout.

            He chewed on the danish and looked out the window.  If he had to stay in Berlin much longer, the discharge from the mill would surely eat away his lungs and rot his brain, and he would die. He looked back into the room to see if the girl in the black sweater was still there.  She had pushed her cup to one side and was looking at herself in a small mirror.  She looked into the mirror steadily, without touching herself, as though her face were a museum exhibit, interesting because there was nothing better to look at, but nothing to get excited about.  She snapped the compact shut and stood up, but instead of leaving the room, she picked up her styrofoam cup and sat down across from Galen.  “Hi, Galen.  How about you buying me another cup of coffee?”

            He looked at her.  Up close, she looked about twenty; she was pretty and smelled of cigarettes. He couldn’t place her.  “How about you buying me a cup of coffee?” he said to buy himself some time.

            She smiled.  Her lipstick had worn off, leaving a faint rim of pink around her mouth.  “Sure, Galen, why not.”

            She bought the coffees, carried them to the table, and went back for a handful of creamers and sugar packets.  “You don’t remember me, do you?” she said, stirring sugar into her cup.

            Galen hesitated, reaching for a creamer, then left the coffee black. Blowing on it, he shook his head, rather than tell her no outright.

            “We went to school together.  You graduated last June.” She poured another packet of sugar into her coffee.  “I was a year ahead of you, but I dropped out in the eleventh grade.”

            Galen nodded.  He remembered her now.  In school, her hair had been a different color–blond–and longer.  The talk around school was that she had become pregnant and dropped out to marry the father, a logger from Groveton.  Galen looked at her ring finger, which was bare, but he knew he couldn’t always go by that.  “We didn’t have any classes together.”

“No,” she said.  “I heard you were going to college in Florida. You’re not going back?”

“I don’t think so.  It wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

She said “oh” and drank some more of her coffee. When she was finished, she set the cup down and said, “What are you here for?”

Without thinking, Galen said, “Because I had nowhere else to go.”

Tina laughed and ran her fingers through her hair.  “No, why are you here, at the hospital?”

Galen smiled and shrugged.  “Like I said, I had nowhere else to go.  I hang out at the hospital all the time.  It’s clean, and nobody bothers you.”

Tina made a face.  “No, really.”

“I’m here with my folks, what else? My aunt or something just had an operation.”

Tina lit a cigarette.  “I can’t stand that. You know, I have this sister-in-law who carries hospital bracelets in her pocketbook. And she takes them out and describes what her problem was for each one of them. She’s got ’em in there for her kids, too.  It’s disgusting.  I have no patience with people like that.”

The bored-looking woman by the cash register walked up just then and told Tina to put the cigarette out.  Tina stood up.  “I was just leaving.” She opened her purse and scribbled on a scrap of paper. “Here’s my phone number.  Call me sometime.”

They dated for two weeks, going out for pizza, to the movies downtown, for long drives in his car, and once to a dance at the high school.  Sometimes, after they had made love in the back of his car, he wanted to ask her what had happened to her baby. And what about the logger from Groveton? But then she would huddle against him for warmth and he would remember that she couldn’t be more than nineteen, the baby and the logger only a high school rumor.

One night, she told him that she was leaving town.  “I’m tired of Berlin.  There’s nothing to do, it’s cold, and it stinks.”

He started the engine.  “It won’t stay cold forever. It’ll be spring in a couple of months.”

“That’s not the point.” She hooked her bra, pushing his hand away when he tried to help her.  “I have a friend who married a sailor and moved to Virginia, and she says she can get me a job waiting tables.” She tucked in her shirt and smoothed her sweater.  “My friend says the beaches are great down there.”

Galen pulled on his coat.  “Where in Virginia?”

“Norfolk.  I’m going to stay with her until I find my own place. Her husband’s on a cruise.”

He thought a minute.  The Cousteau Society had its headquarters in Norfolk.  He had sent away for one of their brochures when he was in junior high.  The brochure had pictures of Calypso in it.  He fumbled for Tina’s hand, trying to see her face in the darkened car.  “I’ll come with you.”

She leaned forward and opened the glove compartment.  “Why?”

“I think it would be good for me.  You know, I’ve always wanted to live by the ocean.” The shores of Virginia would be covered with plant life, the waters filled with creatures, the horizon without limit.

“You have,” Tina said.

“Yes.” The darkness of the road where they were parked wouldn’t allow him to read the expression on her face.  “We can get married if you want.”

She put his comb back into the glove compartment. “You must want to get out of here pretty bad.”

After two months with the friend, a sluttish-looking girl, Galen thought, although he didn’t say anything to Tina, they were able to save enough money from Tina’s job to rent a small apartment in East Ocean View, not ten miles from downtown Norfolk.  Galen found a job close by short-order cooking at a bar.  There wasn’t much to it, flipping hot dogs and hamburgers mostly, lugging beer from the storeroom, and cleaning up after closing.

One afternoon in late September, Galen left Tina asleep in the apartment and walked to the bar by way of the beach.  The sun was as hot as in summer and the water as blue and bright.  The beach was deserted, and as he walked, he thought about Calypso.  He still had not been to see it, but every time he walked along the beach, he could imagine it, gleaming white on the blue bright water.

He reached the bar after fifteen minutes, hopping over the metal railing that ran along the beach and emptying the sand from his sneakers before going inside.  He got himself a Coke from behind the bar and sat on a stool to give his eyes a chance to adjust to the dim light.

As he was finishing his Coke, he saw Marty heading toward him with a clipboard in his hand.  “You ’bout ready to get started?” Marty tapped the clipboard with his index finger, the nail split and discolored, like a worn hoof.

“Sure, Marty.” Galen turned around and tucked his Coke can into a trash bin under the bar.  “What do you need me to do?”

“The first thing is change the Miller keg.  Then I need some cases of beer moved.  Let me know when you’re done with the keg, and I’ll show you which ones.”

Galen unhooked the empty keg and carried it back to the storeroom. He bent down for the full one, hefted it to his shoulder, and dropped it on his foot.  As soon as the first waves of pain smashed into his brain, he knew the foot was broken.  He screamed, which eased the pain some, but brought Marty running.  “What did you do?” Marty said, the clipboard still clutched in his hand. “What did you do?”

“I dropped the damn keg on my foot,” Galen said. He gestured to where the keg had rolled.

Marty tapped the clipboard with his miniature hoof.  “You gonna be all right then?”

Galen shook his head.  “It’s broken.”

“Well, shit,” Marty said.  “Shit.  All right, I’ll call Tina and have her drive you to the hospital for an x-ray, if you think it’s broken.”

“I know it’s broken,” Galen said.  He reached out for Marty’s shoulder.  “Can you help me to a stool before you call? If I don’t sit down, I’m gonna pass out.”

Galen waited on a stool at the bar while Marty called, watching Marty’s face as the phone rang unanswered.  “I thought she had Wednesdays off,” Marty said, still holding the receiver to his ear.

“She does,” Galen said.  “She must have gone out.” He laid his head on the bar.

After a few minutes, Marty lifted him off the stool and propped him up.  “Ronny here says he’ll take you to the hospital, if you help him find it.  I gave him directions, but he don’t know the area too good.”

The sailor, around whose shoulder Galen’s arm was draped, said, “I don’t have nothing better to do tonight. You ready?”

Galen nodded, and Ronny helped him out the door and into his car, a large green Pontiac parked close to the curb.  The engine started with a thud, and Ronny pulled out into traffic.  “I got this baby from Charlie Falk Auto,” he said, turning to Galen and grinning.  “You know: Buy today, ride today!”

“I know,” Galen said. He wished Marty had found someone older to drive him to the hospital.  As Ronny sailed down Ocean View Avenue, changing from lane to lane and back again, Galen almost told him to stop at the Bay View Apartments, but then stopped himself.  If Tina wasn’t home, there would be no one any more competent than Ronny was to help him. At least Ronny seemed willing.

Ronny turned left and seemed to know where he was going until he reached a stoplight outside of the naval base.  “I have to look for Granby Street now, right?” he said.

“I don’t know,” Galen said.  “I’ve never been downtown.”

“Me either, but that’s what Marty said.” Ronny maneuvered the car onto the entrance ramp and continued talking. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you there.  It can’t be that far, right? You in a lot of pain?”

“Yes.” Galen had discovered that if he closed his eyes, the pain wasn’t quite as bad.  He hoped Ronny wouldn’t ask him any more questions.

“You want a cigarette?” Ronny said.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Too bad. A cigarette helps at a time like this.  Takes your mind off it, you know.”

As Ronny drove him to the hospital, Galen wondered if they were anywhere near the Cousteau Society’s headquarters and if he was missing the one opportunity he would ever have to see Calypso.  But he didn’t dare open his eyes.

The car stopped abruptly.  “We’re here,” Ronny said.  “This is the emergency room.  See the sign?”

Inside, they sat on plastic chairs and waited for a doctor.  “You want me to call your wife?” Ronny said.  “Marty says her name’s Tina? What’s the number?”

After a few minutes, Ronny came back from the phone.  “No answer.” He sat back down next to Galen.  “You ought to get yourself an answering machine.  You know, for times like this.”

Galen grimaced.  “I don’t plan on having any more times like this.”

“Well, no, but if you’re in a dangerous occupation, you gotta expect ’em.  Look at this.” Ronny held out his hand.  “Hatch cover slammed down on it during a storm.  Ten stitches.” The scar looked recent, a ragged purple welt. 

“That happened at sea?” Galen said.

“Yeah,” Ronny said.  “You wouldn’t believe how rough it can get.”

“Do you like being in the Navy?” Galen said.  “Do you like being at sea?”

Ronny compressed his lips and nodded his head, considering.  “It pretty much sucks, but it’s all right.”

A nurse came for Galen just then, but he didn’t think Ronny would have been able to tell him what he wanted to know anyway.  The nurse helped him onto a table and untied his sneaker.  “We’re going to have to cut your pants.” She took him to X-Ray in a wheelchair, and a doctor came in after that and gave him a shot. He felt warm and comfortable as the doctor worked on his foot, setting it in a cast.  He felt warm and comfortable and content.  Everything was going to be all right.  Ronny was waiting to drive him home, and Tina would be there to take care of him.

When Ronny pulled up in front of the Bay View Apartments, Galen was relieved to see his car parked in its assigned space.  “My wife’s home,” he said.

“Do you want me to go get her?” Ronny said as he helped Galen out of the car and stood him on his feet.

Galen shook his head.  “No, just help me to the door.”  He gestured toward the building.  “I’m on the first floor.”

Ronny propped the crutches under Galen’s arms and stuffed the hospital’s instruction sheet for the care of his foot into the back pocket of his jeans.  “You gonna be all right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Galen paused with his hand on the doorknob. “Thanks a lot for everything.  I owe you one.”

“No, you don’t,” Ronny said, walking back around his car and opening the door.  “I told you I didn’t have nothing better to do tonight.”

Galen pushed the apartment door open and maneuvered himself inside. The apartment was quiet.  Tina wasn’t on the couch in the living room, nor was she in the kitchen.  He didn’t want to call out; he didn’t know how his voice would sound.  He got the crutches positioned under his arms again and walked across the living room to the closed door of the bedroom.  He turned the knob and pushed it open.

The bed was unmade.  The air conditioning unit was humming and rattling above the headboard of the bed.  Tina was in bed with another man.

Galen closed the door on her cry.  On the whispered instructions, the untangling of the sheets, the fumbling for clothes, on her desperate bare feet across the tile floor.

He went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, supporting himself with his arm on the door, the coolness at his face.  While the front door slammed and the car engine started up and the tires spun softly, briefly on the loose sand, he remained at the refrigerator.

Tina was beside him, on the other side of the refrigerator door. Clothed and crying, hair disheveled, mouth smudged and working, explaining, her shoulders bare in a tank top.  Oh, baby, it means nothing.  Nothing, baby, nothing.

Galen stood up straight and reached around the refrigerator to where he’d leaned his crutches.  He got himself steady on his feet.  “I broke my foot, and I’m leaving.”

He turned on the crutches, holding his foot safely off the floor. Tina stepped in front of him.  Don’t go, can we talk about it, please, you can’t just leave without talking about it.

Galen said nothing, motioning her out of his way with his crutch. She didn’t move, still crying, still explaining. Galen balanced himself on one crutch and pulled back his fist–the first, and, he knew in that instant–the last time he would ever have to threaten a woman.  Tina hopped to one side and followed him out the door.  Pulling his keys out of his jeans pocket, he yanked open the door of his car, got himself in the driver’s seat, both doors locked, and the engine started.  The crutches he left splayed on the ground by Tina’s feet.

*                      *                      *

The rain had stopped.  Galen could see the traffic rushing ahead of him down on the highway, tractor-trailers and big Cadillacs and family vans shaped like space ships.  Route 95 could take him all the way to Massachusetts, and from there Route 93 would get him through the White Mountains to Berlin.

Reaching into his shirt pocket, he shook one of the painkillers from the vial, popped it into his mouth, and swallowed hard, forcing it down on the third swallow.  He started the car after a few preliminary grinds and backed up the exit ramp to the Shell station.  The attendant was standing in the doorway with a you-again expression on his face. Galen leaned over and rolled down the passenger side window.  “I’ll give you a dollar for a plastic garbage bag.” He reached into his wallet and pulled out a dollar bill, waving it out the open window.

“A garbage bag,” the attendant said, dragging on the cigarette that was still balanced on his lip.

“A garbage bag!” Galen shouted.  “I’ll give you a dollar for it!”

The attendant disappeared into the station without saying anything and reappeared with a green plastic bag in his hand. He poked it through the car window and took the dollar bill.         “Thanks!” Galen said and gunned the engine.

He pulled back onto the highway.  After about ten miles, the car sputtered and stalled, and Galen coasted to the side of the road.  He pulled the garbage bag over his cast, knotting it tightly around his thigh.  He got out of the car and stood on the shoulder of the highway, facing traffic. He put out his thumb.  His parents would not be happy to see him.

Elizabeth Gauffreau holds a BA in English/Writing from Old Dominion University and an MA in English/Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire. She is the Assistant Dean of Curriculum and Assessment for Champlain College Online in Burlington, Vermont. She has published fiction and poetry in Sunspot Literary Journal, Foliate Oak, Serving House Journal, Soundings East, Hospital Drive, Blueline, Evening Street Review, and Adelaide Literary Review, among others, as well as several themed anthologies. Her debut novel Telling Sonny was released by Adelaide Books in 2018. Learn more about her work at http://lizgauffreau.com.

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