He was looking at the schematic designs and the pain in his stomach was worsening. The house that the Shorelands wanted to tear down to make room for their monstrosity was a lovely old red brick thing from the 1950s, one comfortable story only, low to the ground, with lots of space in front for a bright green lawn of St. Augustine grass and in back for a capacious yard with orange trees and a garden of buttercups, marigolds and lantanas. Seen from the street, it fit in neatly with the yellow brick ranch house to the east of it, and with a modest 1960s Mediterranean style cottage, also with a broad lawn, on the west. The new Shoreland home would easily overwhelm its neighbors. It was to be three stories high, stone with a terra cotta roof, visible from a block away and entirely wrong for its surroundings. Zoning wouldn’t let the Shorelands obliterate the front lawn, but in the back the intention was to cut down the fruit trees, eliminate the garden, and extend the monster’s rear parts virtually up to the row of hedges marking the property line. The point, Tanner knew, was to rule, domineer, proclaim supremacy far and near, and though he’d designed a dozen mansions over his years with the firm, he found this one particularly oppressive. What about harmony? What about scale? The block they were building on was so modest, so pleasant and human, why disfigure it with a garish colossus? So when Nancy Shoreland, wanting to get things rolling, had called him in the early afternoon, he’d put her off, said he needed another day to make some small changes. But what he really wanted was to say, “I won’t do it. I won’t commit this outrage. You’ll have to find some other dupe.” The only problem was that he didn’t dare. Not with Ken Urdang breathing down his neck.
His wife stepped into the study. “Would you do me a favor?” she said.
“Sure,” he said, happy about the interruption. Caitlyn looked tired. Lovely, though: her copper-colored hair had been recently cut to just above her shoulders, and she was wearing an Alicia Keyes tee-shirt and gray sweatpants. Shielding her blue eyes were the pink, oversized glasses that she used for reading. The slight downturn of her lips suggested seriousness of purpose.
“I’m just barely going to make the midnight deadline on grades,” she said. “And we’re out of half-and-half. I’d go if I could spare the extra minutes but I can’t. Would you mind picking some up for me? I really need my coffee.”
“Not a problem,” he said and stood up from his desk. “How are the essays going?”
“Some of my students should never have graduated high school,” she said. “Their sense of procedure is good enough, but their English is abominable. One of them said that DNA testing is a good way to match blood samples with ‘virtuous’ suspects. That’s the word he used, ‘virtuous.’ As if you have to be some sort of moral paragon before anyone’ll test you.”
“Maybe he knows something,” said Tanner. “Maybe only the best people have criminal genes.”
“I’ve got another few hours still to go. Please get me the half-and-half. And be quiet on the way out: Ginna’s sleeping.”
“Getting right on it,” he said. As he passed her, she pecked him on the cheek in thanks. Then she watched him all the way to the door.
Outside, it was drizzling. Even in the early evening, the sky was an unbroken dome of white and there was a heaviness in the air that was more oppressive than the rain. He opened the door to his black Lexus remotely, then slipped in and turned on the ignition. Pulling out of the driveway, he felt glad to be relieved of the Shoreland design and the mockery it made of his artistic principles. He put on his wipers at their lowest speed, wended his way through the obstacle course of parked cars on the street and turned right onto Gower Boulevard. The store was a minute away.
As he headed up the street, it occurred to him: he didn’t have to come back.
It would be simple enough. Instead of stopping at the convenience store he could drive all the way to Interstate 275, head north till it merged with I-75 and then just break loose, cut and run, anywhere. Out of Florida up to Georgia, only stopping to refuel, getting a hotel near Atlanta, then continuing on the next morning to the Carolinas and Virginia. He’d always wanted to see Monticello, along with the buildings at the University of Virginia. that Thomas Jefferson had designed. Wouldn’t it be invigorating to tour them unencumbered by family? He could write Caitlyn from Charlottesville: I have no failings to accuse you of, you’ve played your part beautifully, but a man with my needs can’t be shackled to anyone. From Virginia he’d head west: visit his old college roommate Chuck Kantor in Cleveland, then continue gloriously alone through Illinois into Wisconsin. One of his former girlfriends lived with her family in Kenosha; he’d stop to see her, shake hands with her husband, explain that he was a newly-liberated man basking in his possibilities. Then west again to the sparser, wide open states: what was Iowa like? Montana? He had a couple of hundred in cash in his wallet and enough money on his bankcard to keep him going for weeks; then there were all of his credit cards. Before the funds ran out he could choose – Idaho? Wyoming? – rent a room, find a job at a coffee shop, let his beard grow, buy a cheap guitar, play all night under a thousand stars. And the Shorelands – he could call them from Grand Teton or Yellowstone, tell them what they could do with their ugly behemoth. Of course, the partners would be livid. Hey, they’d murder him if they ever saw him again. But they wouldn’t ever see him again.. In a few moments he’d come to the corner on which the convenience store waited. All he had to do was hit the gas and not the brake….
He saw the store up on the left. He waited for a few cars to pass, then made the turn and pulled in past the gas tanks to a parking space. There was only one other car besides his, a blue Camry maybe ten years old. The rain came down harder. Wishing he’d thought to bring an umbrella, Tanner threw his door open, skipped to the dry space under the canopy, and hurried through the doorway. Inside, the fluorescent lights were dazzling, but for next to no one. Behind the counter stood a brunette woman, maybe in her mid-30s, hard-faced and bored-looking, and beyond her there was a bald man, clearly overweight even from the back, surveying the beer locker. Tanner smiled at the cashier – she was dressed in a crisp orange apron with the name “Handy’s” printed on it – and she smiled back, her leathery features softening for a moment. Then he headed for the refrigerated dairy case at the far end of the store, past the stacks of two-liter Cokes and the shelves of aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen. Among cartons of milk – whole, skim, reduced fat – he found the one remaining quart of half-and-half, grabbed it and headed back to the front of the store. “Hi,” he said to the brunette, who looked lonely now, and troubled. “Just this.” He put the carton down between them. “Cash or charge?” she said, absently.
And he thought: they could run away together.
She was slim, sinuous, toned: even in her apron that was easy to see. And standing close he could make out the benevolence in her eyes, not the lofty disapproval Caitlyn wore so often these days, not the tight-lipped glare that told him he’d failed once again. This lovely, misunderstood, complaisant brunette: he’d say, “Look, you deserve better than a minimum-wage job dealing cigarettes to minors, your life should be luminous, your prospects glittering. Leave this dungeon behind: we’ll go get dinner, down some drinks, share reminiscences of the lives we’re putting far behind us, then we’ll go to the best hotel in downtown Tampa, choose a penthouse room and make love all evening. Make love, not just have sex: I’ve been married nine years and I miss the fervor, the electricity, the unpredictability of real lovemaking. I’ve got some money: we can leave the country if you like, go to the Grenadines, St. Vincent or Bequia. We’ll agree to stay together just as long as the intoxication lasts – the minute it fades, we’ll say goodbye and move on to other adventures. The wonder of new love, that’s what we’ll live for, both of us know there’s nothing better. Maybe you’ve been married also (she was wearing no ring). In which case, you can easily guess what’s coming tomorrow: more of the same. Why accept it? Why accept less than everything in your only life? The spiritual liquor, the elixir, let’s live for it even if it means changing partners a dozen times. Because the fact is, I’m crazy about you, I’ve looked into your wounded, discouraged eyes and I want to be the one who restores their light. Say the word and we begin our pilgrimage.”
She glanced over at the bald man still perusing the beers. “Three ninety-nine,” she said in a monotone. He reached into his pocket, withdrew his wallet and then his debit card. When she handed him the bagged carton, she said, “Drive careful in the rain.”
“I will,” he said. “Thanks for mentioning it.” He pulled open the glass door and walked out to his car. It was raining harder and he had trouble finding the key in his pocket. When he did, he could feel the water under his collar.
The drive home was lugubrious. It struck him that he’d imagined abandoning not just Caitlyn but Ginna too, and he rebuked himself for not thinking about his daughter and her needs. He himself came from divorced parents and had always felt resentment that his father had left his sister and him alone with their bipolar mother. Not that the old guy hadn’t apologized several times since the terrible break. But when you’re only a few years old and your father skips out on you, how not to blame yourself for not being important enough to keep him? No, it was best that he hadn’t run away with the cashier, for Ginna’s sake if not Caitlyn’s. As for Caitlyn…well, overly familiar or not, she seemed honestly to love him. And the fact was, there were still moments – not seldom, if he was honest – where it thrilled him to be with her, where he marveled that a woman of her intelligence and beauty had chosen him, of all people. If only….If only that damned Shoreland property wasn’t torturing him. Why was it so hard to go to Ken Urdang and say, “If this is what they want, I’m the wrong man for the job. Let someone with lower standards erect this travesty.” No, if he did that he could kiss his future goodbye. Lenny Mancuso tried that once, and they made his life so miserable afterward, he took the hint and resigned. No, in this case, candor was suicide: his only option was to prostitute himself and rise accordingly.
His reverie was interrupted by the jolting appearance of flashing red lights in his rearview mirror. What was that about? He wasn’t speeding, he hadn’t ignored a stop light, he’d waited to pull out of the convenience store parking lot until the street was clear. Maybe he just needed to move aside so the cop could surge past him and hurry on to its real quarry. But when he pulled to the side of the road, so did the black-and-white car with the red flashing lights, and his heart dropped like a guilty man’s when justice finally arrives. What was his infraction?
For a few moments, there was no movement. Then, in the mirror, Tanner saw a tall, youngish-looking officer in a dark cap and a yellow raincoat get out of his car and walk towards him.
And Tanner thought: he could run. He could hit the gas pedal and flee.
He ran through the particulars: he would gain maybe ten seconds between the time he lurched off to the time the cop got back into his cruiser and sped after him. In those ten seconds, he would kill the headlights, swerve right at the first intersection, then left at 50th Street, then right again on Ponce de Leon and through a labyrinth of his own devising. He knew these streets perfectly, he’d lived in this neighborhood for nine years and probably had a much better geographical sense than did some tired rookie with half the city to patrol. Of course, the cop had probably written down his license number, but if he evaded him in these first seconds and then darted out of town on I-275, he could be on his way to points north in minutes, long before other officers could respond to an APB. Freedom: why not seize it?. Since he was a child, he’d been truckling to alien rules, his mother’s, his teachers’, Ken Urdang and Danny Sonnenfeld’s, and now his own city’s in the guise of some sanctimonious police officer. To become an outlaw: well, who else actually lived by his own lights? Who else could in all honestly use words like independence, autonomy, self-reliance? Before the night was out, he’d steal someone’s license plate – easy enough with a simple screwdriver, he’s seen it done in a movie. Then he’d dye his hair black or even better, shave it all off, travel the back roads all the way up to Canada, to Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy.…His chances of reaching the border unnoticed were excellent. He might even emulate a famous poet he’d read about: leave his car by the bayside as if to say, I just may have drowned myself, or I may be in Bangkok, you’ll never know. Then goodbye to all the balls and chains – goodbye especially to Nancy and Rob Shoreland and the huge blemish they wanted him to plant on a lovely old Tampa neighborhood. Just to say “Screw you” to the whole bunch of them, even to Caitlyn who some evenings treated him no better than an old dog, even to shrewd little Ginna who at six was already learning how to shame him into buying her every video game she craved. He thought of Halifax, which he’d visited when he was back in architecture school: the wharf where pretty young women on roller skates cruised past like promises of happiness, the waterfront where kids with guitars and ukuleles sang three-part harmony, the smell of haddock frying, of molasses bread and blueberry grunt. All he needed to do was to wait till the cop was just short of his window and then screech off at top speed. Then no more Shorelands telling him to compromise his principles and build their kitsch leviathan….
The cop knocked on the window and Tanner opened it. “Your license and registration, please,” he said. He was young: too young to wield such elemental power. Tanner opened his glove compartment, found his registration and handed it over. Then he took his wallet out of his pants pocket and with some difficulty wrested the license from its compartment. He handed this over too.
The cop, standing in the rain, was silent for a few moments as he scrutinized both items. Then he said, “You realize this sticker is supposed to be affixed to your license plate?” He held up the registration document so Tanner could see it: in one corner was a yellow rectangle with a date. “The sticker currently on your license plate expired three months ago.”
“I’m sorry, officer,” he said. “It was an oversight. I promise to put it on as soon as I get home.”
The cop was silent and once again peered at the license, as if for secret writing. His silence worried Tanner: what could possibly deserve so much rapt attention? Then he said, “Excuse me for asking, but are you any relation to Professor Caitlyn Tanner?”
“Yes. That’s my wife.”
“Mr. Tanner,” the cop said with a broad smile. “It’s Peter Snell! I was in Dr. Tanner’s forensic science class! I think I met you at the end-of-semester party a couple of years ago!”
Relief washed through him. “Peter,” he said. “How are you? How long have you been in uniform?”
“Just a few months. Listen, Dr. Tanner’s class was the best I ever took. I’ll never forget her tips on collecting skin, hair and clothing fibers. And how to use a microscope!” He handed the license and registration back to Tanner. “Would you do me a favor and tell her Peter Snell said hello and thank you for a wonderful class? And tell her I found work! I’m making a real salary, believe it or not.”
“Of course,” said Tanner. “I’ll tell her just that.”
“Sorry to pull you over,” said Officer Peter Snell. “I guess I’m still proving myself – to myself more than anyone else. And your sticker is expired.”
“I’m glad you did,” said Tanner. “I’ll tell Caitlyn one of her students is remarkably vigilant. And that he’s found gratifying work.”
“You have a good evening,” said Peter. “Be sure and put that new sticker on before you go out again tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll do that. Thanks.”
Looking younger than ever, Peter beamed at him, then turned and walked back to his car. Tanner waited a moment, shifted into drive and carefully moved forward. When he reached the speed limit, he felt free to breathe again. Wouldn’t that have been awkward: a high-speed car chase with one of Caitlyn’s students? And the kid barely looked 19!.
The rain came harder now, and Tanner had the feeling it would last for 40 days. He proceeded through a green light and then he was seconds from his street. As it approached, he understood that he had one last chance: keep driving, go anywhere but home. Drive all night, drive till the tank was empty, then run, hitch rides, crawl, whatever it took. Only don’t make the turn back home.
He made the turn. The darkened street welcomed him. Tomorrow morning, he would call the Shorelands and tell them he was ready to move forward. He would show them the designs and agree to build their loathsome dream house, just as they wanted it. He would shake their hands and nod his head and principles be damned, he was going to make some money. There was nothing wrong with it: it was the way of the world.
He pulled into the driveway, cut the lights and climbed out of the car, carton of half-and-half in hand. The rain was heavy and cold, so he ran to get under the covered walkway at the front. He removed the key from his pocket – its head was shaped like a starfish – opened the front door and stepped in. There was a light coming from Caitlyn’s study. He took a few steps and there she was, brow wrinkled, poring over someone’s essay.
“Well, I’m back,” he said.
Mark Leib: I’ve published in Two Bridges Review, JewishFiction.net, Boston Review, Commentary, Harvard Magazine, American Theatre, and elsewhere, My plays have been produced in New York, Chicago, Cambridge, and Edinburgh. My arts criticism has won seven awards for excellence from the Society of Professional Journalists. I teach creative writing at the University of South Florida.