live. The gig appeared to consist of several perky underachieving assistants doing all the talking while the old guy took his hat off, put it back on, and wondered what the microphone in front of him was for.
There was blood in the toilet, which didn’t bother me as much as it probably should have. I flushed a few times, but it seemed to me that the bottom of the bowl had some kind of wound through which blood continually seeped. There were weird cracks and ripples in the enamel down there. If you squinted through the refraction of the water, the sequence of little lines looked a bit like a hand. I floated some toilet paper over the top and decided to leave it alone.
Trix banged on the door, and sauntered in eating an apple. “It’s like housesitting your old-fashioned aunt’s place, these rooms.” She looked around my room, spotted the little plastic Scotch bottles already drained. “Are you okay, Mike?”
I’d fished the handheld out of my bag already; passed it to Trix. “You want to check out our Columbus lead?”
“Ooh, yeah. Gimme.”
She spilled into a chair like a rag doll, holding the apple between her teeth as she clicked the machine open and started thumbing the keyboard.
When she said, “Oh, this is going to be fun,” I ordered a full-sized bottle of whiskey from room service.
C ome on over,” said the guy on the phone, sounding disturbingly reasonable.
“See?” said Trix, finishing some elaborate eye makeup in the bathroom mirror. The toilet bubbled and hissed behind her. “Physical adventurism doesn’t make you an instant freak.”
“Did you read this file? Did you read what these people do to themselves? It’s a freakshow.”
“It’s an interest . I’m looking forward to meeting the guy.”
“For your thesis, right?”
Trix bounced out of the bathroom. Leather boots, flouncy lacy skirt thing, tight top. I decided not to look at her for long.
“Yes, for my thesis. Also because I think he’s going to just be a genuinely interesting guy. Does he know why we’re coming?”
I put my hand on my jacket. It seemed heavy. It wanted me to stay right where I was. Stay there, lay down, drink some more, develop some kind of horrific paralysis that prevented me from ever leaving. That required nurses to look after me. Lots of them. With elaborate eye makeup.
I picked up my jacket.
“Yeah, I told him. Figured I may as well be up-front about it. He didn’t want to talk about it over the phone.”
“Can’t argue with that. Are we going?”
I had a rental car waiting outside. It had stained baby clothes and a crack pipe on the backseat. I put my hand inside a plastic bag I found in the glove compartment and carefully lifted them out, dumping it all into a FedEx dropbox outside the hotel lobby. A FedEx employee once tried to steal my breakfast. I hold grudges for decades. Frankly, if I didn’t hold grudges, I’d have nothing to play with on Christmas Day.
Trix had gotten the handheld to connect to the Web and produce a road map from the hotel to the location of the man on the phone. I pulled the rental car out of the lot and started following the red line from here to there. Within ten minutes, we were off the highway and barreling up and down leafy suburban hills fringed by big-porched houses stabbed by flagpoles from which bedraggled Stars and Stripes bled.
Trix took it all in like she was riding across the face of the moon. “People really have flags?”
“Now that’s weird.”
“Yeah, but you’re from New York.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“People in New York are either New Yorkers, or they’re Spanish, or Italian, or Irish, or whatever. Who the hell moves to Williamsburg and says, Hey, I’m an American ? Hell, even after 9/11, if you wanted to tell someone they were being a good guy, people were saying, ‘You’re a hell of a New Yorker, buddy.’”
“Well, what about you?”
“Well, I’m from