The police found another body in the Cuyahoga River, the poor woman’s body too decayed to make a facial recognition, except for a distinctive tattoo of a four-leaf clover on her neck. The mucky river smelled of drugged and tortured lives, vulnerable young women on the fringes, and every time Elliot drove over the bridge, he imagined others in the river, yet to be found but yearning to be claimed, as if their spirit survived and gave clues, hints to where they can be found.
Darkness makes one look different. Elliot thinks Marina resembles an ocean creature under the sheets. Elliot thinks of the possibility that she will no longer be attracted to him because of his night drives, insomnia. He never went far: to the park to walk around or sit in his car and listen to his radio; there’s plenty of street light over the area and a police station nearby. He feels safe. When he had heard about the missing girl on the news, Elliot wonders if she’s like him: lost in the tranquil night. Fighting insomnia. Their brains buzzing in the dizzying world the next morning.
Many of them had tattoos. Lots of women had four-leaf clovers. He ignored his ideas, but alone, one often stumbles on ideas and observations, soaked in honest questions at how x equals y.
Maybe our bodies will adjust to life’s compressions? Maybe not?
His doctor scribbled a prescription on a white notepad, something ‘oploxin that was new and would alleviate his sleeping problem.
Elliot returned home and drifted into a dream. A cluster of images cut into a movie reel and into other nightscapes. Elliot stands on a high-rise building, sees the tiny traffic below. He’s in a city, but not Cleveland, not St. Louis where he had grown up as a little boy until he was eleven and his parents moved to Ohio. It could have been New York City, but he was unsure. He tiptoed along a ledge, on a beam—so high up that the air was brisk, and he could see a v form of gulls, silver-white wings flapping in slow-motion.
There was a man reaching his arm out for Elliot; he helped him down off the ledge.
He got up and went to the bathroom. The nightlight helped guide him to the toilet. Marina was still zonked out. He saw the curve of her right foot and drew his finger along her arch. Her toes twitched, and then she moved her leg. “What, Elliot?”
“A store clerk gave me Powerball tickets. We’re millionaires. Two-hundred million dollars to say you love our life together.”
Marina raised her head off the pillow.
“What? You didn’t win no damn lottery.”
“Ha-ha. Maybe I did?”
“Go back to sleep, or whatever it is you do.”
He went back to the convenience store where he had gotten the lottery tickets days ago and notices the clerk working and sees her tiny nose piercing. She doesn’t look anything like Marina with her russet-red hair. She’s at least fifteen years younger than Marina. He can tell by her posture, slouching while sitting in the chair, that this might be the best it gets for her. Marina, Elliot knew, after being with her for almost two decades, had to be in the mix of other people’s messes, their simultaneous problems, and he didn’t see that in the clerk. He feels an inkling toward her, and for whatever reason to a degree that Marina and he were less physical and intimate, Elliot welcomes this inkling of attraction, starting over, meeting new women…
“Where’s the music? Usually there’s music playing,” said Elliot.
“The Replay, they call it,” she said. “I guess it’s broken. Is this all, sir? Coffee?”
“Coffee? I thought you meant to life?” Elliot remarked, laughing. He noticed her striking four-leaf clover tattoo on her right forearm. It was shaded silver, strokes of metallic around the clovers, and smeared burgundy. She had removed her jacket, wrapped it around the back of the chair. He didn’t want to stare at her or seem intrusive but couldn’t help seeing the prevalence of cleavage.
“I didn’t win on those tickets the other day,” said Elliot. “I would have given you a million dollars.”
“That would have been wonderful.”
She pressed her teeth to her lips and got back to her boring job with a look in her eyes that I really don’t want to be here.
Maddie, Elliot read from her name tag.
The Lake-Effect weather with its sharp-cutting wind and bursts of snow came early. Elliot continued driving in the night, reflecting on his military days, his old friends from high school, some of whom had already died from various illnesses or accidents. At the park nearby, he walked around and imagined the blue dome of light over the swimming pool, how it made him feel hopeful for the future. Maddie was around this light. He took off his ballcap and grazed his fingers over the stubbles of hair. He’d worn his crewcut for decades ever since serving his country. As he was getting ready to leave, headlights shone toward him and then a quick flash of red and blue police lights took his breath away. The officer walked up and tapped on Elliot’s window.
“Sir, everything all right?” asked the officer.
“Yeah,” said Elliot. “Yes, I mean, officer.”
“May I ask what you are doing out here? Four in the morning?”
“I went for a walk,” said Elliot. “Sleeping problem. It helps me.”
“Can I see your license and registration, sir?”
“Yes, of course.”
The officer went back to his car to run Elliot’s driver’s license. Elliot rubbed his eyes, turned up the music in his car, and he was not worried; he had done nothing wrong. A few minutes went by and he noticed flakes of snow in front of the headlights.
It felt like an eternity for the police officer returning.
“You’re free to go, sir,” the officer said. “But you do realize being out here looks suspicious? It’s probably not the safest time to take walks. Are you seeing a doctor about your sleeping problem, sir?”
“Yes, I am. I’m getting new medication.”
The officer looked toward the back of Elliot’s car.
“Better get home, sir. Try to get some rest. Winter’s coming.”
“I am. That’s where I was going before you—”
“Have a good night.”
In the sandy air over his platoon, a soldier absorbs the blast of shrapnel after a car bomb explodes. The yellow flash incinerates everything around a twenty-five-yard radius. Death is always a reminder that we take life for granted. The real war is on our own streets, in our own cities, and in our own backyards: One minute a person’s doing nothing wrong, trying to make ends, and then some shit-for-nothing puts a bullet through you.
His adrenalin eased, staring at the oak tree limbs at the side of the convenience store. Maddie was standing in front, talking to a man who looked like he’d stepped out of Comic Con. He had long hair, earrings, and wore black boots. How weird, Elliot thought, this lug of a guy, very young-looking talking to Maddie and making her smile. He knew that he could not go inside, not now. He had to forget about her; this was a police matter, not some former infantry soldier who had a sleeping disorder and had hunches or gut feelings about her safety. I would have given her a million dollars. I would have followed up on that promise.
He drove home. He took off his clothes and opened the shower door, felt the warm steam go against his face, and Marina beside him. For the first time in a while, he felt like he loved her more than ever.
The next morning Marina was watching the news. Elliot could see her hair across her face, a reminder of what he liked about her, what had attracted him to her so long ago.
“That’s awful,” she said. “Another shooting. I worry about you on your night drives.”
“I worry about me too,” he said. “The police questioned me at the park the other night. At least they are out and doing their job.”
They had visited Marina’s mother on Thanksgiving, and on their way home that Friday evening, a tear emerged down Marina’s face.
“It will soon be time to make that decision about my mother,” said Marina.
He grabbed hold of her hand. Her mother had Parkinson’s. They stopped at a red light, its reflection off the wet pavement sent a melancholy reminder that life was nothing more than a scattering of light, vanishing.
Elliot took the new medication. He thought about how good he had felt getting sleep, but one early December night, he left the condo and drove for one last night drive. A Winter Weather Advisory had been issued earlier that evening and for the next day, temperatures plunging…
He wanted to see Maddie’s crimson smile. It had been over a month since he had last seen her.
He stopped at the convenience store and got gas, the wind howling over the metal eves. Marina had made the decision to go to Akron, after Christmas, to help care for her mother. At first, he thought maybe she was using her mother’s illness as an excuse to leave him. Other military guys’ girlfriends or wives had suddenly left and wanted nothing to do with them anymore.
Across from Elliot, no more than ten to fifteen feet away, a man fueling his car looked distressed. His face was purple-cold, and Elliot wasn’t sure if his beard was gray or it was the snow on his face. Elliot lifted the gas nozzle, swiped his credit card, and the man across from him was speaking into his cell phone. He said in a rushed voice: “I know about the conditions, Kimberly. Yes, I got the milk and I’m on my way home. Calm down. Jesus!”
“Big storm, huh?” Elliot said to the man. “The weather tonight?”
“What?” the man said in a frustrated voice. “Yes. Go figure. Are you married, dude?”
“No. I live with a girlfriend.”
“Smart man,” he said. “But yeah, heard a blizzard. Fuck, who knows anymore what the hell’s going on in our crazy world.”
The man’s eyes appeared large in the cold, crisp air.
“Just freaking great,” he continued. “I don’t get paid unless I go to work. Roads will probably be impassable tomorrow. Company doesn’t offer PTO. My wife is on medical leave. Our income is a mess. Sorry, I know you don’t care.”
“I understand,” said Elliot. “It’s not our fault. We make the best of things.”
The man stared at Elliot for what seemed like thirty seconds or more, but then down at the gas nozzle, snapping it back into place.
“You have a good evening, dude. Drive safe,” the man remarked, and got inside his car and drove off into the snow.
The adjusted medication was a hybrid of Ambien and a new drug that Elliot couldn’t remember. He didn’t think it would have kicked in so fast. Marina said that she was keeping the condo and would take a sabbatical next semester. She told Elliot that he doesn’t have to leave while she’s in Akron, but he could stay and pay her half of the rent and utilities. She would come back, but she didn’t know how long. He knew that he would miss hearing her snore, see her body under the covers, his lithe ocean creature warm against his body in the shower.
Looking over at the direction of the doors at the convenience store, Elliot saw a shadow at the counter, an outline of a head. He would go inside to say hello to Maddie, how it had been so long since he had seen her, to ask how she was doing. When Elliot walked inside, he imagined Maddie standing there.
“Can I help you, sir?” said a man strolling out from the back. He was Indian, skinny-tall, wore a brown button shirt and had on a heavy-beige jacket.
“Oh?” said Elliot, surprised at seeing the man. “I had twenty dollars in gas. The receipt didn’t print from the pump.”
He looked around the store.
“Hey?” Elliot asked the man. “Is Maddie around?”
The man shook his head no.
“I’m her replacement,” he said. “Didn’t know her.”
It sounded odd, a strange word to say.
“I replaced her,” the man said again, as if Elliot didn’t quite hear him. “She never showed up one evening and they figured she’d quit.”
“Do they know where she went?” Elliot asked. “Maybe she went to work for a competitor down the street?”
“I don’t know, sir. No one has heard anything from her. All we know is that she didn’t show up for work and no one has heard from her.”
He handed Elliot the gas receipt.
“I-I” Elliot stammered. “I was passing through, thought I would get gas, before the snowstorm. You know what, I’ll get two lotto quick pick tickets.”
“Gotcha,” said the man. “It’s going to get bad later. You need anything else?”
The adjusted medication started to hit him harder, and he realized that he should get back home.
He glanced through the door and saw the snow coming down faster, whipping in the wind.
“I’m stuck here all night,” said the man.
“That sucks,” said Elliot. “Stay safe.”
Elliot handed the man two dollars for the lottery tickets.
“Good luck,” said the man.
“I never win on these things.”
Driving home, on the radio, another Winter Weather Advisory sounded through the dash speakers. He hoped Maddie was safe, wherever she went, wherever she had found herself, and Elliot hoped that nothing bad had happened to her and would check the news in the morning, and hear the latest, if the Cleveland PD and the Ohio State Police had arrested a person of interest in the so-called clover killings.
He drove to the park and felt the weight of the medicine pressing on him. He pulled into the entrance of the park and left the car running, the heat blasting through the vents. An old rock song brought back childhood memories, hearing songs on the old cabinet stereo, his mother playing Neil Diamond, Dad swaying his head to ELO on vinyl…
He found an unlit cigarette lodged in between his seat. He put it in his mouth but didn’t light it. Old habits extinguished, gone. Vanquished.
He stuck his head out the window into the chill of the wind. He felt his nose becoming numb. The moisture on his lips could freeze them together.
He texted Marina that he was on his way, but she never replied.
He would just rest, for a little while, he thought, with the heat in the car on high. Elliot felt good. His eyes felt heavy as though sinkers had been pushed over his eyelids. Marina would get up the next morning and watch the news, hear any updates on the killings but no new leads or information. A local news anchor referred to the killer as “Bloodclover,” and on another station, just “The Killer.”
Elliot’s old army days were long gone, but its noises of mortar shells and the whizzing sound of bullets never vanished. He would fall asleep that evening as the snow came down, and there would be no more weird dreams or night drives throughout the city, no more crossing over the dreaded bridge and seeing the Cuyahoga River below— just a bright-gray winter night. Every now and then one could witness a shooting star fall to the earth, but there were too many clouds overhead. In a few hours, the sun would rise, new hope for people getting up, clearing off their sidewalks, driveways, entombed inside their homes…
In Elliot’s slow departure, a deepening sleep engulfed him, and he took a few breaths and drifted into the best sleep that he had had in a long time. He would never see Marina again, never Maddie, or fear the warm blood rush over his face being alone in the jaded, hectic world.
Hours later a man walking by tapped on Elliot’s window.
“You okay, mister? Sir? Can you hear me?”