Bloodclover

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.”

“Her replacement?”

“Yeah.”

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?”

“No.”

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?”

Advertisements

Hawaii

It will be our last excursion, our last momentum fueled by convenience and lust.

Whatever we made of it: work fling? Friends turned intimate? An affair? Our age gap is seventeen years! Laureen is twenty-six. And with Laureen, I hear a hesitation in her voice when we board the plane, a certain stutter that we were finished.

“Of all places, Hawaii,” she says. “Sucks to be us, huh?”

I take in her sarcasm.

We’d been having drinks at one of the bars at SeaTac, waiting on our flight from Seattle back to Phoenix, when our boss, Vessman called on video chat. “Change of plans,” he said, his hooded eyes staring at us. “Need you guys to go to Hawaii. I know, short notice, but come on, it’s Hawaii. Enjoy it.”

This was not unusual with Vessman; he had routed us from Dallas to Miami last month. In March, during tornado warnings in Nebraska, he sent us to Boston, where they just had nine inches of snow. This job kills me.

Laureen nudges my arm: “I was looking forward to getting home, checking on my mother. Did you see what that dude had on? Purple Polo with watermelons? Who does that?”

“Apparently, Vessman.”

What was the deal about us going to Hawaii? A banking convention at the Omni Hotel and Vessman thought we should go at the last minute. American and Japanese investors will be there. Hotshots in the global banking industry. They had contacted DDC to adjust encryption code. At DDC, we’re always on-call. “Bravado I.T. Travelers,” Laureen referred to us the day we landed in Boston. True, we made good money, but I hated the rigorous nature of traveling, and I wanted to quit, honestly.

Carolyn had sensed something might be going on between Laureen and I. I didn’t keep secrets from my wife. We go to therapy, but Carolyn lets me know that she will never forgive me for it, and she is still considering a divorce or separation. I have told her, after Hawaii, that I am going to resign.

Laureen and I work on our laptops on the plane, somewhere over the Pacific, two hours into our flight.

“Threshold Moon,” Laureen calls her special input of computer code. “Finished.”

She closes her laptop, rubs her fingers across her temples as if she feels a headache coming on. The airplane tilts right suddenly. Laureen tips her drink and sips the last bit of her margarita.

“How is your mother?” I ask. “After treatment?”

“Good, the last that I’ve heard. “My brother Rick is checking on her. He sends texts that she’s fine. We hope she’s done with chemo and it’s isolated. Thomas, do you think I curse too much?”

“You don’t.”

I think about my son Patrick, who e-mailed me about making the cut for the basketball team. He’s so tall! Six-three and is only fifteen. He has a much better jump shot than I had at his age. If he develops, and grows more, pretty sure that he will land a full scholarship to one of the PAC 12 schools.

Laureen and I get along. But it’s not as though we can finish each other’s sentences. We are not so agreeable, more like two frisky cats attracted to each other in ways that feel unhinged by the laws of attraction, a paw length away from protecting our egos.

“I’m glad I’m with you,” Laureen says, putting the palm of her hand on my forearm. “Only as friends, may that it be. Just coworkers, I get that. Man, that margarita has kicked in.”

“You want anything, sir?” the flight attendant asks, walking by. “We still have cold beer.”

“No thank you,” I say. “I’m good.”

Laureen runs her fingers through my hair; her eyes drift to the window.

“Do you understand all this new code, Thomas? I hate how Vessman always has these last-minute assignments.”

“I know what you know,” I say. “The banking side is big business for us. The honchos in Honolulu. I think it involves a new solution to ward off global defaults. To prevent or soften another catastrophe like 08.”

“You want my flash drive?”

“No,” I say. “Just wait until we land. Or until we get to our hotel. Man, a steak sounds really good.”

Suddenly, there’s a crack, like the sound of metal splintering, searing apart. It is loud and near the wing by the window where we sit.

“What the hell was that?” Laureen snaps, squeezing my thigh. “I’m not ready to die, Thomas.”

“You’re not going to die. If it happens you won’t feel it.”

Probabilities. I think how we both accepted the astronomical odds that we go down in the ocean or get torn to pieces. We accepted it, Laureen. The laws of physics now determine our fate.

Of course, I don’t tell her that.

“What?” she says. “I would feel every bit of it.”

She pulls her hand off my leg. She presses her face to the plastic window. I lean forward, hoping to see if something has hit the wing. In front of us, a teenage boy turns and says, “I bet the engine blew.”

The captain announces that the plane is stabilized. We’re about to land. Laureen closes her eyes and presses her front teeth to her lips, her face white in fear. She looks at me as if she might throw up, that in the back of her mind we might get sucked out into the atmosphere at five-hundred miles per hour.

I feel calm, oddly. I feel if it is my time to break away with the plane and disintegrate into the ocean—there’s not much that I can do about it. I can pray to God, sure, but stopped that long ago. Stopped praying after 9/11; stopped praying after one of my best friends was shot to death at a rock concert; stopped all that nonsense after Carolyn went through two miscarriages, and after my father’s suicide.

The flight attendant says: “It’s fine. Everyone, we will be landing in Honolulu momentarily.”

People will say that Thomas Tillson and his mistress deserved their punishment for their adulterous behavior. “God struck them down with vengeance,” a pastor in Mississippi will conclude, not long after the plane crash.

“God had a plan for them, for everyone on that plane, and it is God’s plan and desire that we don’t quite understand,” a pastor in Flagstaff will say, with careful deliberation to a big crowd at a mega church.

We don’t hear another sound or any noise by the wing. Laureen grabs my hand and we keep our attention ahead, toward the cockpit. Briefly, I feel like a stranger to her. Maybe it was the refurbished air flowing? Maybe it was the alarming, sudden panic from the passengers after the sound around the wing? Are we not eventually strangers in this wide spectrum of life? Soon, Laureen and I will walk across the tarmac at the airport and go to our hotel and order a bottle of wine, shrimp and steak on DDC’s travel card. We will take a warm shower after soaking in the hot tub. In the morning, we will go to the conference rooms and set up any needed computer terminals. We will deliver the banking code to a gentleman known as Cheong-Le, a banking honcho from JP Morgan. I will read later that Cheong-Le’s nineteen-year-old daughter had leapt to her death off a bridge in Tokyo two years ago, but you could never tell something so tragic had happened behind his dark-pearl eyes.

Our plane banks left after a bout of turbulence and the flight attendant stumbles. She is curled against the wall, and I see her black underwear exposed. Her left foot shoeless. She sees me, and we lock eyes. Our eyes entwined together, sunken into the realm of how we might meet again in our next life.

I see Patrick as a baby, holding him. My six-foot three son, now almost a man. My life does not flash in front of me, but fragments of it jut out, like a spurt of air hitting a candle flame when one walks past it.

A hard jolt bounces the plane as we land on the runway. We would learn later that part of the metal on the right wing had broken off. The captain and co-pilot were congratulated nationally for their calm nerves and smooth landing of the plane. I text Carolyn that I’m okay, but tired.

The sun has not set and the clouds in the distance absorb a purple color of fading light in the air. I smell Laureen’s sweat; she hugs me and says, “Well, not the best flight that I’ve had, if this was meant to be, or so—”

“Laureen, nothing is meant to be. We’ve had this philosophical conversation before.”

“To live, Thomas. We are meant to live.”

I shake my head in disagreement and don’t bother furthering any argument.

I think about dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, Great Whites’ fins slicing through waves and absorbing the entrails of half-eaten fish. I think about Carolyn and Patrick and how everything will be fine within our family dynamics, complicated as they’ve become. I will let Laureen go. I am sorry for all of this.

The next morning the sun heats my face and arms through the curve of the hotel window as I lay in the comfort of the white sheets. Even fancy hotels’ smells linger around us, and one cannot distinguish it from a lesser quality room. Laureen is gone. Did she catch the next flight back to Arizona? I can still smell her powdered body, her breath like minted coffee and waffle syrup on her lips. I did not leave her, she has left me. Bummer.

After I got out of the shower, I see Laureen standing by the bed. Her tennis shoes untied, her burgundy hair pulled back and wrapped with a tie, and she says, “Went for a workout. Let’s go for breakfast and finish the terminal install. Get the hell out of here. Look, I understand, Thomas. I do love you, but you don’t have to love me. After all of this, we can just be normal coworkers. I’m okay with that. Really, I am.”

“I’m quitting DDC,” I say.

“Hope not because of me,” she says.

“Because I’m tired of being a corporate puppet. I want to spend time with my family. Fix things. Mend hearts.”

She gets a shower and then we take the elevator down, eat breakfast and begin our computer setup and don’t talk to each other for another hour or so. I want more than anything to leave Hawaii, but it will be another six to seven hours. I walk over to grab coffee and stare out of the atrium window, watch clouds break apart and reform, watch a plane disappear behind them. A few hours pass, and I feel a tap on my shoulder. Laureen says, “We can go. I don’t want to fly alone.”