At the Soups
She eased the door shut behind her. Even so, pulling it closed slowly by inches, the hinges squeaked a little and on settling the latch bolt clicked loudly into place, like a soft gunshot. At least to her ears.
She stood there for a moment, very still, her ear to the cold, blue plywood door and listened for any sound from within the apartment. Nothing. It was perfectly silent. She turned then, hitched her tote bag higher up on her shoulder and set out down the landing, careful to step lightly. The sun had yet to rise, but the sky had begun to blush in the east; she could make out the contours of the eastern part of the city. The morning air was cool with traces of gasoline still lingering from yesterday’s smoggy triple digits heat, as if giving fair warning that today will not be much better.
She glanced at her watch. She had forty-five minutes to get to the corner of Santa Monica and Vermont where Kathy’s friend would be waiting in a blue Toyota pickup.
She descended the landing stairs one quiet step at a time, but once on solid ground she abandoned caution, hurried across the parking lot, turned right onto the sidewalk and now began walking in earnest.
The blue pickup was there. As she walked toward it she realized she didn’t know his name. Kathy had never mentioned it; or if she had, it hadn’t registered. But this was the right guy, it had to be. His was the only blue Toyota pickup around, his was the only blue anything around. And hers were the only red sweater and black tote bag—those had been Kathy’s instructions.
His engine was running. She could see the mist of exhaust, orange in the street light, like some strange, round-legged animal bleeding into the air.
No, there was no mistaking either one of them. He watched her approach and as she rounded the hood for the passenger side he leaned over and opened the door and she climbed in. The car was smaller on the inside than she had expected. The door wouldn’t shut. She tried again.
“You have to slam it,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
She let it out a bit farther and pulled hard. It sprang shut with a squeal as if hurt and for just a shadow of a moment she feared she might have woken him up.
“That’s the way,” said Kathy’s friend, as he put the truck in gear.
She had no idea what Kathy might have told this guy, but she was grateful for whatever it was. He did not try to make her talk. He drove, eyes straight ahead, Santa Monica Boulevard east and then onto the Hollywood Freeway south. Some traffic already, but nothing to speak of. She leaned back against the head rest and tried to feel that immense relief she had planned to feel just about now, but it wouldn’t show.
She was finally sitting in a car going south toward downtown and away from him but she did not feel like an eagle just let free, not like a prisoner just escaped, not like that suddenly grownup woman she was supposed to feel like now. She closed her eyes and heard the engine hum and both heard and felt the little jolts of the wheels hitting the joints between the concrete freeway slabs—tedan, tedan, tedan, tedan (as if on a train)—but all she felt was the motion: tedan, tedan, tedan—and she remained her sleeping daddy’s little girl. Kathy’s friend remained silent. Eyes on the road. Driving.
They turned east on the San Bernardino Freeway and as they did a sliver of the sun peaked over the distant crest and right into their eyes. Kathy’s friend squinted and pulled down the sun visor. Already, hundreds of cars were heading the other way, to work. A glittering snake, shiny eyes slithering. You’re not in a traffic jam, she remembered seeing sprayed on the side of an overpass, you are the traffic jam. Not quite a jam though, not this early.
The trick to driving in L.A., Dad liked to say—seemed to always say—is to head in the right direction. Oh, Dad. He’s right, though. They were doing seventy at least, those others, the wrong-direction ones, slithering at perhaps twenty. He would be awake now, up, worried. Looking around, noticing things. Perhaps even putting things together by now.
It wasn’t that she’d been out all night and hadn’t come home yet, he had seen her come in last night, he had said good night. Later, he had hesitated outside her door, about to come and tuck her in. About to—he had stood there for what must have been a minute, but he hadn’t. He had thought, but then thought better about it for he must have remembered—she could picture his face remembering—that she didn’t want him to do that anymore.
He would begin to realize by now, by the stuff gone from her side of the bathroom shelf: makeup, toothbrush, paste, perfume; by her tote bag gone; by her bed made (and cold—by the time he thought of checking):
She had left.
She had finally made good on her threats. Well, she had told him, warned him, and a lot more than once. Yes, he would know by now that the conclusion he could not help arriving at was the right one. The truth: She was not missing by chance or by accident; she had up and gone on purpose. She checked her watch. Yes, he would know by now.
She could see him, did see him, unshaven, unable to sit down when nervous or unsure, walking around the apartment from her room to his, to the front room to the kitchen, back to her room trying to make sense of no her. Walking around and around their little apartment like the poor animal in its cage in that clip of the Tasmanian wolf. The black and white clip, old and scratchy. The last one, said the commentator matter-of-factly, the very last one of its kind. Now extinct as a species. Round and round its cage. Did it know it was the last one, the very last one? Alone in his cage. No mate anywhere, not even the hope of one to help avoid the approaching catastrophe. Perhaps, she had thought at the time, and was now thinking again, perhaps there was a mate somewhere, only they wouldn’t let him out to find her, to save their kind. Did he realize that with him they would be gone, his race of wolves? The very last mate-less one, round and round the cage, round and round the apartment trying, and trying, but unable to really believe she had done it, made good on her threat, made good on her promise.
Making good on your promise is a good thing, he’d like to say, though not this promise, this would not be a good promise to make good on, he would not agree. To up and leave like this, even if she had warned him. For yes, she had, many times, many, many times.
He would think about calling Mom, but he wouldn’t do it. But he would think about it walking round and round, the last of his species. No, he wouldn’t call her, not yet, not for hours, maybe not for a day or two. Hoping she would change her mind and come back; unmake the good of her promise. But she wouldn’t. She would not. She had warned him. She had.
They reached San Bernardino on a total of nine words between them: eight for him, one for her—and that was hardly even a word.
Then a tenth.
“Hungry?” he said.
“Yes,” she had to admit.
“How about breakfast, then?”
“Drive-thru or sit down?”
“Let’s go in somewhere.”
Lots to choose from in San Bernardino. He spotted a large Denny’s sign and pulled off the freeway. Quite crowded this time of day—the breakfast crowd; though they still found an empty window table and sat down. Ordered. As he looked out the window, she was wondering what on earth Kathy could have told him about her. To keep him this quiet—for he could speak, he had.
“How long have you known Kathy?” she asked.
He turned from whatever he was contemplating outside the window and faced her. First good look at him. Not handsome, not ugly. He looked tired. Acne. Greasy hair. Twenty something.
“A few years.”
“You from Pennsylvania too?”
Their order arrived. He was starving. No wonder he had brought up the subject. She could not remember ever seeing anyone eat food at quite that pace. It wasn’t eating, it was obliterating. He looked up halfway through, just a quick glance, and she actually said, “Sorry,” meaning about staring at him. He did not acknowledge that at all, more like didn’t hear it at all, for he was back to act two with a vengeance, and then he was washing it down with coffee and she had barely touched her scrambled eggs.
“Gonna eat all of those?” he said after a short while, nodding at her plate.
“Actually, yes,” she answered. “But I’ll be sure to let you know if I change my mind.”
He didn’t pick up on the sarcasm (which she really had not intended, it just slipped out—habit). “Great,” he said.
He watched her eat all of it and she had to give him credit for not looking disappointed by the time she had finished. Then he looked out the window again.
“Kathy be in Vegas when we get there, then?” she asked.
“Her mom’s okay on me coming? You know?”
“Yes, you know, or yes, she’s okay?”
“She’s okay. They’ve made a room ready for you.”
Her own room? Now she wondered what Kathy could have told her mom.
She sipped her coffee and her dad returned. Still walking the apartment. Sit down, please Dad. Please. Sorry, Hun. And along with the apology he would sit down for a minute, but never for two; he simply had to get up. He could not explain it, he said. Just can’t think sitting down, he said. Lately he’d been sitting down mostly, though. No need to think. Job going well, he said. Money’s coming in. Current on the rent. Here’s an extra twenty for you, Hun. Thanks, Dad, as if a twenty was money nowadays. He sure wouldn’t be sitting still now though, thinking, thinking, trying to come to terms, to understand, to accept.
Back in the truck, heading east for Vegas. No joints here in the tarmac. Wheels rolling smoothly, humming along with the engine. She was tired but didn’t want to close her eyes, didn’t want to see her dad, round and round.
“And you?” he asked.
“How long have you known Kathy?”
“Oh, about two years.”
“Kathy’s in school?”
“Not anymore. Community college two years ago. Same class.”
“She’s something, isn’t she?”
“I like her a lot.”
He didn’t answer that, returned to only driving. Eyes ahead.
He would have had to go to work by now. Couldn’t call in sick. Not since the warning. He’d probably forget to shave. Not that it mattered much. Nobody really cares what a cook looks like back there in the kitchen, on his feet all day, running around stirring soups. I’m on my feet all day, and that’s how I think, he’d say. Now I just can’t sit down and think. I’ve forgotten how, he’d say.
Round and round. He’d remember at the last minute that he had to get to work. Panicked, rushed, any clothes would do, he had a locker at the restaurant with his cook stuff, shower too, fortunately. Hope the car starts okay, the night had been kind of cool. Don’t think then, Dad. Christ. Just sit down. And he’d look at her, worry all over him, dripping from him, and he would actually sit down, she would see the determination on his face, the effort it took him to force that body down, down into the chair, legs close together, hands knotted into one, but sitting, and she loved him for it, and she hated him for it.
They crested a long up-slope and could now see the city in the distance. She had never liked Las Vegas. Not that she’d been there a lot, only a couple visiting Kathy. Too hot, too hyped. Nothing in the place was in the least real. It was a mammoth version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. “But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said. And the entire town goes, “We know!” And we don’t care. How could they possibly not see? People flocking there, all these conventions. So fake. But this is where Kathy’s mom lived and made good money at one of the hotels as a dealer, and Kathy liked it okay, had gone to visit a lot, and had finally moved there to live with her. And now they were getting a room ready for her. What could she possibly have told her mom?
By now Dad would be ‘at the soups,’ as he likes to call it. He was very good at soups, Dad. Could make soup out of almost nothing, and sometimes had to. But mostly he made soups out of potatoes, leaks, onion, garlic, carrots, coconuts—yes, coconuts—and spices, he knew spices, Dad did, and mango, squash, tomato, he’d use anything that was in season. Only buy vegetables in season, he’d say. But everything is in season somewhere, she answered. Locally, he would add.
That’s a Zen thing, she’d inform him. It’s a cook thing, he said. He knew soups. Not women, though. Why he married Mom, she could never figure out. Such a strange woman. They had left it up to her, as they put it, at the divorce, and she didn’t hesitate for a second, she’d stay with him, which Mom had never forgiven her, and even less forgiven him, although how her choice could have been his fault she had never managed to figure out either.
They pulled up to the house. There were no lawns out here, just large, rectangular fields of sand. She wondered where they got the water from. The city always grew. There were always new hotels along with always new houses for people to work the always new hotels. Always more, and more, and flashier, and more, and fake. Kathy’s mom came out to greet them. Lisa, that was her name. They stepped out of the car, into an oven. The air conditioning had been on, she hadn’t even noticed. The contrast was frightening. She remembered to slam the door.
“Kathy’s not here yet,” she said. “Had to work. She’ll be here tonight, though.”
She came over to hug her, and she hugged her hard. What on earth had Kathy told her? Lisa opened the door and they stepped into a fridge.
“We’ve made up the den for you,” she said over her shoulder. Proudly, leading the way. She followed and was impressed, remembering the room from earlier visits as a dump, a sort of rumpus and storage room; it looked great now.
“Wow,” she said. “Very nice.”
“Kathy insisted,” Lisa said. She wasn’t sure how to take that, but Lisa was smiling, a real smile, not a Vegas one, so she decided to take it well.
“You know where the kitchen is, and the fridge. You wanna freshen up? Robert!” she said then to Kathy’s friend who had followed them into the den, as if noticing him for the first time and surprised to see him. “How was the drive? Wanna beer?”
“T’was okay. And, sure, yes. Please.”
“What about you, Hun? Wanna beer?”
“No thanks. Thanks, though.”
She opened the fridge and took out one beer, opened it and gave it to Robert. So that was his name. He drank beer the way he ate. Lisa must have been used to this for she didn’t stare.
“Thanks, Lisa,” said Robert. “Gotta get going.” Then looking at her, he said, “See ya,” and headed for the door.
“Thanks so much,” she said to his back. He didn’t turn, but waved his right hand in the air, a no-big-deal sort of you’re welcome. Then he was gone.
“He’s a darling,” said Lisa. “Known Kathy since grade school. I think he’s got a crush on her, but she doesn’t give him the time of day, not in those terms, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes,” she said, “I do.”
“So, listen, Hun. Make yourself at home. I have to get ready, and in to work. Kathy will be back way before me. Now, if you find it, it’s yours, eat it,” she said. She left a few minutes later in her dealer’s costume. Long legs, dark hose. She looked good, Lisa the dealer.
She watched her car back out of the driveway and take off down the street, dust cloud trailing. Then it was only her in an empty house in the desert. She sat down on the living room sofa to think, to look for that free thing, that freedom feeling, that soaring eagle out over large waters thing. Nowhere to be found.
She stood up again and walked back into the den, her new room, taking in the strange little paintings of ducks on the walls. Yes, Lisa was a duck person, ducks all over her bedroom, ducks on the towels in the kitchen, duck salt and pepper shakers, duck pitcher for lemonade in the fridge. She caught herself surveying the empty house for more ducks, not thinking about her dad, and eventually forced herself to sit down on the living room sofa again.
After a while she leaned back into the soft cushions and closed her eyes. Tried not to see him at the soups and then she fell asleep.
It was morning and he was making sure she was awake before he left for the soups.
“Cindy.” A little louder.
She didn’t answer. Didn’t want to answer. Wanted to burrow down back to sleep. But she knew that he would not leave until she did answer.
“Cindy.” A little louder still, and with a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Oh, what the hell. She pried her eyes open and there stood Kathy, prodding her a little.
“Hey Cindy. Boy, you were really sleeping.”
Kathy, not her dad. And this was Las Vegas, not Hollywood. Lisa’s house, not the apartment. “Hi, Kathy. I’m sorry.” She eased up onto her left elbow. “I must have been really tired, I guess. Dead to the world.” Sat all the way up. Folded one leg under her to make room for Kathy.
Kathy dumped her bag on the floor and sat down beside her, faced her.
“You did it, huh?”
“Don’t worry. It’s the right thing. You can stay here as long as you want.”
“Thanks, Kathy.” She looked around, and then back at Kathy. “It’s amazing what you’ve done with the den.”
“Isn’t it? It needed cleaning anyway.”
It was late afternoon if not early evening. She had slept all day. He would be back by now, back in the empty apartment, round and round and round and round, thinking, closing and opening his hands, closing and opening. Dad, please, for Christ’s sake, sit down. Take it easy. Sorry, Hun, I can’t help it. I can’t think sitting down.
Kathy had just said something.
“Sorry,” said Cindy.
Kathy took a good, almost searching look at her. Then said it again. “Wanna go out for a bite?”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
In the car, Kathy said, “Wanna talk about it?”
She did want to talk about it, but didn’t as well. So answered, “No.”
Turning left, Kathy asked, “How’re you doing for money?”
“I’ve got some.”
“Mom can probably get you a job if you want.”
Working in Vegas? “I might need one. That would be great.”
“Cleaning, that kinda stuff.”
Kathy pulled in to a diner-type place. Still on the outskirts of town, so not so fake. Slot machines though. Two to your left just as you came in, three more over by the rest rooms. This town. Unbelievable.
She was absolutely starving.
They waited for their order in silence, then brought their trays to a nearby table. Plastic seats. Clean and orange. She picked at her fries, then took a sip of the cola. “I really . . .,” she started. Kathy looked up from her burger. “I really appreciate your help, Kathy. You, and your mom both.”
Kathy smiled that half-smile of hers that made her eyes glitter, and talked while chewing. “As I said, stay as long as you like.”
“I know. You guys are great.”
He’d be hearing her voice by now, telling him for Christ’s sake to sit down, Dad, and he would, just for a moment. Forcing himself into the armchair, or onto the kitchen chair. Knees together. Stiff as a board. Sitting. Like, look Hun, I’m sitting. Yes, Dad. Well done. But not funny. Not at all. She could almost count the seconds, ten, twenty, rarely thirty, never beyond sixty, never even close to sixty if he was worried. He’d be up again, at the soups I can think. I can’t think sitting down, Hun. And there was nothing she could think of doing, other than telling him to for Christ’s sake sit down, Dad.
Kathy was watching her. Not chewing. “You all right?”
“Yes. Just a little worried about him.”
“No, he will. I’m sure.”
She nodded but didn’t answer. Kathy said, “He’ll get over it.”
“I should have left him a note.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Oh, God. No. She couldn’t call him. Couldn’t keep him alive. Or keep her alive for him, rather. He’d never sit down again. Better to let him get used to it. Her missing. “I can’t.”
“You’ve got to tell him why you left.”
“I’ve told him a thousand times why I would leave. If he doesn’t know by now.”
“Perhaps. You’ve got to make sure, though. He deserves that.”
He deserves that. She looked up at Kathy. She sounded so certain. But she was right. He did deserve that.
“I’ll call tonight.”
Kathy smiled her half-smile again, and continued eating.
But she didn’t call. Just didn’t know what to say. Couldn’t bring herself to. Kathy was tired, and soon left her alone to grapple with it, though she did remind her where the phone was before she went to bed. But she couldn’t call. Instead she was lying awake in her new bed, in the den, in Las Vegas, trying to make out the ceiling and thinking about the Tasmanian wolf and about calling, and about not calling.
She heard Lisa come back. She must have slumbered. It was late. Too late to call now. He would not be asleep though, would not be able to sleep. But she had warned him. Many times. Dad, it is my life, I can wash my own underwear, I can work an alarm clock, it’s not rocket science.
He was concerned, making up for missing-in-action Mom—as he used to call her—she knew that, but whether you suffocate from hate or kindness, you suffocate nonetheless, and she could not breathe. Coming home to find all her underwear and socks clean and neatly folded in her middle drawer she felt invaded, even if by kindness. He cooked, cleaned, shopped, still wanted to tuck her in for crying out loud.
And she had warned him. Dad, let me be. Let me take care of myself. I know you love me. And he would understand, he said, would back off, he said, and never, never did. And she could not be mad at him, it was like he had an illness, couldn’t help himself. He had to take care of her, but he was killing her. Smothering her.
Dad, I’m in Las Vegas with Kathy and I’m not coming home. Dad, I’m living my own life now. Dad, from now on I’ll wash my own underwear and I’m looking forward to it. I will cook my own food, Dad, and I know I’ll enjoy it. But she didn’t make it to the phone, only to the rehearsal. Then she drifted off again.
She woke up before daybreak. She knew she was elsewhere only not exactly where. Then she recognized the ducks on the predawn walls. And the next thing she saw was the pacing wolf, watching him, not just thinking she was; actually watching. The Tasmanian wolf, round and round the cage trying to understand, trying to think, not a thought of sitting down, round and round, bedroom, her room, front room, kitchen, bedroom, her room, through the night. He looked devastated, chewing the inside of his mouth until it bled, stained Kleenex in the kitchen trash. He had been up all night he had, the endangered wolf, her dad.
She watched him for quite some time, round and round, while the dawn seeped into the den. Watched him love her so badly he could not sleep. And then she knew she had it all wrong: It wasn’t his way of taking care of her at all, it was her way of taking care of him.
She eased the door shut behind her. Even so, pulling it closed slowly by inches, the hinges squeaked a little and on settling the latch bolt clicked loudly into place, like a soft gunshot. At least to her ears.
She stood there for a moment, very still, her ear to the warm, brown wood listening for any sounds from within. Nothing; perfectly silent.
She turned then, hitched her tote bag higher up on her shoulder and set out down the driveway, careful to step quietly. The sun had yet to rise, but the sky had begun to blush in the east: she could make out the casinos and hotels downtown. The morning air was warm and smelled of sand. She would hitch a ride back to LA. The interstate wasn’t all that far, and she knew how to get there.
Don’t worry Dad. Soon you can sit down again.