Fugitives From Memory
FUGITIVES FROM MEMORY
The sun had been up a mere half hour but it was already too hot for the old woman. Where the shopping bag hung over her arm a line of sweat had formed, and the veins in her legs were swelling. Across the desolate parking lot toward Shop ’n Save she limped, her shadow bobbing ahead, mimicking her steps. The asphalt oozed crumpled paper and plastic, cigarette butts, and beer cans. Discarded refuse, as she was. Out here at dawn to buy the few items her son said he’d pick up last night on his way home but forgot. Again. No apologies and hadn’t even offered to drive her over this morning. He’d been a thoughtful boy, Gus had, before Afghanistan, talkative and kind. Now the two of them sat in their rooms never speaking, like inmates with adjoining cells in solitary confinement. She waiting him for him to live, he waiting for her to die. Wasted, meaningless days, suffocating in the heat, and nothing changed.
All that ambition, his boisterous thrust toward a promising future gone. Instead, driving a city bus in their hometown, a job that curdled his liver, and holing up with his mother in a cramped apartment. Earned and spent very little money, never ventured out for an evening. No girlfriend, no interests. He’d spoken once of getting a dog but hadn’t.
How far away Shop ’n Save still seemed as the relentless sun dampened her skin. She would stay inside as long as possible, fill up on cooled air, pretend to look at stuff in the freezer section, though being the cold would make journey back to the apartment even hotter. Maybe she’d spend the day in the store, hobbling from aisle to aisle, putting things in her cart, taking them out on the next round.
Behind her, another shadow lumbered, its bearer stealthy in pursuit. She unawares, suffering her wearisome traipse. The large shadow, keeping pace with her, was the only other at this hour in the lot, and taking advantage of that, withdrew from its right jacket pocket a handgun onto which a silencer had been affixed. The shadow arms rose, and outstretched, took aim with care before firing one bullet directly into the back of the old woman’s head. She fell without a cry. Darkening the victim’s body, the wide shadow loomed over her, stained asphalt undulating its edges, and fired silently again, directly through the old woman’s back to where her heart may still have been beating. Retreated, as shadows will, around the corner of the building.
Summers are meant to be restorative, Mary complained to the willow tree draped over the plaza. They were not meant as a handy time to slip in extra meetings. But honestly, she chided herself, don’t you want to be involved in making the decisions that will impact your professional life—and your beloved students? Of course she did, and would have been devastated if she hadn’t been invited onto the faculty committee.
Too hot to garden today in any case, as the wilting zinnias attested. At least I’ll be in air-conditioning for a few hours. Really it wasn’t the meeting she minded but having to take the bus to the college. Walk through the heat to the undoubtedly hot bus and arrive wilted herself. But cars break down at an untimely point whenever they do, and better now than after the semester began.
What an outstanding line-up of classes she had for the fall! “Shattered Visions: Literature of the Absurd”; “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler: Masterworks of Surrealism”; “Ruin and Redemption: The Cyclical Maze of Conscience”; and a POV fiction writing class. All courses she’d proposed: a glorious opportunity to plunge into the essence of literary themes that fascinated her.
Approaching the downtown bus stop, already sweating—Santa Fe isn’t supposed to crest eighty degrees before noon—shethought she recognized the elderly gentleman sitting on the bench, and yes, she did: her absolutely favorite professor from grad school days, Solomon Walker. He had been her Honors Dissertation advisor and later had written her a sterling recommendation that was instrumental in getting her this position at Santa Fe State College.Why hadn’t she stayed in touch? Embarrassing and glorious to see him sitting there, as if waiting for her!
“Professor Walker! Sol! What a wonderful surprise!”
He looked at her with eyes that did not have a clue. “Well, yes, it’s been some time.”
So forgettable she was.
“Mary, it’s Mary Cardon.” Gave him her best rendition of a dazzling smile.
“Mary. Of course.”
She’d brought him back to her, and now he rose for a friendly hug. They were once so much more intimate.
“I'm off to the college for a committee meeting: groan. You?”
“I don’t drive much any more.”
The bus pulled up, its doors slamming open. As she expected, trapped air, hot and foul, rushed out. Sol stepped aside to let her board ahead of him. Waiting in line behind them was Mary’s notion of a bona fide creep trying to pass himself off as a college student. SFSC was the final destination, per the bus, with innumerable stops in between. But since you’re sitting next to Sol, who cares how long the trip takes? What serendipity; what an exceptional delight.
And right behind the driver the air might be better.
The driver gave no heed to those boarding. He was on his phone, texting or gaming, with furious concentration. A wide-bodied man whose pocked face was slick with sweat, he looked unpleasantly familiar to Mary, whether because he resembled every other bus driver she’d seen or was a specific one she’d known. In her younger pre-car days she’d been a regular on city and interstate buses. But rarely with a traveling companion and never with one of Sol’s stature.
“You continue to be my inspiration, Sol. I still use most of the books you taught.”
“I guess I had you pretty well fooled. That group you were in was one of the brightest.”
“We loved you. You were our model for excellence.”
“Well, we had some fun, didn't we?”
At the first stop a gaggle of teens boarded. Loud, goosing each other, they headed for the back. A couple of them struck Mary as students she should know, but they showed no sign of recognizing her.
“You have any plans for the summer?” Sol asked her.
“Not really. These curriculum committee meetings, and we just came back from a fishing trip in Colorado. We stay at a ranch outside of South Fork, overlooking the Rio Grande. It's spectacular. You and Margaret have a cabin in Lake City, don't you?”
“We don't travel much anymore. Margaret has these two little dogs she's very attached to. Doesn't like to leave them for long. They're cute, always underfoot.”
The driver braked sharply, lurching the passengers forward. He muttered a curse. From her vantage point, Mary could see that a car had cut him off, but Sol’s focus was on the driver, not the road.
“You think this guy has ever driven a bus before?”
In the rear-view mirror the driver narrowed his eyes at Sol, said nothing. His forehead needed mopping.
“Sol, have you thought about teaching, say, a seminar for alums? I'm organizing a special event for our 20th reunion. You would be perfect to lead it!”
He laughed, patted her knee. A bell rang and an old, bent woman shuffled to the front, descending the steps with great difficulty. The driver stiffened, watching her, but did nothing. Three young men waited for her to reach the sidewalk before getting on.
“You should be helping her,” Sol growled at the mirror, locking eyes with the driver.
Who snarled right back, “What about you, mister?”
“Or the guys boarding should have.” Mary, diffusing the tension. “Looks like they're headed to the college, too. Summer session.”
“I wonder how tough it is to get a license.”
The driver in the mirror snorted his disgust. Then unaccountably his features twisted, skin blurred.
The image in the mirror revealed to him the silhouette of a large figure sitting on a bed loading a handgun.
He wiped the sweat from his eyes and face with a threadbare handkerchief, pulled onto the road.
What Mary saw in the mirror was a man suddenly become ill. She meant to ask whether he was all right when Sol asked her, “You have any plans for the summer?”
She smiled, tightly. Why didn’t people listen to each other any more?
“Apart from committee meetings no, not really. You?”
“Margaret has these little dogs she's attached to. Doesn't like to leave them for long.”
At the railroad crossing the signals indicated a train coming. Just our luck, thought Mary, but quickly chided herself. She loved the train ride to Albuquerque. Low ridership jeopardized its future. I must take it again this summer, for pleasure and to add another body to the passenger count.
The driver stopped the bus and the door opened, per regulations. They sat back and prepared to wait for the train. Everyone but Sol, who hadn't noticed that they were at the crossing. Shook his head, indignant.
“Stopping right in the middle of the street. I'm going to report this guy. You think he's ever driven a bus before?”
The driver scowled, put on the emergency brake, heaved himself around, and confronted Sol.
“You got a problem, mister, you can get out at the next stop and walk.”
Suddenly he saw Mary sitting by the window. Went from grimace to grin.
“Hey, you used to ride my bus to Denver, remember? Mary. Call of the Wild?”
She started involuntarily, mustered a return smile.
“Imagine running into you again after so long. Gus, isn't it? Rhymes with bus. You loved adventure stories of all kinds.”
“I miss those days. The open road.”
“That was an adventure story in itself!”
A vision of her younger self, sitting just where Sol was now, shot through her mind: the bus barreling down an icy mountain pass. La Veta. Gus maneuvering the road expertly, sliding around curves at high speed. She watching him, grinning, enthralled by the danger.
“Yeah, my glory days. Remember how I used to narrate the ride for you, like you were a tourist and I was the guide?”
“Hilarious!”She laughed, recalling his monologue. They’d become friends on the run to Denver, which Mary made several times a year, he four times a week. “We used to eat together at the lunch stop in Fort Garland. Red Heart Café.” She reminded him, then paused. “What a shame Greyhound folded.”
“No kidding. I was about to be promoted. Become one of those fat-cat execs. Poof. All gone. Lost my retirement.”
“So have you been—?”
“Lord. High-risk assignment, Gus. I’m glad nothing happened to you, I mean, that you’re okay.
She said all that wondering whether it was true. Felt sorry for him. Tough breaks.
“And thank you for your service.”
“Not that anyone gives a shit,” his vitriolic retort, irrefutable.
Sol was staring at something she couldn’t see. Even with the driver’s window open, the air was stifling.
Gus trying to recapture the camaraderie of their former days, “Read any good dog books lately?” The tone bright, forced.
“I've never found anyone to match Jack London.” She turned to Sol. “You all right?”
“Nam. Drafted in ’67.”
Oh, yes: he’d told them that in class. But no stories.
“It must have been awful for you, too, Sol. I can’t imagine what you suffered.”
Gus, low and harsh, “War’s just another way to die.”
“I’m just thankful neither of you did.” What more could she say? That he’d left his good-natured humor on the battlefield?Not the man or the driver she’d known.
“You have any plans for the summer?” Sol, as though they’d just gotten on.
Gus snickered. Annoyed by his response, she answered Sol with care, “Gardening, reading, a daily swim. We’re not planning to travel anywhere.”
He leaned toward her confidentially. “Margaret has these two little dogs she's very attached to. Cute, always underfoot. She doesn't like to leave them for long.”
Mary’s heart shafted with grief. No, not Sol. Not Sol.
“I got me a shepherd. Smart as a whip. Takes no guff from strangers.”
“Maybe you can teach him to drive.”
Gus pulled over abruptly at the next stop. The drunk trying to board missed the first step and nearly fell, made another attempt, tripped, and sprawled across the entrance. Heaved himself up, groped for the climbing bar, missed it, and staggered backward. Gus snarled at him and banged the door shut, roared off.
“Not even noon. Christ.”
She could have taken a cab to the college. Not lost Sol. Not found Gus.
Gus shifted his eyes to Mary. “You still teaching?
“Maybe you can teach him to drive.” Pushing his luck.
“Maybe she can teach you to—“
Mary surged in to break it up.“I learned everything about teaching from Sol. He was my brilliant grad school professor at UNM.”
And received a defensive retort from Gus. “Some of the brainiest guys I know never been to college.”
“You have any plans for the summer?” Sol, with genuine interest.
Gus swabbed his face again with the drenched handkerchief. “You learn real quick on the battlefield. Lessons that count.” Tossed the rag onto the dash. “About now, with the sun in my eyes, I start to cook. The a.c. sucks.”
The bus was air conditioned?
A scream from the back of the bus riveted them. Gus slammed on the brakes. “What the hell! Somebody dying?” Hand fled involuntarily to his pants pocket where Marysaw a bulge that looked like a gun. These days it was legal for a bus driver to be carrying, but was it wise for Gus to be? If he was.
“He’s okay. Just having a bad . . . dream.”
The screamed groaned. “Oh, Mama!”
“Sure.” Gus, his sweat dripping with sarcasm.“Buses are a goddamn magnet for nuts.”
“You have any plans for the summer?”
Nostalgia and anguish sparring for the upper hand. Sol as he had been, Sol as he had become. Her memory suffered the loss that his lost one did not. She longed for the long gone.
Gus groaned, an echo of her yearning and the screamer’s dream.
“My mama got shot, see, broad daylight, in the parking lot of the Vista Hermosa mall. Blasted close-range in the head and the heart.”
She felt as if she had been, too, by his words. Stumbled to respond.
“Oh, Gus, that’s devastating. I’m so sorry.”
“She was going to the grocery store.”
“How terrible. When did it happen?”
“Early this morning.”
Why was he here, a few hours later?
“You must be in shock, Gus. Why are here, driving?”
“Mama wrote me every week of my two tours in Afghanistan. Same letter over and over, kind of like a prayer.”
“Shouldn’t you be with her?”
“She still prays for me every day. It’s like I never came back. Living in a war zone.”
“Oh, Gus, I’m so sorry. Losing someone you love can make you crazy.”
“She was my mother.”
Sol, throughout, head cocked as though listening to them speak in a foreign tongue, mumbled, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram.“ The famous opening lines of Camus’ The Stranger. Totally inappropriate, hence ignored. But impressive that Sol remembered these lines, so little else.
His face molten red, Gus lowered the sun visor, which flapped on its loose hinge, blocking his vision. Jammed it back up again. The sun in the window appeared to be growing larger, brighter, intent on punishing him.
Sol watching in his separate reality, spoke again Meursault’s lines from Camus, “It seemed to me as the sky had split open from one end to the other to rain down fire.”
Did Sol know the book by heart? He’d taught it for years, but so many others as well. Couldn’t have them all memorized unless they were the sole thing occupying that enormous mind.
“They’ll find whoever did it.” Mary, inflecting her words with confidence that was refuted by the disillusioned son.
Pointless to disagree.
“Too much violence these days, and too little conscience.” Shifted focus, but delivered her verdict in the same tone, to reinforce his.
Gus wagged his head. “You hit it exactly. I said something of the kind to my VA therapist. The shooting range was more help than that quack. But nothing really helps.” Firing bullseyes into the target on his days off. A crack shot.
Sol, wide of the mark. “Especially when the emptiness of a man’s heart becomes, as we find it has in this man, an abyss threatening to swallow up society.”
“Who the hell is he talking about?”
“A character in a French novel, Meursault. Executed for murder. He's a profoundly disturbed man who acts like nothing matters.”
Grunt and shudder from Gus “If he's been held in isolation, that'd break him down sure enough. Isolation makes you wacko.” Using a sweaty arm now to wipe his face.
“Meursault is a chronic liar who doesn't know he's lying,” Sol, in a lecture mode, contended. “He simply never tells himself the truth.”
Ironic Mary, “So many of us don't.”
“Mind games. I hate 'em.” His uniform sweated through, rivulets trickling down his arms, Gus leaned forward to grab a water bottle.
“What interests me more,” Sol instructing Mary continued, “is what he's been saying to himself for five months in solitary.” He mirrored-eyed Gus.
“Threats, promises. You don't remember half the crap you're spewing.”
“‘No one can imagine what nights in prison are like.’”
An ambulance shrieked behind them. Gus pulled over to let it pass. Streaked by, followed, seemingly, by a police car, lights and siren on, which, however, did not whiz on but halted in front of the bus, blocking it.
Lights still flashing, a patrolman emerged from the cruiser and strode to the door of the bus, automatically open.
“Gus Mercer?” He immaculate despite the heat, big gun holstered and other paraphernalia hanging from his belt. Shades, steely jaw, buzz-cut, mounted the stairs.
“Could be.” Gus playing it cagey.
“Mr. Mercer, I have some bad news concerning your mother.” He glanced
uncomfortably at Mary and Sol, back at Gus.
“It is my duty to inform you that your mother was shot to death this morning in the parking lot of the Vista Hermosa mall.”
Silence boomeranging off the walls. Followed by the scuff of someone walking toward the front of the bus.
“I need you to come with me to ID the body.”
“You already know who it is.” (So do you, Mary to herself, rigid with horror.)
“Have to get a positive ID from a family member.” (Note his dispassion, sir.)
Gus, stoically lodged. “Can’t you just show me a photo, like on your phone?”
“Nope. The ID has to be made in person.” Hesitated. “The photos are taken at the scene. Pretty ugly.”
“Can’t be as bad as seeing the body.” (Or the killer who slew his mother.)
“She’s been cleaned up. As much as possible.”
“Okay. I’ll go wherever after I finish my route. Can’t just walk away from the bus.”
It was the creep fraud guy who’d shambled to the front, but now he was standing upright, a large man, no ear buds, looking dangerous. She dreamed herself in a cab.
“Sergeant Magistero,” reading the name plate on his uniform. “Raymond Simms. Night guard at the mall. Happy to help in any way I can. Got an idea who did it?” He took in the scene. Subservient nod toward cop. Contemptuous sneer at Mary and Sol. Gus condemned in a wither. Had he overheard their conversation, tailed Gus? Scum, as per her first instinct. Not to be trusted.
“Thanks, Simms, but Mr. Mercer’s ID is all I need right now. Can’t comment on the investigation.”
“I’ll be there after I finish my route,” Gus repeated. Added pointedly, “I’m behind schedule.”
“Could be,” Raymond hinting darkly, “that someone saw something.”
Undistracted, the officer pressed ahead.
“Now, Mr. Mercer. You have to come with me now.” Fingers hovering within range of his gun. “These folks can catch the next bus.”
“We’ll get off.” Mary, with Sol firmly by the arm, rose to leave. Trapped in the window seat, she had to move him first.
He grabbed the armrest, jerked away from her. “Margaret will come for me.” Then savagely, to the cop, “Keep your head down, Sarge. This stretch is crawling with Viet Cong. There’s no way out.” The cop, bewildered, his features oscillating between alarm and pity.
“We’re not at a regular stop.” Blazing, Gus pulled out, no signal, no check for traffic, gunned it through a yellow light. Swung fast around the corner and roared down a central thoroughfare, oblivious to the havoc he’d instigated.
Sergeant Magistero, reeling backward, grabbed for a handhold, which turned out to be the bar for opening the door. Tumbled to the blacktop, hung on, scraping asphalt, till a lane change swerve. Fell into traffic, then, and out of life.
Passengers screamed, thrown against windows, down steps. Clowns and fools though the stoners may have been, all were fully alert to the crisis they’d suddenly become engulfed by.
Mary twisted around to see what happened. When she turned back, Sol, impassive old coot, was steadying a gun on the seat top, aimed straight out the windshield.
“I got your back, soldier,” Sol to Gus.
The word soldier jumped Gus into line. The war zone. Where lunacy ruled, made sense of this day. Transporting some idiot civilians back to camp. How they got here, behind Al Qaeda lines, he couldn’t guess, but their stupidity was real likely to get them all killed.
Transfixed by Sol’s words, bent over the steering wheel, Gus accelerated, weaving in and out of traffic, dodging enemy fire. The expanse of windows troubled him. Must be driving some kind of tour bus with these assholes, but who vacations in Kabul?
“What are you doing?” a shrill rebuke from Mary, grabbing Sol’s shoulder.
“Duck! We’re deep in VC terrain.” He’d left the country of here and now. He and Gus both. An uncertainty flashed by her mind: The difference between PTSD and Alzheimer’s, if there was any.
The passengers were still screeching, sobbing, calling out “Stop! Let me off! Stop!” Their shrieks competing with police sirens.
“Down in back, fucking morons!” Gus yelled. “Unless you want to die. And shut up!” Gus no longer mopping the sweat, driving blind.
“Hell of a job, soldier. You’ll get us through.” Sol’s gun swaying with the careen.
Thumb-upped by his confederate, grinning into the mirror. Mary’s white face morphing into the sun on the back of an old woman’s head, a handgun pointed at it.
“My mama must have dropped her guard like for a minute and they shot her.”
“Life is a war, son.”
“Yes, sir, Colonel, right you are.” Gus spat out a glob of sweat that had dripped into his mouth. “Problem is, you can't tell anymore who's the enemy. You always got to be prepared.” He made a violent chopping motion, jerking the steering wheel to the right. The bus veered sharply, nearly sideswiping a UPS truck. Behind them now, and pulling alongside, a cavalcade of flashing lights, sirens.
The back-seaters shouting “Help! Help! Don’t shoot!” out the open windows.
Sol, ignoring the, “A squadron tailing us, soldier. Step it up.”
“I can’t see nothing no more, sir.” Afghanistan a furnace in summer.
“You’re doing fine. Camp’s just over that hill.”
Sotto voce to Mary, “You’ve got to tell them that to keep them fighting even when you’re doomed. No way we can outrun this bunch of VC fighters. They’ve got the numbers and the firepower. But we’ll take some of them down with us, I promise you that.” He saluted her left-handed, the gun languishing muzzle-down near the floor. “See you on the other side, Marcy.”
“It’s Mary.” Gus snapped.
Raymond, across from them, saw his chance and made a grab for the gun. But it was not to be surrendered on Sol’s watch, who raised it, fired: close-range splattering of Raymond’s gut. The screamers, down in back all at once, hushed.
“You saved my life, Colonel. I won’t forget it.”
“About time I did some good around here.”
The police edging in to force the bus to the side of the road, cut it off. Ramming them a desire but not an option in this funky unarmored and unarmed vehicle. Why did they never have the right equipment for the job? Fucking army.
She, too stunned to act, react. Shortly now the cops would run the bus off the road. He wouldn’t brake. They would crash, maybe go up in flames, no survivors. The airplane safety card wedged in her instinct, she lowered her head and bent forward in the brace position. Ludicrous, given the circumstances.
“Cut right across that open field, soldier.” Where buildings had been razed, did look war torn. “Head for the river.”
Gus obeying orders, speeding jaggedly over ruts and hillocks, rocks and stumps. An uncontrolled flight toward a cluster of buildings. Police still with them, but at a sane pace. There was nowhere for him to go.
“Pull up between those sheds.” Sol still in charge. “Give us some cover.”
At the last minute, Gus braking sharply, yanking back hard on the emergency. Sol hurtled forward into the windshield, his head cracked. Mary braced, ramming the back of Gus’s seat, he the only one belted, locked in place. The stoners sliding, banging, grabbing seat legs.
Sol the one probable fatality. His gun lodged somewhere. The door opened.
Cops surrounded the bus, weapons drawn, but careful, don’t fire, men, we got hostages, who came streaming, quaking out the back door. Leaving the driver and a woman up front, with one, maybe two, dead guys.
Seeing they were unarmed, the officers swarmed aboard and rushed them. Mary, gone limp, unable to rise. Gus, hands up, surrendering to Al Qaeda so-called freedom fighters. Raymond, totally dead. Sol on his way out, pulse nearly gone. Sol! Sol! Vomit, guts, blood, weeping. Gus was right: this was a war zone.
What to do next seemed to baffle the cops. No weapons, no one to wrestle to the ground or shoot. The maniacal driver who killed one of their comrades calm now, sweating profusely, but no threat. The mayhem was over. EMTs had a clearer mission: resuscitate Sol, despite his imminent death.Their calling was life, no matter the odds. Raymond belonged to the police, but an ambulance loaded him up for the trip to the morgue. A drawer right next to Gus’s mother.
There was a place to start. Current events, the news of the day. Give us your account. They tried to take Mary to the back, away from the blood and Gus, but she held fast to her seat, in shock, not speaking yet. Later they’d get a clearer version, but in the immediate aftermath, at the scene, details came out that would be forgotten.
Started with the easy stuff: name, address, etc. His relationship to Mary and Sol came out as he went along. His mother’s murder. They paused there. The mother’s death was the reason Sergeant Magistero boarded the bus. Why had Gus killed him?
“Didn’t, never would have. He killed himself. Grabbed for some way to right himself on the steps, where passengers are not allowed to stand, and mistakenly grabbed the handle that opens the door. Fell out backwards onto the road. Not my fault.”
“You left the scene, didn’t stop to give help or call 911.”
“Seeing him that way took me back to another scene.”
“It’s a crime to leave an accident.”
“Al Qaeda was on my tail. I had to outrun them.”
A PTSD’d vet who’d flashbacked driving the bus. Great.
Mary felt the urge to speak, pushed her tongue between her lips. It was abnormally viscous and clumsy.
“Shol wasth my profethor.”
Which they already knew, through Gus. One of the officers handed her a bottle of water. She choked on the first swig. Pried her throat open for the second and drank deeply.
“Gus killed his mother.” Eyes pinned on the water bearer.
“Oh, yeah? You know that how?”
“She’s not in her right mind, Officer. Sol, the Colonel, was her hero.”
Mary to Gus: “You told us you mother had been shot to death at the mall that morning before the policeman got on.”
They had not been expecting this accusation. Shifted uneasily, exchanged glances. What to make of the woman’s claim.
Gus to the rescue. “Of course I didn’t kill my mother. My own mother?” Furrowed by the thought. “Okay, look. Here’s what happened that Mary knows nothing about. The dead guy, Raymond Simms, the one who the Colonel shot to save my life? He’s the killer. Lives next-door to us. Night guard at the mall, comes home around 6:00. Mama gets up early, makes breakfast just as he’s going to sleep. He gets so mad at her disturbing his peace. I told him to buy some damn earplugs: how hard can that be? But he wouldn’t do it. Threatened her, both of us, but her mostly. Landlord didn’t give a damn, just said to work it out. So Ray did. Plugged my mama.”
Gently, to Mary. “He texted me the news as you all were boarding. Said he’d be watching me, I was next if I called the cops. Tried to kill me, but Sol blasted him.”
“With your gun,” Mary persisted, but clouds were gathering at the fringes of her mind. How did she know who did it, knowing so little about either of them?
“Where is the gun?”
The officers looked around, up, down, and behind. Nowhere, at the moment. Mary’s eyes flitted to Gus. He shook his head.
“It was Ray’s gun. Sol lifted it from his rear pocket when Officer Magistero got on. You didn’t notice? The Colonel’s a vet, too; he’s savvy. When Ray tried to grab it back from him, Sol nailed him.”
“Did you serve with the Colonel?”
“In kind of a way, yes. We knew each other like warriors do.”
She’d distrusted Raymond on sight. He oozed sleaze. Came forward as soon as the cop climbed on. It made sense, and she didn’t believe it. Raymond was nasty, not crazy like Gus, skewed so far off-kilter that he was capable of anything. Even lying. Persuasively. To himself. Maybe that’s what he believed had happened.
“Memory is a trick of the imagination,” she murmured.
“Come again?” the water bearer cop leaned in, as though she’d given testimony.
“Something Sol noted when he was my dissertation advisor. I asked him if I could use it in my section about Slaughterhouse Five, and he said sure, as long as I credited him.” She laughed, having transported herself into that scene. “Oh, Sol!”
Laughed tears as another vision surfaced. “Margaret, his wife, she’s waiting for him. He said she was coming.”
A young officer at the door gave the commander in charge a questioning look, got the okay. “Ma’am, we have an APB out on Solomon Walker. Disappeared from the Alzheimer’s care center at Remedios early this morning.” Paused, dutifully. “He had no living relatives.”
She surrendered. Everything is true and nothing is true. That’s what Sol would have said, with his perfect recall of The Stranger. Among the divergent possibilities of what has been and what might have been, we choose one to believe.
Until another fork in the road leads to a new conviction.
“Ma’am, Officer Garcia here will drive you to the hospital, get you checked out.”
Took his arm, like an old friend. Speaking with grave civility, she assured him, “It’s not what we can’t remember that drive us crazy, but what we can’t forget.”
Her solicitous companion nodded, “Yes, ma’am, everybody’s guilty of something.”