Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 120 in October, 2009.
If it happened naturally it would scare him – but that’s just it. When he was a child, he wasn’t the sort that jumped into a board game and began rolling dice without any rules. He read the card that came in the box, and referenced it on any questionable proceedings. Playing to the letter amused him more than anything else. He had no deep-seated attachment to law-abiding or a compulsion to order. It was just more fun that way.
So when he decided that the warm lump of coal sitting in his stomach glowed because of Stacy Morgan, he made up his mind to stalk her. The stalkers in movies were usually pretty comic anyway. The point was that he was not some neglected creeper preying on a type set girl, but that he played a part oft-depicted with mirthful scenarios. He imagined he might even meet a monkey that would co-conspire with him and their hilarious escapades would involve burrowing in bushes or wading in pools outside her window, fully clothed, binocs passing one to the other. It would be a regular Inspector Clouseau affair. But then he hoped no sort of authority would get involved, unless it was a dynamic black/white team that added to the humor and playfulness.
He went to the public library, checked out How to Stop a Stalker (Mike Proctor, Prometheus Books 2003) and began with the last chapter, working his way backwards and making notes in his spiral notebook on how to not get stopped. By the time he’d read the book’s intended first sentence, he was sure that it’d take a dedication equal to his own to nab him. And after acquiring a microfilm of “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome: An Article from the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin” (Nathalie de Fabrique et al 2007), he was also sure that that sort of dedication would inevitably lead to the seeds of a relationship in which Stacy would feel at once repelled by his advances and desperately intrigued. It would be like owning Park Place and Boardwalk, hotels on both.
For the moment he abandoned the chimpanzee fantasy and got started on some hard facts. He wrote, “Stacy is a middle aged, brown haired Caucasian, sexually frustrated (he scratched that phrase out, realizing it was an inference from his own psyche) night owl at the 24 hour Zapp’s Cleaners on West 18th Street. Day occupation (if applicable): unknown. Interests: unknown as well, possibly cleaning or stain-removing techniques. Closest family relations: older brother Mike, owner of said cleaners. Car: Tan Ford Taurus.” It looked official on paper. It would look especially official on microfilm like that FBI article, but it wouldn’t appear in that format unless he got caught and the case electrified the nation. Even then he would have to wait at least five to ten years for libraries to convert the articles and samples of his notebooks. No, this was as official as it was going to get at this stage.
Notebook in the glove compartment, Shipley’s twelve pack of doughnut-holes positioned atop the dash, nine mechanical pencils (he knew there’d be no way he was going to be writing at that speed, but he might lose a couple) in the cup holder, he was ready for his first stake out. His forty-four ounce Orange soda was icy and damp between his legs. He’d told the attendant at the Seven Eleven opposite Zapp’s that his bathroom in his apartment next door wasn’t working, in case he got suspicious about the frequent toilet runs that were bound to occur. “T.M.I.” the teen had said. He did not know what that meant but wrote it down anyway – anything could be important. Besides, the acronym would give him an interesting puzzle to solve when Stacy went out of view. “Try Mirror Imaging” was the guess he ended up circling. Thinking it good advice on the part of the now possibly wise teenager, he pulled his car into another spot where he could watch her in his rear view, instead of through the much more exposed windshield. He retrained his eyes on the happenings inside s’qqaZ.
Stacy didn’t seem to be up to much. About every seventeen minutes she would quit thumbing through a magazine and walk into the backroom, assumedly catalyzing different parts of the cleaning process. When she was gone her fat and disgusting brother took the opportunity to peruse her unattended magazine, looking over his shoulder to ensure she wouldn’t catch him. The magazine must be a real girly one, he thought. Between 1:14AM and 1:18AM (Bathroom break number two), a limousine had pulled curbside. The chauffeur was unloading armfuls of nightgowns and tuxedo’s from the back. Who was getting this sort of cleaning done at one in the morning? And in a limousine? He remembered his own ride in a limo, junior prom 1992. He’d sat in the front with the driver, pretending he was as deaf as the fifty year old to the moans and slamming bodies behind the partition. Possibly a group of drunk and dirty prom-goers, he thought, hoping their parents wouldn’t detect tonight’s activities on their clothes tomorrow morning. Whoever they were, they were gone by 1:22AM and Stacy didn’t appear again until 1:40. Her brother had exhausted the magazine and tried his hand at some pull-ups on one of the racks. Unsuccessfully.
At six in the morning he awoke to the grumble of the Ford Taurus’ ignition directly behind him and turned the keys to his own car. The maneuver was somewhat awkward, because he ended up nearly swiping her tail as he pulled out only seconds after she did. He was way too close. Another screw up like that and he’d get blown early, he thought. Then he laughed because people in the movies would’ve laughed at the close call. Comedy at last.
457 Branwick Drive, he wrote on page two of what was quickly becoming known as the Morgan File in his mind. He was going to write it on the cover, but then thought it better to write it in Sharpie, then thought it exponentially better to wait until he could buy stencil stickers at the Dollar Tree to make it look crisp. Residence confirmed; that was enough for the first day. Well, after the flyer. He removed a pink slip advertising rust removal from the glove compartment and snuck it under her wipers. The address was his own, as was every address on each different imaginary company flyer he’d printed out, ranging from hot dog stands to psychology firms seeking volunteers for experiment. The day she figured it out, he imagined her dropping a gigantic pile of warm laundry, button down shirts cascading to the vinyl floor, and her starchy palm slapping her damp forehead.
On the way home he called Penelope’s Pizza.
“We don’t deliver this early.”
“On a Saturday? What about tee ball games?
“Teams usually come in. Anyway, we don’t.”
He let out a long, throaty sigh directly into the receiver. “If I come in 15 minutes, will you have a large black olive pizza ready?”
“Yes sir. Are you coming in 15 minutes?”
“Yea.” He pulled into his own driveway, backed out, and headed for Penelope’s.
On Monday he woke up, put on a bathrobe and cracked an egg into a bowl. Terrifyingly and precisely at the moment the shell broke, his phone rang. If it wasn’t the creditors…
“Do you guys do work on site?”
“I got this jewelry but I don’t wanna bring it in. Can you come here? Do you even do jewelry cleaning?”
Rust removal. He allowed a possible connection. “No.”
He pushed End. On the grid, he thought. A noise behind him made him turn. Chimps screeching on Animal Planet.
Tuesday night he would miss Open Mic comedy at the Door but that was okay. He took three pairs of black jeans out of his bottom drawer, sprinkled crushed chalk all over their knees and threw them in a twenty-gallon trash bag. They clumped at the bottom like a dead cat. The whole ride over he pictured the cat’s open mouth, rigor mortis making the outstretched tongue hard as a jawbreaker.
The streetlights shone beautifully and their slender beams guided a fixed point on his windshield along like arms, pulling his car forward, passing him off at the last moment to the next welcoming grasp. Night rain can almost break your heart, he thought. When you live in such a big city, anyway. He turned a corner and Zapp’s stood there squatting in a pool of florescence.
“Do you think you can remove this? These?” He lined the jeans up on the counter.
She licked her thumb and drew it across a knee. The trail dissolved to black.
“I think I can handle it.”
“Well I need them done good. And quick, you know. Places to be.”
She raised her eyes up from the Levi’s. “You don’t have to wait. You can come back in an hour and a half.”
“I prefer to wait.” He looked behind him at the solitary school chair by the door. “You got any magazines?”
“Because we don’t need them.”
“What about when people wait?”
She gathered the jeans into her bosom and walked in the back.
“Nobody waits,” he heard her say over the humming machines.
“Nobody waits,” he mimicked. The chair hurt his back and after five minutes he was standing. The blank-faced TV posted up in the corner, watching like a child psychiatrist.
Do you like to play with the other children?
Why is that?
I don’t like it when they mess things up.
They’re just trying to play with you.
She reemerged and began tapping her fingernails on the counter, pinky to pointer, slow. He paced the floor. Their coupled motions triggered a fantasy where he became a savvy businessman dictating an illustrious business negotiation to his diligent and attractive (in a professional sense) secretary, whose fingers bounced furiously on her keyboard. Brilliant! He could almost hear her astonished whispers at his skill in closing a deal, falling in love, throwing modesty out the four story window, unabashed in her praise. She wore a perfectly tailored red skirt without so much as a loose stitch, and his black denim could reflect a man’s face like onyx.
“I could turn the TV on,” she said.
He looked up. “Does it work?”
“What a piece of shit. Mike won’t get a new one.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why do you care?”
Forty-five minutes into the cycle he remembered that she’d inadvertently provided him her phone number in a misguided attempt to get her jewelry cleaned. He turned his back to her and fished his cell phone out of his jean pocket. Stacy M. – he’d already programmed her in – contact set to speed dial #4. He pressed call.
It took longer than he expected. Then a vibrant midi techno exploded on the table behind him. He heard her groan.
“Hello? Hello….” She waited. “Dan?”
Who the hell was Dan?
“What?” He turned to face her.
“Must have been a screen call.”
He nodded. There was a lull.
“So uh, what do you do when you’re not zapping laundry?” He laughed at his own wit.
She covered her lower lip with her teeth. “The usual. I have a dog. And I like swimming.”
“Schnauzer. His name is Benny.”
“Is it hard to keep up your own pool?”
She laughed. “I go to the public one. My own pool. Yea I’ve got a pool but I can’t get the thirteen-inch TV to work. Some kind of life.”
That was definitely going into the Morgan File. Haunts: Public Pool. He smiled.
When she went to retrieve his jeans he leaned over the counter and caught sight of a calendar tacked to the wall. It was a schedule. Sunday through Friday night. Wednesdays off. He paid her with a ten-dollar bill bearing a number (his own) written in blue ink on the bottom right corner. She didn’t notice.
He left a purple flyer on her windshield encouraging vigilantes to “STOP animal violence” with a 24/7 hotline to call if you suspected abuse of any neighborhood pet.
That night he dreamt a chimpanzee was dictating a letter to a jaguar confirming an order of ten thousand brass cymbals.
At home the Morgan File grew. The dog threw him for a loop, but surely he’d be happy with some peanut butter treats. Dan, on the other hand, would not. He decided to redirect her attention from animal abuse to relational abuse and opened Kinko’s at 7:58AM. The elderly lady that helped him melted.
“Helping battered women speak out is one of the most noble causes a man your age could take up.”
He was annoyed. “Yea, well I just need ten of them.”
“Don’t discount yourself. Ten copies?”
“No, ten different flyers trying to end domestic violence. You know, just ten different ways of saying the same thing.”
“Of course. Proofs. Do you work with an organization?”
He yawned. “Yea. It’s a small firm you’ve never heard of.”
“Our Lady of Constant –”
“Look, you’ve never heard of it cause I just started it, okay? It’s a new venture.” He felt a little spark of entertainment. “It’s a shoot off of the ASPCA.”
“Well,” she said, turning her monitor around for him to check out her design, “that is simply wonderful.” She paused. “Why do you want them all with different names?”
“It makes the support base look more diverse.”
She smiled. “Men like you are what gives girls hope.” She put her hand over his, vulnerably resting on the counter. “Tell you what, this one’s on Kinko’s.”
“Well, merci,” he said, sliding his hand back a little. The contact had startled him.
When she gave him the still warm-from-the-press flyers there was a check on top of them for twenty dollars.
“You can fill it out yourself, whenever you decide on the official name.” Her cheeks blushed.
On the way home he voiced an angel and demon dialogue on the ethics of cashing the check.
It’ll unbalance her checkbook. That’s a headache worth twenty dollars to avoid.
She’s giving it to a charity, not an eligible bachelor.
It’s a tax write off anyway. He needs the money. The water could go out on Monday.
The water’s always out in Hell.
He stashed the check in the Morgan File. Using her work schedule he drew up a hypothetical sleep and leisure routine. Wednesday was the x-factor. He wrote “Wednesday = X” and circled it. She gets off at 6AM, probably has some sort of meal, a breakfast/dinner, a brupper (he laughed as he wrote the word), feeds Benny, and goes for a morning swim around 8? Or watches the news until 9, falls asleep, wakes up at 4:30PM, makes breakfast (he avoided another tempting go at a combination), cleans up a little bit, does whatever normal women do from 8-10AM, and then swims at dusk, the oozing orange sun drenching her skin with a molten glow. Yes, he thought, that was probably it. And Dan did whatever he did, hopefully neglecting her to the point of frustration. Maybe after her breakfast she journals about how much she wishes somebody would save her from his abusive behavior.
He closed the file, allowing himself to trace the rubbery stencil letters of Morgan only once. There was an orange peel on his desk and he let it stay there, shriveling in its mere day without a fruity core. Pathetic, he thought. He walked to the refrigerator and got a cola and placed it on his counter, waiting for it to sweat.
Maybe we should stop.
Well…what if one of us gets hurt? Come on pansy. Geez.
It was sweating good. He popped the tab and stowed it in an old pickle jar. Last count he had 792. When he had a thousand, he was told, they could be deposited for up to ten dollars. Vincent the corner store clerk had said this. He normally didn’t trust Vincent. Still, they looked cozy in their glass receptacle.
The phone rang.
“Hey, uh, this is Stacy Morgan, I live at 457 Branwick Drive, and I think my neighbor abuses his cocker spaniel really bad.”
He tried to think how the 911 dispatchers talked. “Okay Ma’am. Calm down. Are you in a place where you can talk?”
There was a brief silence. “Yea, I’m in my den. I’m just watching TV. It’s not an emergency or anything, I was just thinking about it and that dog doesn’t look right.”
He slapped his cheek.
“Do you guys do home investigations or anything? Do you have to catch the person red-handed?”
“I’m sorry. Did you say dog?”
“Yea. It’s a cocker spaniel.” If she wasn’t holding the receiver inside of her mouth then she was smacking gum unbelievably loud.
“We only do cats. Call the pound.” He hung up.
So definitely news at 9AM, sleep, then swim. He unpacked some boxes in the closet and fetched a pair of swim shorts. Oh, and shades, he thought, they always have shades on in the movies. He looked in the kitchen table’s little utensil drawer and got out a pair he’d picked up at a radio promotional kiosk in the mall. 95.7HotFM. They were neon. Sometimes the sun came and annoyed him during breakfast. He thought it rather ingenuitive.
At 5:15PM, Wednesday, he parked himself in a stretchy plastic pool chair wearing neon sunglasses and rust red swim shorts, sunscreenless and without the slightest desire to take a dip. She never came. At 7:30 he lowered his legs in, folded his torso over the concrete lip, and peed in the pool. The warmth in the cold reminded him of copper pipes in snow.
That night he woke up in a bolt of inspiration, dressed, and drove to Zapp’s. This time he wiped a drop of ketchup on the neck of a t-shirt.
“Can you get it?” he asked.
Mike nodded, picking at it with his fingernail. “Oh yea. No problem.”
“Can I ask why you need this done at two in the morning?”
He looked out the window, letting off that he was scanning the parking lot, and said, “Let’s just say that ain’t my wife’s lipstick.”
Mike giggled. Then he started laughing in earnest. “You! You’re a smart man!”
He raised his eyebrows. “Hey – can I ask you something?”
“You got any magazines?”
This sent him into another fit. “What, uh, are you looking for? I don’t have any of those type! My sister works here too you know.”
He nodded, smiling. “I got you.” Here were the old schemers, laughing over beers. The cronies! Just like a movie. “Don’t want your sister’s boyfriend coming in here and getting wrong ideas in the dryer room.”
“Ahh – don’t have to worry about him.” Mike eyed him like they were in cahoots. He lowered his voice. “Truth is…I think he’s gay.”
The comedy…it was intoxicating. He paced and laughed and stuck another one-liner in and the pair squealed together like schoolgirls. They came up with more jokes about Dan than there are about men walking into bars.
“The best part,” Mike said, trying to control himself, “is the guy’s some Justice’s dim-wit son. He gets pushed around by every police precinct in town like a retarded kid gets pushed around grades. And he has no idea, the guy!”
The inspector at last. He settled down. “What do they got him doing now?”
Mike took a breath. “Oh, who knows. Stacy tells me he works on bottom of the barrel stuff – you know, the real cold cases. Jots little notes down on sticky paper and leaves them all over the house. Clues.” He waved it off. “Weird guy.”
Then only the busy machines in the back made any noise and they waited. The rain had let up and pools like scattered mirrors dotted the pavement outside.
On his way back he paid 457 Branwick Drive a visit and dropped off one of the Kinko flyers. Maybe he doesn’t communicate well with her, he thought. Maybe he’s an enigma. He wondered if his movie was taking a psychological turn. He never liked Silence of the Lambs.
He fell asleep in the predawn and dreamt of an anthill with a thousand black ants swarming all over it. He held a two-gallon aluminum container over it, letting clear vapory liquid spill out the nozzle and onto the frantic ants.
In the afternoon his car wouldn’t start. It was conspiring against his plans. It had gathered up its sludgy insides all morning and deposited them between the pistons.
“Well,” he said to his steering wheel, “we’ll see about this.”
There was nothing to see. He didn’t know anything about engines anyway.
Waylaid at his kitchen table, he read a National Geographic and ate toast. Today, at least, he’d have time to pour over his file and come up with some new schemes. He had to admit that it was moving slower than he would like. It seemed really more like getting to know someone, not stalking them.
The phone rang.
“Ominous,” he told the toaster. It didn’t respond.
“Is this, uh,” he heard paper crumpling. “No More, with an exclamation point at the end of that?”
“How can I help you, ma’am?”
“I don’t know if I can talk about it… you know, on the phone.” She sniffled. He could hear the click of her nails on a hard surface.
“Okay, Ma’am. Calm down.” He froze. Shit. “Is the man in your life a husband or a boyfriend or a family member, like… a brother?” He cringed.
“Which one of those?”
“I told you I can’t talk about it,” her voice was even, slightly annoyed, “on the phone. Do you guys do home visits or anything?”
He was a stalker, not a support group. Still, it could be fruitful. “What time are you available?”
“Is 8 tonight okay? I have work at ten, you know, nightshift.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Oh thank you.”
“Wait,” she said. “I never told you my address.”
He clinched his fist. “Ah yes, I’m sorry, I got ahead of myself. And you live?”
The line went dead.
Taking CityBus 12 he was able to get to the bank downtown. The clerk eyed his notebook. He filled the check out to himself and signed the back. She handed him a crisp twenty.
“Oh, could I get it in fives?”
It was going towards the right cause, he assured the angel. She wanted it to help battered women. This woman had a stalker after her for goodness sakes.
Back home he took a shower and greased his hair. He tucked his shirt into his black jeans, the jeans she’d lovingly washed, the very jeans her tongue had touched by way of the transitive property. Stalkers always tucked their shirts in. It was a matter of presentation. He dug up his bus map, circled the Rentook stop, and called to arrange a taxi pick up from there. At 7PM he walked back to the bus stop, waited eleven minutes, got Citybus 22 to another stop, waited eight minutes, and took Citybus 15 to Rentook, which, by his calculations, was the closest he could get to 457 Branwick Drive using public transportation. He waived at the idling taxi.
“Did they tell you where to go? It’s 457 Branwick Drive.”
“I know,” said the man. “And plus, you just told me.” The man was not a very amicable taxi driver. He’d imagined more of a kindly old foreigner.
“Okay, well.” They proceeded.
At Stacy’s he counted three of the bankhard fives over the middle console and into the man’s palm.
“You don’t have change do you?”
The lock pins clicked up. He got out.
“Do they normally send only one of ya?”
He looked behind him. The taxi was gone. “Oh, yea. Well it’s just that we’re so understaffed.” He smiled. “Can I come in, Miss Morgan?”
“Please, call me Stacy. And yes, please, welcome.”
As she led him into the kitchen (small, 4 ring stove, no dishwasher, 2 windows facing west, possible entry through oversize doggie door), she turned around.
“Do you ever come into Zapp’s Cleaners? Sorry, it’s random.”
“Is that, uh, downtown? The 24 hour place?”
She nodded. “Yea,” she said slowly.
“Yea I’ve been in there I think.”
She pointed to his jeans. “Those jeans, I think I washed them. Some chalk or something on them. Those black fucking jeans. Am I crazy?”
“No, you very well could have!” Too enthusiastic. “It’s possible, anyway,” he said.
She wagged her finger at them. “I remember you. Anyway, make yourself comfortable in the den there. I’ll make some coffee. I’ve got beer too if you want.”
Maybe an alcohol abuser, he thought. “Coffee is great.” He fiddled with a brass elephant on a side stand. Under it was a sticky note that said, “1994 – man accosted. Denver.”
She brought him a mug and then sat down to his right. They stared at each.
“So do I just start unloading myself on you or what?” she asked.
“Oh, no no, I’d just like to know a few things about yourself before we get started.” He clasped his hands. “To help you find a support group. And for profiling purposes.”
“Where should I begin? Broken homes? Abusive what-nots?”
Her flippancy almost annoyed him, but at the last second it made his heart melt molteny and lava-like. “Just start by telling me about your job, daily habits, et cetera.”
She did. They weren’t interesting except for the fact that everything she disclosed was perfectly admissible to the Morgan File. One job, nine bucks an hour, doesn’t eat eggs, won’t touch tin foil or any other malleable metals, swims, boyfriend’s name is Dan.
“And its here that the problem begins.” He tapped his pen on his legal pad.
She cocked her head. “No.”
They continued talking for another fifteen minutes about nothing. Ants began crawling in between his tucked shirt and jeans, as if she was the counselor and he the impatient confessor. He wanted to stay on track.
“So did your mother get abused by your pops or something?” She asked.
“Are we talking about me or you?”
“She did didn’t she. Was he a real bastard?”
He put his empty coffee cup down.
“Cigarette?” She pulled out a soft-pack and lighter from her pocket. She held one out in her palm like a coin. He took it. They smoked together.
“Let me ask you something. How’d you know my address?”
He recrossed his legs. “Let me ask you something. How could an auto-rust removal company possibly be related to cleaning jewelry? What would they do, drop your rings in some antifreeze?”
She nodded. “Fair enough.”
“Okay. Next question. More of a statement, really. You don’t work for a domestic abuse agency.”
He considered asking what that entailed. Because technically he had not only a poster and a single agent, but also a contributor in good faith. He let it go. “And you aren’t a victim of domestic abuse.”
“So I guess the real question is - ” and he was going to make his triumphant, earth shattering declaration, the one with the cascading laundry.
“Why did I call?”
He froze. “Uh, well no.” He laughed. “Well yes, why did you call?”
She shrugged. “I saw you put that rust whatever flyer on my windshield. I was watching between the blinds.” She pointed to the window looking out onto the front yard.
“Oh,” he said.
“And so I thought I’d play along. Maybe get my bracelet looking more sparkly.” She held out her wrist for him to examine. “And then the animal violence thing looked basically the exact same, with the computer font and all, and I never get flyers on my windshield so I figured it must be you again.”
“Does your neighbor really kick his dog?
She laughed. “I mean, I don’t know. It’s probably just retarded from years of living with him. Mike, my brother… he’s an idiot.”
“Oh that’s Mike’s house. Okay. Ha.”
“Cats only though?” She frowned. “Why’d you say that? Doesn’t really make sense.”
He unclasped his hands, raised them like a preacher and took a breath. “You see…” he paused. He let his hands down. “I got nervous. Besides, I hate dogs.”
“Right. But then with the No More! campaign you took a plunge.”
“Why?” She sat Indian style on the couch and faced him.
“It’s just so lame. I don’t know what to say.” He looked down.
She put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. It’s because you thought I might really be in trouble, isn’t it?” She patted him. “You thought I was calling for real and that I thought you were somebody that could help me. And you came even though I hung up on you.” Her hand slid off.
“Well, maybe you are somebody that can help me,” she said, and she smiled at him. “Maybe I can help you.”
“You think?” he said.
“We can try.”