Tarl Roger Kudrick
I will not fall in love with this woman. I’ll just help her find the flying wooden walrus, then I’ll make some lame excuse and go home.
Those are the promises I made to myself, and I’m on the verge of breaking all of them. For one thing, we can’t find the walrus. She thinks it could be on the ceiling of the gazebo in Tyler Square, because “flying” might mean “over our heads” and “wooden” could mean “drawn on something wooden,” like the gazebo. “You have to understand how these people think,” she tells me in a voice as warm and charged as an electric blanket. If I could find any legitimate excuse to touch her—brush her hand, bump against her shoulder—but there is none. Then she
pokes me in the ribs. “And you have to help more. You went here!”
“Here” means Clarksville College, a small midwestern liberal arts school in a speck of a town that only exists because the college does. I graduated nineteen years ago, when I was twenty-two, and at least forty-four percent dead. I’m forty-one now and at least eighty-two percent dead. Every male on my father’s side of the family who didn’t die at childbirth, like my brother and uncle did, died before turning fifty.
Congenital heart defects. I’ve got two of them. I’ve only made it this far because I’ve got more drugs in me than a medicine cabinet, and because I fight hard to have the dullest life possible. I live like a photocopier, cranking out the same day over and over. Tonight’s an aberration, and it will never happen again.
It’s only 10:30, and it’s Saturday, so of course the college grounds are filled with kids, like the dorms have burst. I don’t like the way they look at Hyperdrive and me when we walk by. She could pass for a high school freshman. I probably look like one of the professors here, or worse, her father. I’m glad I can’t hear what the kids say after they stop their conversations, stare at us, nudge each other, and walk away full of wrong ideas.
When we get to the gazebo, she shines our flashlight onto the ceiling and sure enough, something’s drawn on it in pink chalk. I can’t tell what it is.
She squints at it. “Wow, that’s small. Can I stand on your shoulders?”
I can’t think of a sensible response. She takes my silence for permission and climbs on me like I’m a jungle gym. She plants herself up there so effortlessly, I ask if she’s ever been a cheerleader or something. Her answer is a noise that’s only kind of like a laugh, and I don’t know how to respond to that, either.
“It’s a walrus all right,” she says. She giggles. If sunrise made a sound, that would be it. “Camera?”
I force myself to remain balanced, for both our sakes, and exchange the camera for the flashlight. Her hand is cold as it meets mine, and almost unfeeling—what do I expect, it’s fifty degrees out—and my heart pounds anyway, like I’m thirteen again. Calm down, I order it. For God’s sake, she’s wearing a ring. It might be just to keep guys at bay, but probably not. She’s probably got six kids and a husband who looks at every woman in the world except her.
A flash explodes as the digital camera makes its subtle click, then she climbs off me. “Got it,” she says. “Now let’s go before one of the other teams sees us.”
Seven items left to find. We’ve already found the first one, the “dress code.” It was the name of a painting in the John Nelver art building. The other half of our team, Team Zebra, told us they found item #10, the “perfect opportunity.” We’ll have to take their word for it. Right now they’re looking for “the acorn the blind squirrel found,” and they’re convinced it’s in the physics building.
This is not your everyday scavenger hunt.
As we walk across the cold grass, I think about how easily Hyperdrive could have fallen off me. “You didn’t have to stand on my shoulders,” I tell her.
She smiles as if I’m incurably silly. “The other way around wouldn’t work.”
That’s true. She’s thin and graceful as one of those teenage Olympic gymnasts. I’m six feet and 215 pounds, and my co-workers tell me I distribute my weight well, but I know better. “I mean, the cameras they gave us have an optical zoom. You didn’t have to get that close to the roof.”
She shakes her head violently, and her hair, which is so dark that the night, by contrast, outlines it, flaps around like a bat. “I’m so dumb!” she says. The wind picks up and her hair flutters behind her like a flag for some nation where real beauty, not the kind you see in magazines, gets the respect it deserves.
More college kids stare at us. “You’re not dumb,” I say, as I hate those kids.
“Don’t take everything so seriously!” she says. “We’re here to forget about serious things for one night.”
I can’t. Not even for one night. What little life I still have depends on it.
Hyperdrive told me the Labor Night Scavenger Hunt has taken place on the Saturday night of every Labor Day weekend since 1983. Even though it doesn’t always happen at Clarksville—the “Hunt Masters” are professors at three different schools and they take turns hosting it—it must have happened at least once when I was a student here. I never noticed.
This morning, my old college buddy, Jerry, told me about Labor Night and said I just had to be part of it. I said no, of course, and his response was that he didn’t want to hear about my “heart crap” this time. He said, “I’m not asking you to climb Mt. Everest, Phil. I’m asking you to meet people and maybe have fun for a change. It won’t kill you.”
I ended up driving 150 miles to get here by 9:00 p.m. and as soon as I parked, Jerry called my cell phone and told me something had come up and he couldn’t make it, but he’d never forgive me if I chickened out. So I stood in the courtyard in front of the student union, surrounded by thirty-plus complete strangers who looked to be everywhere from as young as fourteen to as lucky as seventy. I told them I’d been invited by Jerry Paulton. They looked at me like I was speaking Chinese. Then I said Five O’Clock Charlie, because Jerry had told me that’s what he’d called himself last year, and everyone said “Oh! Him!” Just like that, it was claps on the shoulder and hugs all around. Then they asked me what my name was, and I said Phil McCord, and everybody booed.
“Your game name,” some guy in a duck costume said. “Is this your first time?”
I couldn’t think of a rebuttal good enough to impress a fortyish man wearing an orange beak, so I stayed quiet as people shouted out words like “Violin!” and “Sorbet!” It turned out, those were people’s game names and teams were forming, like in elementary school where the least popular kid gets picked last. A small woman with thick, geeky glasses and hair darker than a black hole pulled me beside her and said, “I pick Five O’Clock’s friend!” Then she gave me a smile I would have stood in line in the rain for.
“I’m Hyperdrive,” she told me after all the teams had formed. “What’s your name?”
For the first time ever, I didn’t know how to answer that question. After I stammered a bit, she said, “No real names are allowed on Labor Night, so make something up.”
As I looked at her, all I could think was that if someone could convert intelligence to electricity, this woman could power California for a year. “Captain Kangaroo,” I tried.
Everyone except Hyperdrive booed again.
Hyperdrive shouted, “He’s new, people!” Her booming reprimand drove them all back a few steps. Then she stared up at me and folded her arms. “This year’s name rule is, you can only use one word. I’m our team’s captain so you can’t use ‘Captain,’ and we’re using animals as team names this year, so you can’t use an animal either.”
In other words, I’d been as wrong as humanly possible. She patted my bare elbow. “It’s okay. I’ll make sure you don’t do anything else dumb.”
“I could use you around for the rest of my life,” I said.
I regretted it instantly, because she took it the wrong way. Or maybe the right way, who knows. She replaced her warmth with a businesslike competence so fast it left me dizzy and said, “We’re team Zebra, and the game starts in five minutes.”
She was about to go somewhere. I wanted her to stay. “Who’s the guy in the duck costume?”
“Team Duck’s captain, of course! He’s really into this.” She practically ran to join the other team captains, who were hanging around three men handing out equipment.
Someone behind me said, “She’s-a something, isn’t she?”
“Yeah,” I said. I turned around and saw a man who seemed so stereotypically Italian, with his fancy clothes, gold chains, and obviously fake chest hair poking out over his partially unbuttoned dress shirt, that he seemed to personify an ethnic slur.
“I’m-a Rigatoni,” he said. “I’m-a on your team. Decided on a game-a name yet?” He twisted his thick, ridiculously false moustache while I tried to figure out whether I’d find him offensive or funny if I were Italian. Under his fake Italian features, he seemed to have real ones, which made it harder.
The crowd was dispersing and I saw flashlight beams weaving up and down across the parking lot, heading south towards the bulk of the campus, which wasn’t lit as thoroughly as the student union area. Hyperdrive came up behind us and said, “Okay people, let’s go.” She gave Rigatoni a digital camera, a flashlight, and a professional-strength two-way radio, while keeping one of each of those things for herself. “We should split up again this year,” she said. “We’ve got ten photos to take and we’ll never win if we all stay together.”
“Photos?” I asked.
“We take pictures of the things we find. That’s how we prove we found them.” She handed everyone a piece of paper. “This is our target list. Whichever team brings back all ten pictures first wins. Or whoever has the most at six a.m., when we all go to breakfast.”
I checked my watch. 9:12 p.m. It was just like Jerry to leave out the most important details, like how an event would happen outdoors and last all night. “I need to get my windbreaker,” I said. And my heart medicines, but I didn’t want to tell them that.
“Well hurry,” Hyperdrive said. “The other teams have already started. Thought of a name yet?”
I felt as useful as an anchor in a bathtub, as Dad had always said. I told her “Anchor” as I went back to my car.
“I like it!” Her voice made my ears tingle like someone was gently stroking them. That’s when I made, and started to break, my first promise.
So now it’s 11:15 at night and we’re sitting on a bench in Delta B. Harrison Park, which separates the campus’s main buildings like a prudish chaperone. We’re not even close to finding a mile-wide letter M, or a cup that never runneth over, or scrambled eggs, or any of the other remaining targets. Everyone else on team Zebra is taking the hunt as seriously as I take my pills, because each member of the winning team gets to hit someone on the last-place team in the face with a pie, or something like that. Any minute now, everyone’s going to figure out I don’t belong here, and everyone’s night will be ruined. I don’t want to be responsible for that, but I can’t get all worked up about where “the acorn the blind squirrel found” might be.
“I hope all our targets are outside,” I say, just to get her talking. “College buildings close at some point.”
“The student union’s open all night,” Hyperdrive says, “and so’s the library and the art building and most of the dorms.”
“We can’t be going into students’ rooms...”
“Well, we did one year, actually.” She smiles sheepishly. Does she blush? There isn’t enough light to tell. “We kind of got in trouble for that, even though the student was in on it. I don’t think that’ll happen this year.”
We walk along the paved path, passing one newly planted, evenly spaced little tree after another, until her radio crackles. The rest of Team Zebra has found the mile-wide letter M. It was printed on a map where the legend showed one inch equaled one mile, and the M was one inch wide.
“Fantastic!” Hyperdrive says. “Let’s meet at the snack bar at midnight.”
Our teammates say they’re hungry and would rather head over there now. Hyperdrive looks at me as if, somehow, it’s my decision.
“You’re the captain,” I say.
“Okay, we’ll see you soon.” She hooks the radio to the strap of her backpack. We get off the bench and start walking.
“So,” I say. “Did all of you go to school here?”
“No,” Hyperdrive says, like she thinks the idea is funny. “A few of the players did, but nobody on our team, except you. I did my undergrad at Oklahoma State and got my Ph.D. at Stanford.”
“Ph.D.?” I try to sound fascinated, not shocked. “In what?”
“Combinatorics. It’s a branch of math.”
“I’ve studied that.”
“Really?” She bites her lip, and hesitates. Then she asks, “How do you earn your keep?”
Given her reluctance, I’d expected a much more personal question. “Programming. I debug other people’s code.”
“Ah, so you found something practical to do.”
She sounds so bitter—where did that come from? “My team’s great,” I say, and I hate how defensive I feel. “When we debug a project, it costs eighteen percent less then if the original programmers do it.”
Creases form in her face. She looks like the Wicked Witch of the West did when she saw the water from Dorothy’s pail coming towards her. She says, “Let’s not talk about this anymore, okay?”
“Why not?” I’m not dumb enough to try regaling her with tales of bug fixing, but I don’t understand what’s wrong.
“It’s Rule Number One. Nothing from the real world is allowed tonight.”
She’s walking as quickly as she can and I could still leave her in the dust with the slightest effort, even with my condition. “I thought we were just using fake names.”
“It’s way more than that.”
“Kind of like Halloween, but for grown-ups, huh?”
I smile; she doesn’t. The night chills me now. I feel like I’ve crossed a line somewhere. Of course I also want to kiss her until we both asphyxiate, but that would make the real world appear real fast. I feel I should apologize just for thinking about it, but my last girlfriend said she broke up with me because I don’t take enough chances. I don’t even pretend to understand women anymore.
I want to hear her voice again. “I get the scavenger hunt thing, but why do we act like different people?”
“It’s fun!” she says, biting the word off. “It’s okay for adults to have fun, you know. Most adults can’t have fun unless they’re drunk or wasted. Just look around someday. There’s nothing wrong with a little harmless fantasy! I don’t understand why...”
She keeps talking like this. I don’t think she’s talking to me anymore, except in the sense that I’m here and she’s here, and she’s talking and I’m listening. I want to tell her that I can’t afford fantasy, because I might forget my limitations and try to run up a flight of stairs or something, and die of heart failure. Even as a kid—especially then—I had to be slow and careful, slow and careful. I got teased a lot. My mother would listen to me complain and then ask whether I’d rather be teased or dead. There were times when I was tempted to answer, “Dead.”
I want to tell Hyperdrive all of this, but that would ruin everything faster than trying to kiss her, or telling her that I couldn’t care less where 73-island dressing is, and that I’d have gone home by now if I hadn’t met her and I probably should anyway. But telling people about my condition just makes them feel guilty, or even put upon. Or they offer pity, which is what people give you when they know they can’t give you what you really want.
So, I just walk beside her and listen as she complains loudly but vaguely, about “things” and “people.” Her face is pained, like there’s something inside her that’s going to kill her too soon, too. When we reach the snack bar, she stops talking in mid-sentence like something knocked the wind out of her. I ask if she’s okay, and she gives me an exaggerated look of bewilderment that makes me feel more confused than ever. All she says is, “Let’s go find the others.”
After buying something to eat, we of Team Zebra—Hyperdrive, Rigatoni, Lightning, Hausfrau and myself—all manage to fit around a tiny little table in the snack bar. When I was a student here, it really was a snack bar, complete with dim fluorescent lighting, an often-broken cash register, and a couple of grumpy short order cooks. Now a dozen light fixtures hang from the walls and ceilings, and reproductions of famous paintings are painted right on the walls, and a pizzeria with full salad bar is nestled between a McDonald’s and a Subway, and they’re all open until three in the morning. I eat my sandwich and look around at the kids, who are all over the place. They’re too self-absorbed to notice us. Every one of them will outlive me by my whole life span, and all they do is whine about their easily solved problems.
“Anchor!” says Hausfrau.
Right—that’s me. I face her squarely. She’s wearing a light brown dress jacket and dark gray slacks. While we were in line, she told me she’s a fifty-two-year-old housewife who works part-time as a puzzle editor for one of those crosswords magazines, that her husband just got laid off from an engineering firm, and that she has puppies named Bert and Ernie. Hyperdrive kept bugging her about Rule Number One all through that monologue, and Hausfrau’s response was, “When you get older, you’ll know when it’s okay to break the rules.”
“Well?” Hausfrau asks, looking me right in the eyes. “Any ideas? I want to win this year! I want to hit somebody with a pie.”
All I can think of is the probable age of her laid-off husband, and how rampant age discrimination is. I try to focus on the game, and in the process, I somehow knock over my soda can. A puddle forms on Hyperdrive’s copy of our target list, like the can had an accident. Hyperdrive yanks her arms away. I apologize and wipe it up with napkins.
Lightning says, “Way to go, Sloppy Joe.”
“He apologized,” Hausfrau says, giving Lightning a look that says he should be glad she isn’t his mother.
Lightning is a pale man with a skinny frame. He’s probably 30. His tailored suit, his earrings, his purple-tinted, sharply gelled hair and his attitude make him seem like a cross between an expensive attorney and the world’s most pretentious art student. He says, “If Anchor wishes to avoid derision, then he should move with more precision.”
“Why you-a talking like-a that?” Rigatoni asks.
Lightning rolls his eyes like a fourteen-year-old who’s just been called to dinner. “I’ll say it again; please listen this time. Tonight, I only speak in rhyme.”
Everyone stares at him like he’s a disease, and he grins. If I could think of a rhyme for “doggerel,” I’d lay a really good insult into him.
Five people who look more like us than any other five people in the room enter the snack bar. They see us, hiss dramatically, hold out crossed fingers like they’re warding off vampires, and leave.
I say, “That was rude.”
Hausfrau, after answering them with her own hisses and cross, says, “It’s part of the game. Lighten up!”
Rigatoni has a wireless PDA out and seems to have forgotten about us. “What are you doing?” I ask.
“Checking the scores. The Mets are in San Diego tonight.”
“Really? Can you find out—“
“Rigatoni!” Hyperdrive shouts. Her eyes burn into his. “Damn it, I did not fly two thousand miles to hear about baseball! If I wanted to talk about money, I could have stayed home!”
Money? I can’t help but wonder if I’ve missed something, but everyone else is looking at each other like they’re wondering the same thing. Hyperdrive is red-faced and staring at the floor, and she doesn’t look up until she’s her normal pale self again. Rigatoni mumbles, “Sorry-a,” and puts the PDA away.
“We’re finished talking about the real world for tonight,” Hyperdrive declares. “Now Anchor, you’re the only one of us who knows this campus really well. Where could we find the acorn the blind squirrel found?”
“Squirrels are all over the place,” I say. I try to think creatively. “Maybe it’s another painting?”
“Two answers the same would be pretty lame, for the kind of folk who run this game,” Lightning says while watching Hyperdrive.
Hausfrau says, “Maybe a statue?”
I distantly remember something like that outside the Rockwell dorm. A stone garden, complete with a couple of stone birds, and...
They see my face and get out of their chairs. Dreading what will happen if I’m wrong, I lead them halfway across campus. The moon shines on us like a spotlight.
“I’m sorry about your husband,” I tell Hausfrau as they all follow me.
She shrugs and looks back at Hyperdrive. “There are worse problems.”
I want to help anyway, even though I probably can’t. Hausfrau looks like she pities me, not herself. “I’m not trying to pretend my life’s perfect. I’m just taking a break. My husband and I’ll deal with this little bump in the road when I get home, like we always do.”
She speaks loudly enough that I’m certain Hyperdrive hears her, and Hyperdrive slows down, putting distance between herself and Hausfrau.
I don’t know what’s going on, so I just finish taking everyone to the stone garden, which, thankfully, is right where I remember it. The garden’s centerpiece is a carved squirrel, and it’s holding a carved acorn...and someone’s tied a black cloth around the squirrel’s eyes, like it’s been blindfolded.
Hausfrau claps and smiles at me like I just won the whole hunt. I try to smile back as Rigatoni aims a flashlight and Hyperdrive silently takes the picture.
Now it’s almost four in the morning. I’m tired, and I know I’ve been pushing myself to dangerous levels. Twice now I’ve had to stop just to let my heart and lungs unclench, but I’m not dying, and I’m not unhappy.
Hyperdrive isn’t stupid; she knows something’s wrong but she’s too tactful to question me, just like I am with her. Anyway, we’ve found all but two of the items, and I’m hooked now. I’m determined to last until breakfast.
We split up again. Hyperdrive and I walk along Lincoln Road, which separates the school part of Clarksville from the town. Hyperdrive keeps eyeing the town part like she thinks it’s been following her. I don’t think she’s normally this tense, and I don’t think it’s part of her Hyperdrive act. Just as I’m about to say something, her backpack makes a cuckoo clock sound.
She freezes, then waves her arms frantically. “Oh god no. Oh shit.” She pulls her backpack off and throws it on the ground. The cuckoo noise stops. I’m guessing that’s the way her cell phone rings, and I’m right—she pulls one out of the pack, and it has a flashing red message light. She holds it like it’s someone else’s pet and she accidentally killed it.
I watch in desperate silence as she struggles at the edge of a streetlamp’s cone of light. Finally I can’t take it and put a hand on her shoulder, to reassure her. She startles to life, brushes my hand off, and runs to a dark area about fifty feet away. Then she opens the phone and dials. I watch the glowing phone hover about four feet off the ground.
I can’t help but overhear “Then why did you call?” and “They shouldn’t be up this late!” and “We’ll talk about it when” something something. The lit phone vanishes like it was the flame on a candle that someone just blew out.
She comes back and she’s shaking. “Hyperdrive,” I say. “What’s wrong?”
She pulls a tissue from her pocket and wipes her nose. “I’m sorry.”
“For everything,” she says. “All of it. I’m ruining everything for everyone tonight.”
Her eyes beg me for forgiveness. She’s older than I thought. I see worry lines in her face that you just don’t have when you’re twenty, no matter what you’ve been through.
I don’t have the right to ask questions. But I want to help if I can.
I guess I can’t. She reassembles herself: phone in backpack, backpack on back, weak smile on face. She pats my elbow again, this time through my jacket. “Talk about the game,” she says.
There’s no hope of that now. But maybe there’s one thing I can do. At the very least, she’ll know she isn’t the only person in the world with a terrible secret. I start by telling her I was born with a broken heart. She stops laughing when I describe mitral regurgitation, angiotensin-converting enzymes, my four surgeries, my dead uncle, and my dead brother.
She doesn’t admonish me for breaking Rule Number One this time. She says, “I’m sorry,” and she means it.
“I wasn’t asking for anything,” I say, because now I’m stuck. “I wanted to help you. I know some problems can’t really be solved, but I can listen. Sometimes you can tell strangers things you’d never tell your friends because you know you’ll never see them again.”
She gives me that tight, wary, let’s-just-be-friends smile that I swear women must go to some secret school to learn, and holds up her left hand. “You know I’m married.”
“Yes.” And it doesn’t change a thing, because that isn’t what I want anymore.
She sits on the curb. I sit next to her, but not too close. As college voices fade in and out far behind us, she stares ahead, looking like I probably did the day I understood, completely and irrevocably, that I was going to die much earlier than all the other seventh-graders.
She speaks in a voice as plain and hard as cement. “I’ve got two kids. Sarah’s five and Emily’s two. My husband and I haven’t had sex since Emily was born because he’s always working, because we always need money, and I think I’m pregnant again.”
A hundred questions leap into my mouth, but I don’t let them out. I think hard enough that the cold concrete curb under the butt of my jeans gets very uncomfortable, and my folded knees start to hurt. I shift a bit.
Out of all the questions I want to ask, only two matter. “Do you love your husband?”
“More than anything.” Her voice is solid. She doesn’t sound like the person who’s been talking to me all night.
“Does he love you?”
“I think so.”
“That’s not good enough. Stop hiding from this and tell him the truth. Find out if he’s smart enough to realize what he’s got, and what it’s worth.”
She breathes out, once. While waiting for some signal about what to do next, I stare across the street, into the sleeping town.
There’s nothing to look at but all the little houses. They’re small and far apart. I wonder what the people who live in them think. They probably think they know a lot because they live near a college. I bet they don’t know anything about anything.
Hyperdrive takes my hand. “Anchor,” she says, squeezing hard. “You picked a good name for yourself.”
She does not let go. She trusts me to understand exactly what this means, and what it does not mean.
She leads me back to the game, and she grips my hand the whole way, like she’s fallen overboard and I’m a rope. The other players see us and start whispering. Somehow, I don’t care.
Maybe I really can be a different person, for one night.
We don’t win the scavenger hunt, but we don’t come in last either. Team Wallaby does, so they get hit with pies. There are quite a few left over and most of them get thrown at Lightning, when he delivers one obnoxious verse too many. I cheer and applaud as his beautiful suit gets covered with lemon meringue, and Lightning laughs harder than anyone. We all pack into a few vehicles and head over to Clarksville’s only real diner, which I’m assured has prepared for our arrival.
At eight o’clock I’m exhausted, full of pancakes, and ready for the long drive home. It’ll be tough but I know I’ll make it. There’s something inside me that wasn’t there yesterday. I feel both looser and more stable. I say goodbye to everyone, but I can’t find Hyperdrive.
She’s in the parking lot, waiting by my truck. “Don’t get too used to being called Anchor,” she says. “The rules change every year.”
“Except for Rule Number One,” I say.
She starts to say something, then stops. She looks like a curious mix of twelve and forty: playful and grounded.
“See you next year, Phil,” she says. She goes back inside before I can answer with my usual litany of “if”s.
I climb into my truck, and a noise erupts from the diner: thirty-plus people all shouting “See you next year, Phil!” in a perfect unison I’ll remember until I die. Which will be too soon, but I bet if I went in there and asked, everyone in the diner would say they’re going to die too soon, too. I wave goodbye and promise myself I’ll squeeze in a couple more Labor Nights before it’s too late.
I’m pretty sure that’s a promise I can keep.
Tarl Roger Kudrick has been telling stories one way or another since he could talk, but only recently got serious about learning the craft of writing and marketing fiction. He's a major partner in the new on-line fiction magazine On The Premises (www.onthepremises.com). "Labor Night" is the third story Tarl's had accepted for publication.
Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.
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Fiction Copyright © 2007 Tarl Roger Kudrick. All rights reserved.