It had been snowing without incident in the early afternoon when something made the mercury take a flying leap. By nightfall, the temperature settled somewhat but was nowhere near freezing. The balmy fog had Queequeg running in circles with tingly excitement—though only for a few minutes. All too soon came the brutal yank at the collar and then the shove to make him scuttle into his prison.
Trygve Frost had arranged to meet Matty Desbuissons in Scituate, where she was house-sitting for rich Mormons gone off to ski Mont Cervin. He was sick of the bitching and moaning from home—“the estate” was all his wife carped about—and freaked out by the shooting.
Forty-eight hours ago, two hundred miles away. Even before Thursday he’d told Matty he “had a feeling.” Already his shaman’s sense told him to watch his back in regard to that bat-shit hustler. The talent for having a feeling about things was the reason for his career. By no means was the irony lost on him—that although he could coach pathetic losers to get their acts together, his intellect could do nothing to leverage the world in his own favor. Still, he had a gift—for sizing people up, for hedging life’s bets. Where did it come from? Probably genes, but he had a theory that was probably true: It came from all the dark energy he’d harnessed growing up, living in the literal shadow of his father’s morbid regrets.
Trygve’s feeling about his father was that the man considered his wife and three children his “shadow” family, in all ways inferior to everything that came before marriage to Susan Crisler in 1946. Trygve couldn’t believe how much his mother had to swallow—and not just because of his father’s reputed big dick. They’d been introduced in Philadelphia because they were both raised Quaker and people thought they’d have things to talk about despite the foot and a half distance between their mouths. His mother’s stoic acceptance of her husband’s drama-queen ego—Trygve respected her for that. She never complained, took it in the kisser like Joan Kennedy. She always stuck up for him to his father—he supposed he loved the bossy little skier for that. How much did SCF even think about him beyond sticking him with a wickedly fucked name?
“Fuck me,” he said to the unchanging light that was sabotaging both this drive and his entire life. He gripped the steering wheel tighter as the car lurched forward in fits and starts. His lurching had forced the car ahead to do the same, but now that car had thrust itself as far into the intersection as it was willing to go.
“Do not fucking deserve this”—no, he did not. To be shaking in his shoes all because of a freak like Eugenie. He had no time for this, no patience. He was tired of the grind, what he considered The Road. That was part of his life-maximizing program—you were on or off The Road. When you went off it and into the slag heap—well, you didn’t want to go there. You stayed on The Road because each time it forked you had the opportunity to turn onto a better version—still The Road of course, but offering gradual, meritocratic ascent, like the Hindu castes except for being one-life-fits-all. He kicked himself for failing to trademark the name and concept years ago, before the Internet. That was one fork he totally fucked himself by not taking.
Like most dynamic and innovative people, he wanted to look and feel busy but didn’t want to get sucked up into a journeyman’s mechanical labor. Blacksmithing was for a certain class of mind—certainly not his. He subscribed to Wired since the beginning, and he couldn’t get there fast enough. Come on, car! Now he was lurching into the bumper of the lame driver who had stopped at a rotary. Stopped at a rotary! All the cowards on the road made his blood boil—as did the ass-backwards conceptions of his family having any “affluence.” Somebody show me the cash in Swiss banks, the offshore holdings, the real estate on Marco Island! The worthless “prestige” was nauseating—likewise his wife with “the estate” business. All for little-dick money.
The Random House advance was peanuts in the grand scheme of things, but he had a venture capital gig lined up—genomic sequencing, whatever the fuck that meant. Black and Decker genomic sequencing you could snap inside a case like a cordless drill. He couldn’t get there fast enough!
He took a deep breath. This, too, shall pass, he told himself. He and Matty were sure to come up with a hedge against the volatility of Eugenie. Matty had a head on her shoulders despite all the bad shit in her past. She’d know what to do, how to lie low until the threat faded. Eugenie was probably just a gun-waver despite the bullet that got into Winkill. They’d get her soon enough, and when they did the value of the book would go through the roof. He hadn’t wanted to cut in a ghostwriter—he could write a book himself; anyone smart could write a book—but Matty said they needed that objective distance, a fresh set of eyes.
Matty was OK for now, but once he’d set up his life he’d find someone a lot younger to have a couple kids. He was only fifty-two, the prime of life in this day and age, and Matty was probably well into her forties. Yeah, that was the ticket—thirty-ish wife, a house in Weston and one on the Cape, in Chatham. She’d be a stay-at-home mom who kept herself looking hot but not trashy-hot—one of those Harvard College fundraiser girls with the string of pearls and pert little tits. Those Ivy League girls never had the big guns, but then big guns were a walking advertisement for trailer park. You just couldn’t risk it. Pert little tits were a litmus test—and after that breast enhancements.
Matty probably already had a plan going. He’d be OK—he always came out OK in these scrapes. Despite this piss soup he had to drive through to get to her secluded Mormon mansion, all shit would pass, the air would clear. Any guilt over the book wasn’t coming from within; it was being flung at him by his dumpy moralizing sisters. He and they were nothing alike. Yeah, they were liberal-arts smart, went to Wellesley and Holyoke, but what did they do in life but marry and procreate comparably? Their kids all drank the Kool-Aid in regard to the myth of SCF.
Look, the old man had to have his High Noon moment, had to go out with a bang. Trygve did what his father asked him. He could live with that. He could live with a lot of things—had already, in fact, been living with a lot of things that would get at most people. But his line of work gave him the tools to adapt, to remain on The Road.
That bike he hit a few years back, however—that was the burrito he couldn’t stop burping up. The memory made him look in the rear-view mirror with contempt: Getting you was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made. Lesson learned: Never pick a name and then find a dog to go under it.
It happened when he drove to get Queequeg from the breeder in Bethlehem. What the fuck was he thinking driving that far north into New Hampshire? You always ran into raggedy packs of biker freaks past a certain point on 93. He’d got the puppy and was just heading back, and here was this joker and the bitch on his back—the widest acid-washed ass he’d seen in a long time—playing games in front of him, weaving the entire width of the two-lane road to not let him pass. Oh, ha-ha funny there, Dennis. So he gassed it and passed on the gravel shoulder, but somehow the bike got nicked and went flying. There was no other word for it—flying like a Frisbee. What could you do at that point? Damage done. It would be like stopping before entering a rotary—which defeats the fucking point of a rotary. It’s a circle so you never have to stop! It’s the cycle of life, the flow of karma. The guy asked for it—he wanted action and he and his fat-ass piggy-backer got it. What are you supposed to do when these things happen, he thought, lay down and die?
Jaja had gone to the South Shore Target for eyeliner. And they didn’t have it! Why was life always such a waste of time in addition to being cruel and bent on fucking you over? She’d driven all the way there and had to return with nothing more than a Starbucks consolation prize in a double cup—nothing but a Happy Meal drink. How far she’d come from what had constituted her own Happy Meal drink at the age of twelve—vodka and black tea to get her out of the door in the morning. How far! The liner was the only kind that worked on her graying brows—one tiny part of the colossal enterprise of disguising the sixty-one years her body had walked (or crawled) the earth.
She was tired and wanted to retire. When people said “retire” they meant from a paying job, a career with a gradually inclining income level—an office and expense accounts, paid vacations and a good pension. Jaja never achieved the luxury of having her colossal enterprise fueled singlehandedly—least of all by a mere job. She slaved at it uncompensated every hour of the day, every day of the year.
She’d made the early mistake of being born during the war and having a mother who starved to death. Wrong! Not the way to begin the journey. By sixteen she was the blondest Chemical Textiles Queen Kaunas had ever seen, at least during those days when you had nothing to line your eyes with besides coal dust. She was thought by the Vilnius commissariat to be one of the anointed when, immediately after her crowning, the father she never knew arrived from Canada to successfully claim her. Was it really much of a surprise that he was banging her two hours off the Lufthansa flight to Gibraltar? Back in Winnipeg he was arrested for fraud and extortion in short order. Almost immediately she was snatched away to Bermuda by her father’s fellow extortionist, who himself was shortly arrested for being part of a smuggling scheme. After a lot on international hullabaloo with the British consulate, she was deported to Canada—this time to St. Catharines, where an American serviceman visiting his brother who worked in the auto plant said he couldn’t stop staring because she looked so much like Kim Novak.
Soon she was married and on a base in Hamburg, nearly back to where she’d started from. The serviceman turned out to be a drunk who begrudged his mother’s suicide and so hit Jaja whenever he heard a Sinatra song. She left him to work in casinos on the Riviera—not a bad stint until she hooked up with a guy running heroin. She was arrested again, but the charges were dropped when she cooperated with Interpol. This fresh start allowed her to move to Miami, where a misunderstanding soon mushroomed into trips back and forth to Caracas. Luckily, she got out of that one before it led, as all roads did at the time, to Medellín. She moved to Richmond and then Atlanta and then finally Boston and Cambridge. She’d found her place and wasn’t leaving.
When was the last time she saw her real name in print? When was the last time she read a friendly message addressed “My Dear Austeja”? Even Miki—her patient, patient Miki—only called her Jaja, mostly in soft tones to comfort her from the daily demoralization. He put up with them too, trying to eke out some kind of living on the Cape. She loved him even though he had a face that looked smashed flat. He gave her the Audi almost brand new, no questions asked. She found a tooth in the ashtray, but so what? What was one tooth in the face of daily demoralization—like house-sitting for this herd of blond, tanned, white-toothed Mormons who multiplied like rabbits? Where did they get their money from? She was tired of sucking up to “cultured” rich people in hopes of finding an in to their world. She had thought it would be fun going to Bruges—as the beard of the prominent real estate developer whose renown was based partly on the lameness of his attempts to remain closeted. It turned out to be lonely and dull in that city awash in Euros. While the real estate developer went to the opera, bought antiques, and got hustled by Turks, all she got was confirmation that the whole of Europe was now better off than her.
No, she wasn’t tired as much as infuriated—still!—at all the ugly detours of her journey. She stepped on the gas. She would cut a deal with Yolanda. She smiled to think that maybe together they could put a bullet in Trygve in front of the Ritz Carlton. Trygve was a pig, as typical as New England pigs go—unoriginal, suckling on that one teat of baseball team and backyard grill. Such provincialism! It made her cringe to think of all the New England pigs she’s endured during her twenty-five years of life here.
The fact that Yolanda had done business with Viktor—her Viktor!—in the seventies . . . well, this gave the woman a full pass, a clean bill of sale. Though Viktor was long gone, Yolanda had known everything about him—things only a true intimate would know. Most of the people in Viktor’s world had scattered after the Wall came down, so meeting a remnant of that time filled Jaja with bittersweet feelings.
Viktor with his plaid jacket and argyle knit vest curling up over his enormous belly like a window shade. Viktor and the Brahms on his record player—he was so good to all the girls. His vast enterprises seemed so innocent compared to the exploits of her past. He had carved out a successful trade wherein American tuxedos were exchanged in Turkey for afghan carpets brought down the mountains on donkeys. Viktor’s carpets were sold on Lexington Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. Only sometimes did he trade the tuxedoes for heroin. He also placed escaped East Germans in hairdressing positions all over the free world. He owned discos in two Montreal suburbs and in Bristol—in the UK—that were managed by his lazy sons.
Despite her happy feelings for Viktor, it was hard for Jaja to go back those times when the West cared only about dissident snobs like Yelena Bonner. You had to be some combination of Jew, poet, or nuclear physicist—but especially Jew. All non-Jewish Ukrainians, Poles, and Lithuanians were suspect—worse than Nazis in the murdering of Jews. No one welcomed Jaja with open arms besides Viktor. If you said the word “Kaunas,” somebody in Newton would tell you how many Jews were killed there even before the Germans arrived. Did anyone care about her mother dying so hideously at twenty-two? No, you couldn’t talk about your own misery back there. That’s why Jaja became French—and twenty years younger.
She stepped on the gas into the rotary. Everything was moving so quickly. Vern hired Miki to find Yolanda—to shake her up a bit but not really hurt her. Miki thought he’d had her pinned down in Providence, but then the shots were fired in New York. Now Vern was giving Miki grief even though he was lucky Yolanda didn’t shoot him and the other guy too. And what the hell was Vern doing with that Winkill guy?
Yes, she thought with a smile, Viktor’s girls might cut a deal. She was sure Yolanda already knew about this ghostwriter guy, Sebastian. There was something off with his story. For him to approach her out of the blue like that—that wasn’t publishing money talking. There had to be serious money behind this book deal. But whoever wanted a book out of it so badly was obviously willing to pay. “Take the money and run later” is what Trygve said. He was right, at least, about that one thing.
She suddenly felt sad to be reminded that she had the hots for Sebastian McClellan. Even Miki couldn’t find anything on him, a name with a social. Her younger self—not even her young one, mind you, but younger—would have gloried in the turn-on of a suspicious man. She used to glory in so many things. What happened? Driving seni seni žmones around a cemetery; that’s what happened—žmones too feeble to grab for anything. These men were worlds apart from the Russians who never felt too old for dunking themselves in icy salt water and other opportunities—they wanted it in your mouth even if they couldn’t feel a thing from the chest down.
For a long time she fancied herself as beguiling as Colette—not that Colette was anything to look at. Viktor had told her all about the French writer, who had a musky appeal to men, especially much younger men. Even a couple months ago Jaja was still actively fancying herself a modern incarnation of Colette. Now, however, even the fancying had become too much work. She looked at these women in their twenties and thirties pathetically wasting the last good years of their lives. They didn’t deserve it, the youth and the luck. Americans didn’t deserve any of it. She envisioned the unseen hand of justice like the white mist now swirling before her headlights, the car’s white hood cutting into it like the pumping neck of a stallion. She wished that whatever lie in front of her was something you could recede into—the mist of the past, even with all of its unknowns—recede into while riding a horse or a motorcycle or a Jet Ski. Not the long-ago past of coal dust eyeliner but the more possible past of 1978, that time with Viktor and the girls, when she thought everything would soon be OK.
There was no snow or ice, black or white; no one had been drinking or drowsing at the wheel. It felt moist and quiet to those who’d heard the impact from far away, jogging or walking a dog or standing in the driveway clearing a hatch of its army of plastic bags each containing one big thing. People took photos of the mangled cars not because of the blood and viscera spectacle but because, as pointed out by a neighbor whom everyone seemed to know only as Marie from the spice store in Milton, the conjoined wreckage resembled a yin and yang symbol. Onlookers aimed, shot, and inevitably thought So much for these safe European cars.
To the operators of yin and yang, the simultaneous flash of fog lights and recognition ought to have been a blur lasting barely a second. This was not the case, however. When suddenly confronted with the startled expression of his or her collaborator, both yin and yang saw with crystal clarity another face entirely—the ancient father with the drooping shoulders and permafrost scowl, the weak, starving young mother who refused to hang on for just one more fucking day. These usurpers behind the oncoming windshields had managed to expand a fraction of a second to the length of time it took to sigh and lean back in your seat with a yawning stretch. Ultimately, both halves of the circle had for their usurpers the same tired question: Ah, what have you done to me?