Hide in plain sight. It was getting to be second nature.
I lurched directly for the booth, dragging my feet and shredded plastic bags. I stopped right in front of the window and pounded on the scratchy Plexiglas.
“Listen, listen, listen,” I screeched at the cashier. I knew how to sound crazy, it was in my blood. “You got somethin’ for me? You got somethin’ for me? Yougotsomethin ’forme?”
The cashier recoiled in alarm.
“I know you got money, honey! I know you got money, honey.” I banged out on the windows, leaving an odiferous smudge. “Gimme, gimme, gimmegimmegimme!”
“Get away or I’ll call the police!” she shouted from behind the thick glass.
Oops. I waved a loopy good-bye and staggered away from the booth, crossed the bumpy median at the exit to the underground garage, and walked the wrong way up the cement ramp out of the building. I breathed easier as I climbed, tingling with a heady adrenaline. I reached the top of the ramp to the pavement outside and smiled as I inhaled the night air blowing down the backstreet behind the building. I was on a roll. And I was free, even if I smelled like shit.
Then I saw that the stench wasn’t coming only from me. Large rusty Dumpsters loomed in the dark, overflowing with garbage next to the black wells of the loading dock. The sidewalk was dirty and gum-spattered where the building faced the back end of the office building across the way. A homeless man slept like a crumpled puppet against the building, and I suppressed a twinge of guilt. I had to go. It was getting light, almost dawn. Like a vampire, I needed cover. I ran across the street to the back of another office building and slipped into the dusky shadows.
EEEEEEE! A squad car tore suddenly down the street, sirens screaming, red, white, and blue lights flashing on the top in an alternating pattern. I ducked against the wall in the darkness and almost fell backward. It was an open door, blistered and battleship gray. BUILDING PERSONNEL ONLY, it said, but it had been pried open, either broken into over the weekend or left unlocked carelessly. Another siren screamed at the other end of the street. I snuck inside the door before the cruiser passed and locked the door behind me.
I found myself in a hot, dirty hallway that smelled thickly of urine. The bathroom tour of Philly. It was dim inside with the door closed but I could follow a light at the other end of the corridor. A rumbling, mechanical sound emanated from it.
I lifted up my stuff, which was getting heavier and heavier, and trod cautiously down the corridor, running my fingers along the wall for guidance. The wall was painted cinderblock, cool and bumpy beneath my fingertips.
The hall ended in another door, defined only by the dim light that outlined its perimeter, showing through the crack between door and jamb. I tried the knob and it moved freely. Unlocked. I paused a minute before opening it. There was no sound coming from behind it, but what would I do if there were people on the other side? Lie, badly. What could be worse than the cops? I held my breath and opened the door.
An empty staircase, lighted. No exit doors. There was nowhere else to go, so I went down, first to one landing, then the next, ten concrete steps at a time. Descending toward the rumbling, which was getting louder, and the increasing heat. At each landing was a dim lightbulb covered by a wire cage. The sirens grew fainter as I traveled down, but I was still jittery. Maybe I shouldn’t have left Grun. Maybe I shouldn’t have given Grady back the gun. Jerk took my screwdriver.
The stairway bottomed on a gray door, less weathered than the exterior door and partly ajar. A yellow sliver of light streamed from the crack. I stood still and listened. There was no human sound; no radio, footsteps, or dirty jokes. Just the incessant thundering of whatever machinery was down here, in what I imagined was the subbasement to the building. My blouse was damp, my nerves were on edge. The heat intensified. I pushed the door open a crack.
Nothing. Just another corridor, better lit than the one I was in. On the wall hung a tattered sign:RESULTS COUNT! DO THE JOB RIGHT! I peeked around the door but the hall was empty. The air was warmer here, more dense. Beads of sweat broke on my forehead. I felt creepy, as if something were right behind me. I peered over my shoulder. Nothing.
Nobody but me and the machine noise. If there were any maintenance types on duty, they weren’t around. I had to believe they’d come soon. I willed myself to step forward and sneak down the hall. The air grew hotter and hotter. It was hard to breathe.
I heard a scuffling noise and stiffened. I looked behind me just in time to see a small gray shadow scamper along the wall. Wildlife, without a leash. I scurried in the opposite direction until I reached an open door where the machine noise came from. A plaque on the door saidTRANSFORMER ROOM. I stepped inside.
Instantly I felt my gut seem to vibrate and a tingling sensation like static pierced through me. It wasn’t fear, it was something else. A low-frequency hum filled the air. I looked for the source, but it was all around. Huge gray metal boxes surrounded the room on all sides, floor to ceiling.HAZARDOUS VOLTAGE, said one of the boxes, with a red bolt of lightning.WILL CAUSE SEVERE INJURY OR DEATH. I’d had enough of severe injury and death. I got out of there in a hurry.
I hustled through the room to the adjoining one, where the machine noise was the loudest. The open door between the two saidCHILLER ROOM, but the room was steaming hot for a chiller room. There was no place to hide in here, everything was too exposed. Sweat soaked through my suit, bringing up my awful smell. I wiped my cheeks on my skirt to avoid the inevitable poop-drip into my eyes. When I stopped, I was standing in front of a tall brown machine.
It looked like a tin cabinet and readDUNHAM-BUSH. Its round thermometers had stick-needles that hovered at 42 degrees. I guessed it chilled water, maybe for air-conditioning. Pipes and ducts of various colors spanned the ceiling and I realized they were color-coded. Red meant fire, blue meant water, and a yellow pipe readREFRIGERANT DISCHARGE VENT. Suddenly I heard a clanging sound and scooted in fear behind the big Dunham-Bush box. Behind it was a room, a tiny, empty room, with its dented metal door hanging open.
A saggy cot was pressed against the wall of the room and on the floor next to it were newspapers. A wrinkled poster on the wall displayed most of a brunette’s anatomy, next to a dirty gray rag mop. I heard another suddenclang, so I ducked in and hid behind the door. I waited for the sound of footsteps but there were none. Maybe the clang was mechanical, part of the ongoing cacophony. As soon as I got the nerve, I ventured out from behind the door and set my stuff on the cot.
The place smelled faintly of marijuana. Two empty Coke cans sat on an orange crate at the head of the cot, and I picked up the newspaper from the floor. It was from so long ago I wasn’t in it, so I guessed the room wasn’t frequently cleaned. I could use this as a home base, at least temporarily. I imagined the police cruisers tearing around above me, hunting me. I’d gone underground. For real.
I plopped onto the skinny cot next to my stuff and forced my brain to come up with a next step. I was almost safe, and exhaustion sneaked up on me as my tension ebbed. I slumped over, resting my eyes. I felt myself drifting and almost began to doze. I checked my watch: 6:15. Whatever morning shift there was would be in any minute. I couldn’t sleep now, I had to move on.
I imagined I was on the river, rowing. A sleek tan scull slicing a streak through a smooth blue river, running through the bright sunshine. I was exhausted, but pumping away still. Power-stroking toward the finish line. Rowing had taught me that when you thought your last reserve was depleted, you had another ten strokes left. Energy to spare. All you had to do was summon it up. Insist.
I stood up and stretched. I was groggy, disoriented, and exhausted. I figured that my mother’s next treatment would be today, but it was too risky to show up at the hospital. I’d have to leave her in Hattie’s hands.
I crossed to the scuzzy sink and washed the shit off my face with a desiccated bar of Lava soap. I shampooed my hair and dried it with paper towels. Then I redid my makeup, hid my clothes in a filthy corner under the cot, and did what everybody else does on Monday morning in America.
I got dressed for work.