Jim Timmons had come from Vermont to Deer Falls, the little resort town on the edge of the Adirondacks, not for the scenery or skiing— he could get that at home—but to look for work. A cousin had told him they were hiring at Custom Veneers. Praise God, Jim had gotten a job on the hot-glue line, 10.50 an hour. He’d no sooner started in, though, than his cousin moved to Buffalo, so Jim found himself alone in a strange town. He was grateful, then, when at the end of the shift on Friday, he was invited to go along for a beer with some of the guys.
He hadn’t been in the Red Dog Tavern more than ten minutes before he realized it was a mistake. He hadn’t worked long enough at Custom Veneers to get the jokes about the bosses or appreciate anecdotes about botched orders and accidents with forklifts, didn’t know any of the women Bob (Jim didn’t know his last name) said he should hook up with.
At some point, three or four beers into the evening, Jim found himself sitting in a booth by himself. That’s when the fight started. Jim hadn’t known anything about it until somebody landed on his table. Then somebody else. He managed to get out from under them, climbed over the back of the booth, and was heading for the door when a cop— female—grabbed him.
“I wasn’t—” he tried to say, but she shoved him up against the wall and commanded, “Put your hands behind your head!”
“But I wasn’t—” he began again when she grabbed his left wrist and pulled it down into the small of his back, and then he felt something cold against his wrist. Handcuffs. The stupid woman was trying to cuff him.
“Hey, I wasn’t, I wasn’t involved, I—”
“Shut up! Give me your hand! Give me—”
Jim hadn’t intended to struggle, but when the woman couldn’t seem to get the cuffs on his left wrist, then lost hold of his right wrist, he grabbed her arm, pushed his hip into her and spun her around off her feet until she was face down on the floor.
He wrenched the cuffs from her. Then he saw her fumbling with her holster trying to get at her pistol. He’d been kneeling over her, but now he sat on her, pushed her flat against the floor, pulled her hand away from her holster, and took the pistol out.
“Is this what you wanted? Is this it?” he hissed, laying the barrel right across the bridge of her nose. Jim was shy and quiet, in most cases a gentle guy, but he did have a temper, result no doubt of growing up with an older brother who bullied him and a younger sister who got away with murder by blaming everything on him.
“Tell this stupid cop I wasn’t in the goddamn fight,” he said, looking back over his shoulder. There was no one else in the tavern. Not a soul. Who would tell his side of the story? He was screwed.
“Oh, you stupid woman. You stupid, stupid woman.” Sure, he was going to take the blame again.
He pushed the pistol into his belt, then cuffed the cop first try. Rolled her over enough to take the radio off her belt. Found her driver’s license in her hip pocket.
“Now I know who you are,” he said, standing up, “and I know where you live.”
She didn’t say a word, just lay there, her eyes darting wildly. She looked absolutely furious—or so he thought at first. But then he realized she wasn’t furious. She was terrified.
“And I wasn’t even involved,” he said. A reproach. A lament.
He went down a hallway and out the back door. He could hear voices from the parking lot in front. There was a creek running behind the bar, and he worked his way along the bank in the general direction of Custom Veneers. After a block or so he tossed the pistol and radio into the water, then came up to the street. No one seemed to be after him, and there were no sirens. He forced himself to walk at a normal pace back to his car on the factory parking lot.
He sat in his car. His anger had left him, and now he felt empty, sad. Then came the panic. The woman cop would have been discovered by now. Customers would be questioned. The fellows from work would identify him. It wouldn’t take the police long to find out where he lived, the little basement apartment he’d thought of as drab and depressing but which he now yearned for. But he couldn’t go there. He couldn’t go anywhere in Deer Falls.
He drove east until he hit the interstate, drove south to Albany and then west, racing the dawn along the New York Thruway.
In Buffalo he ate Twinkies and coffee for breakfast at a 7-Eleven. He was trying to think how he could get ahold of his cousin, the one who’d gotten him the Custom Veneers job and then promptly left Deer Falls, when he finally realized that was no good. The police had probably already contacted his folks in Vermont. It wouldn’t take them long to connect Jim to his cousin. No, he had to keep moving.
And the car! They’d have a description of the vehicle and license plate number. He had to ditch the car, and fast.
On the south edge of Buffalo, behind an empty warehouse, Jim took the license plate off the car, stuck a rag into the gas tank, and lit it. He ran like hell.
The name of the woman who’d ruined his life was Haley Wertz. He’d tossed her driver’s license but had all of her information memorized. Twenty-six years old. Brown hair. Green eyes. Five-foot-five, one hundred and five pounds. He was surprised by that. He thought of her as much larger, the way she’d shoved him up against the wall. But then he had managed to free himself, pin her down, and get the cuffs from her without much trouble. And that was too bad. If she’d been bigger and stronger, or better yet if she’d been a man, Jim would have been cuffed, witnesses would have been questioned, and no doubt in an hour or two he would have been free, with a funny story to share with the guys at Custom Veneers.
The stupid, incompetent bitch.
He traveled via his thumb. Found odd jobs first in York, Pennsylvania, then Lancaster, then Jackson, Tennessee, working mostly on roofing and lawn-care crews, whose bosses preferred to pay off the books and therefore weren’t too picky about proper identification. “It’s nice to hire a real American for a change. All these damn Mexicans.” He heard that a lot. He liked the Mexicans, though, and didn’t mind the work all that much. True, he made just about enough to survive, but there’d been long stretches in his little Vermont hometown when he hadn’t worked at all, lived at home with his parents, didn’t have anything like a life. He wasn’t happy with his life now, but he’d never considered happiness much of an option for him. Other people, maybe, not him. So he would have been reasonably content with his life, such as it was, if it weren’t for the rage he felt, almost a physical pain like heartburn, when he thought of that woman, that Haley Wertz.
The months rolled on by, the odd jobs, the friends for a week or two, the frozen pot pies and cans of pork ’n beans, the cheap apartments, the succession of towns, mostly Southern now because the warmer climate was welcome when he had to sleep in the park or in some abandoned house, as happened more than once.
And then it was April 6th, the one-year anniversary of his flight from Deer Falls. Thinking about it, another date occurred to him, a bit of information he recalled from Haley Wertz’s driver’s license: her birthdate, April 7th. The coincidence, or near-coincidence, at first intrigued him but then wasn’t intriguing at all but just aggravating. A whole new wave of bitterness rolled over him. For a year now Haley Wertz had been living her old comfortable life while he was eating shit.
He bought her a belated birthday card and wrote on it,
Happy birthday, you silly bitch. I’ll try to be on time next year.
By now he’d forgotten her address, so he mailed it c/o the Deer Falls Police Department.
He spent a pleasant day or two imagining her receiving the card, trying to think who this Jim guy might be, and then it would come to her. She’d remember his knees in her back, her humiliation. She deserved all she got.
But the postmark! West Memphis, Arkansas. With anybody else, they wouldn’t go to much trouble over a year-old case that hadn’t amounted to much in the first place, but cops protected their own. He could see calls being made, the West Memphis police knocking on his door.
Jim hit the road again, landed in Monroe, Louisiana, which he did not enjoy.
He came to look back on the two weeks he’d spent in Deer Falls as a sort of idyll in which he’d been less an unskilled factory worker than a tourist enjoying the quaint shops, the beautiful vistas, the tree-lined walk around the little lake that Deer Falls snuggled up against. Once, he’d bought a quarter-pound of fudge at that cute little shop where they made their own candy. And one Sunday he’d walked all the way around the lake and saw the beautiful old homes opposite the town, also a bird, big, that he was pretty sure was a bald eagle. You didn’t see any bald eagles in goddamn Monroe, Louisiana.
What he missed most were the guys, Bob and the others. Class acts every one of them. Barely a week on the job and already he’d been on a first-name basis with all of them.
Not now, though. Now, they wouldn’t know him from Adam.
Time hardly seemed to pass, yet it passed. Months rolled by.
He sent Haley a Christmas card and wrote on it, “Merry fucking Christmas. Jim.” When April 7th approached, he sent her another birthday card and wrote on it, “Be seeing you soon. Jim,” because he thought that would scare the crap out of her.
Once the card was in the mail, the notion began to take hold of him. Why not go back? The two weeks in Deer Falls had been the best of his life. He’d go back and eat fudge. Walk around the lake. Keep an eye out for eagles. And Haley Wertz.
It took him a few months to work up the nerve. Then he took the bus to Albany and hitchhiked the rest of the way.
He was Lee Mason now. That’s what it said on the phony driver’s license he’d paid a guy fifty dollars for in Shreveport. His hair was short now, and instead of clean-shaven he sported a beard that he kept neatly trimmed. He wore glasses, too—not as a disguise but because he’d grown increasingly near-sighted over the years like everyone in his family. He thought the wire rims made him look intellectual, like a writer or something. But he didn’t read much. He needed them to see clearly. Bald eagles. Haley Wertz.
He rented a basement apartment, not the one he’d lived in before but close enough. He got a job working for D&B Cleaning and Custodial Services. They cleaned houses and businesses and had a contract for the custodial work with the Deer Falls school system. He signed on with D&B just in time for the fall semester and was assigned the assistant janitor position at the elementary school.
Then he began looking for Haley. He remembered all the information from her driver’s license except her address, but he found that in a four-year-old phonebook in a bar.
He staked out the little bungalow on Cleveland Street until he saw that a family who looked Arab or something lived there. What to do now? Deer Falls was a small town and he thought surely he’d see her eventually if he kept his eyes open. Every time he saw somebody in a police uniform, he’d look closely, but it was never Haley.
He’d avoided the police station, but after several frustrating weeks of no Haley, he decided he had no choice. There was a little public park across the street from the police station parking lot, and he began to bicycle over there mornings before work (he couldn’t afford a car) and every afternoon afterward and pretend to be reading a book at a picnic bench as he watched the comings and goings across the street.
On the very first afternoon he saw her leave the building at 4:00. But was that really her? She looked like herself but then she didn’t. She had shoulder-length hair now instead of that short, butchy style, and she looked smaller, frailer than he remembered. She was almost petite. What was she doing being a cop? Maybe she’d just needed a job.
She drove a Saturn that looked about as old as she was. If he had a car, he could follow her and see where she lived. On a bike, though? Ha.
He’d cycle over to the police station every afternoon, arriving about 3:45. He’d stay to watch Haley leave for home. Generally, he’d sit there a while afterward. It was the best part of his day, peaceful, a pretty little park. Sometimes he’d even read a few pages of the book he always brought with him, The Last of the Mohicans, which he’d gotten for a dollar at the used bookstore.
One day after Haley had left work, Jim was sitting at his picnic table reading a little more of the Cooper when there was Haley again. She parked in the lot but instead of going into the police station, got out, went around the car, opened the door, and out came a little boy. She took him by the hand and led him across the street to the park.
Jim resisted an urge to run, tried to hide his face behind the book. She never looked his way, though, just played with the little boy on the merry-go-round, the swings, climbing the ladder of the tall slide right behind him, getting herself settled at the top with him in her lap. Then down they’d come.
She called to the boy once: “Daniel.”
Jim had been so busy watching Haley that it wasn’t until they were walking back across the street toward her car that he realized he’d seen the boy at the elementary school, a shy little guy off to himself on the edge of the playground.
That night in his apartment, Jim wrote Haley a short note: “That’s a nice looking little boy you have. Jim.” He’d already sealed the envelope, put a stamp on it, and addressed it c/o the Deer Falls police department when it occurred to him that Haley might take the note as a veiled threat to her son. He tore open the envelope, cut the stamp off, and threw the note in the trash. He wrote Haley another note: “I like your new hair style. Jim.”
Only after he’d mailed it did it occur to him that she might take that as a veiled threat, too. Well, so what? Threaten the little boy, no, but Haley was fair game, right?
Deep into October it began to grow chilly by late afternoon, and then on Halloween five inches of snow fell. It was no longer so pleasant on the picnic bench in the park.
He began to spend more time watching Daniel at school than Haley at the police station. He tried to find work to do around the playground at recess or the gym when the weather was too bad for the kids to go outside.
Daniel reminded Jim of himself, small and shy. Except that Jim had that temper, and he’d explode if one of the bigger kids pushed him too far. They learned to leave him alone.
On the playground Daniel would find some corner off to himself, make little piles of pea gravel, kick them over, then build the piles back again. In the gym in bad weather it was obviously harder for Daniel to find a space to himself, and he’d spend the recess hovering around the edges of the knots of children playing together, looking anxious. He’d seem relieved when the recess was over.
One day Jim saw Daniel playing with a little girl at recess. She had black hair and eyes and looked foreign. Jim wondered if she was from that Arab family that lived in Haley’s house on Cleveland Street. What did it matter, though? Daniel looked like he was enjoying himself.
That night in his apartment, Jim wrote a note to Haley: “Daniel has a new friend. Jim.” He sat staring at the note. No, he couldn’t send it. They’d know—Haley and her police friends that she’d show the note to—that he had to have seen Daniel at school. They’d investigate, and then they’d have him. He tore up the note.
He woke up in the middle of the night thinking about Daniel. He got up and wrote the same note as before, this time leaving off the “Jim.” At school the next day he slipped it into Daniel’s Thomas the Engine lunchbox.
It wasn’t until he was back in his apartment after school that he realized that even though he hadn’t signed the note, Haley would recognize his handwriting and know for sure that he had to have been in Daniel’s school. What had he done? For a moment his arms and legs felt like lead, he couldn’t move them, couldn’t get his breath. Was this a panic attack? Then he sank back onto the couch and said, “What the hell. What the hell,” but more from weariness than panic.
But the police didn’t come kicking down his door that night, and the next day at school all was normal. At recess, though, the dark little girl was playing with someone else, and Daniel was again by himself in a corner of the playground.
Jim wished he could send another note like the one he sent yesterday.
He’d never been back to the Red Dog Tavern, where he’d had his run-in with Haley years ago. But every Friday night, just to treat himself, he’d go for a beer to Sparky’s, a bar patronized mostly by locals.
One night Jim found himself sitting at the bar next to a guy he remembered seeing at the police station. A cop. Jim’s first instinct was to get out of there. Instead he struck up a conversation.
“Hey, I’ve seen you around town. You’re a cop. Thank you for your service. How about another beer on me?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
His name was Arnie. They chatted a while. Then: “Hey, modern times in the Deer Falls Police Department. I mean, you’ve got a woman cop now. Maybe several for all I know. I saw one the other day. A little thing. Brown hair.”
“Oh, you mean Haley. She’s the only woman on the force currently.”
“Kind of small. Is she tough enough to handle what a cop might run into?”
“Funny you should ask. She had a run-in with some guy in a bar a couple of years ago. Got roughed up a little. Kind of traumatized her. She was going to quit, but the Chief took her off patrol duty. She’s the dispatcher now.”
“Well, at least she landed on her feet.”
“Sort of. But she’s had a rough time. That jerk she got into it with— we never have been able to run him down—he kept on harassing her, sent her threatening letters, shit like that. She moved out of the house she lived in because she was afraid to be alone there, just her and her kid. I’d like to get my hands on that son of a bitch, I’ll tell you that.”
“No husband, then?”
“Naw. There’s a story there, but I don’t know what it is. Cute girl, though.”
“There you go. Make your move.”
“Oh hell no. I’ve got two exes already. I don’t have any moves left.”
The day before Thanksgiving break began, Jim put a pumpkin-shaped, chocolate-covered marshmallow treat into Daniel’s lunchbox. No note.
A couple of weeks later at recess, for the first time since Jim had been watching him, Daniel got up the nerve to climb onto one of the swings. He was promptly shoved off by one of the older boys. Jim went over to the swings, smoothed the pea gravel out a bit with a rake, then leaned down and whispered to the boy on the swing, “If I ever see you bullying that little boy again, I’ll tear your ears off. And if you tell your mama or anyone else I said that, I’ll tear their ears off, too.”
It was on Christmas break that he finally discovered where they lived. D&B offered him the same two weeks off that the school got—but with no pay—or he could clean houses until school started up again. Jim needed the money; he cleaned houses. He was walking back to his apartment from a cleaning job at one of those mansions up on the hill when he passed a little apartment house—it looked like it might have a dozen units at most—and there was Haley’s old Saturn with the rear hubcaps missing. So this was where they’d lived since she’d moved out of the house on Cleveland. Felt safer with people around her.
He bought a toy for Daniel. A Transformer, it was called. You could manipulate it so that it changed from a dragon to a superhero type guy. He wrapped it in Christmas paper and put it in Haley’s mailbox in the tiny apartment house lobby. No note. The following day he bought Haley a bottle of perfume—Red—and put it in her mailbox. He included a Christmas card and wrote, “Merry Christmas, Haley” on the inside. He didn’t sign it, but he decided that when Valentine’s Day rolled around, he would sign that card.
The Friday night after Christmas he treated himself to a hamburger and beer at Sparky’s. He’d just finished the burger when Arnie, the cop, sat down at the bar beside him. He slapped Jim on the back.
“There he is,” he said. He kept his hand on Jim’s back. The palm felt heavy on Jim’s spine, the thumb at the base of Jim’s neck to the right, the fingers to the left. “Yep, here I am,” Jim said. “Glad to see you, Arnie.”
“Right back at you,” Arnie said. He gave Jim a shake. Jim felt his head rock left and right. “So, how are you doing with our little Haley?”
“Who? Oh, you mean the lady cop we were talking about? Haven’t seen her but that one time. She’s out of my league, anyway. No, you’re the one who ought to make your move there. Not me, Arnie, you.”
He tried to laugh when he said it but couldn’t quite manage it.
Arnie ordered a beer. He didn’t have his hand on Jim’s back anymore. He seemed lost in thought.
He took a sip of beer, and then without looking at Jim said, “Say, you know what? I just found out that that guy, you know, that guy I told you about, the one that Haley had the run-in with, that guy has still been sending her notes. I thought all that had stopped a while ago, but, nope. And here’s a funny thing. I’ve heard that this guy may be back in town. Living right here in Deer Falls. Now what do you think about that?”
“Well, I think that sounds like a guy who badly needs to get a life,” Jim said. He was proud that he was able to keep his voice steady. “That’s what I think, too,” Arnie said, nodding. Then he turned and looked directly at Jim. “Now, what did you say your name was again, pal?”
“Lee Mason, yes sir, I remember now. And where did you say you were from?”
“Glens Falls. Over around Glens Falls.”
“Glens Falls! First Glens Falls and now Deer Falls. You kind of specialize in falls, don’t you, Lee.”
“Ha ha, yeah, I guess you could say that.”
After Arnie finished his beer, he headed for the john, and Jim got out of there.
He went back to his apartment and stuffed as much clothes as he could get into his backpack. Then he sat on the bed and stared at it.
“What the hell,” he said. “What the hell.”
He left early next morning. At the Exxon station on Main Street he asked the guy filling up the tank of a U-Haul-It for a ride. The guy didn’t seem too enthused about the idea until Jim offered him a twenty for gas.
They followed the state road west into the Adirondacks. When he got to Briggston, a town only a little bigger than Deer Falls about thirty miles away, the man pulled over and said, “This is as far as I go.”
“I guess this is as far as I go, too,” Jim said.
He found a job the day after New Year’s at a Jiffy Lube. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a house owned by a widower, Mr. Banks.
“After two basement apartments, I’m on the second floor. I’m moving up in the world,” Jim said. Mr. Banks thought that was pretty funny.
“So, moving over from Deer Falls. That’s a pretty little town. My wife and I had our honeymoon there in a little cabin right across from the falls.”
It’d never occurred to Jim that there must be falls somewhere around a town named Deer Falls.
“No, you wouldn’t have seen them. They’re not there anymore. When they dammed up that river to make the lake, the water came up over the falls. Probably thirty years ago now.”
The days, the weeks passed. Jim and Mr. Banks got along well. The old widower, who never mentioned having children of his own, treated Jim like a son.
In early March, Mr. Banks came into the kitchen and tossed an envelope onto the table where Jim was nursing a cup of coffee.
“You’ve got mail.”
Jim hadn’t received a piece of mail, not even junk mail since he’d settled in Briggston. The envelope was a long rectangle. What could it be?
It was a card, on the outside a crowd of people in party hats singing something, but he only gave that a glance before opening it and saw written inside, “Happy birthday, Jim. Haley.”
“It’s a birthday card,” Jim said to Mr. Banks. “I’d totally forgotten. Tomorrow’s my birthday.”
“Your birthday! How about that? You ought to do something to celebrate. I’ve been telling you you ought to get out more. Damn near begged you to borrow my car, go for a spin. Now’s your chance.”
Jim thought a minute. “Could be I will,” he said.
He’d drive over to Deer Falls, go straight to Haley’s apartment, knock on her door and say, Here I am. Let the chips fall where they may. And no use kidding himself, it might be bad. It might all be a trap. Instead of Haley, Arnie and his cop buddies might be waiting, and they’d cuff him and take him to the police station, work him over good. Break bones. Say he fell down the stairs.
But it might not go that way. It might be Haley at the door. She’d say, “It’s about time, Jimmy,” with a sassy but sweet smile. He wouldn’t rush things. He’d do it right, court her. Maybe take her for a walk around the lake. “There used to be a falls here,” he’d tell her. “I knew a guy who had his honeymoon here, right by the falls. It was very pretty, very romantic. Gone now, though. Too bad.” And she’d say, “But lakes are nice, too,” because she had that knack of making him see the bright side of things. They’d sit by the edge of the lake and watch their little boy play with the sailboat Jimmy bought him in one of those cute little souvenir shops on Main Street.
Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.