In Case Someone Comes Looking for Me

Becky Hagenston

While her husband is off somewhere getting them new identities, Liz smokes on the back porch and tries to feel lucky. She’d asked him to change her name to Daphne—Daphne sounds like a woman who could live in a place as hot and humid and slow as this, where the plant life is thick and dripping, a place that’s nothing at all like Tucson. But she isn’t thinking about Tucson or about The Frenchman, who isn’t even French for God sakes! Who’s as American as she and Teddy are. She frowns and exhales into a shrub that looks like it wants to eat her.
    “It’s a whole new life for us,” Teddy kept telling her on the drive to this godforsaken place, this magnolia-drenched hotbed of racism and stupidity. “Now, now,” he scolded her, when she went on like this. “You can’t judge a place you’ve never even been.” He knew people here, he’d told her, and she wasn’t exactly in a position to be picky. And she’d stared out the window, feeling ashamed of herself. She wondered what The Frenchman was doing, and if he’d been fired yet.
    Now she blows smoke into her kudzu-filled backyard, trying not to think about The Frenchman, thinking about how she isn’t thinking about him, thinking about how she’s already forgetting his face. Then the doorbell rings, and she’s sure—for just a moment—that he has come to rescue her.
    The doorbell ringer abandons the bell and begins banging on the door.
    He—John Paul, but she still sometimes thinks of him as The Frenchman; it’s more exciting—doesn’t even know she’s here. He wouldn’t have known she was gone until yesterday morning, when he must have gone to her office (she had imagined all of this vividly; it kept her occupied as Teddy drove them through Louisiana) and poked his head in her doorway and said, “Liz?” and her desk was empty of its photograph (her and Teddy’s wedding picture), and yes, she’d taken the laptop computer, too. It now sits on the floor of the green-carpeted living room. She doesn’t consider it theft, not in relation to what’s been taken from her. It’s just the slightest bit of reimbursement, is how she sees it.
    She has stuck her sandal in the back door to keep it propped open, and now she stubs out her cigarette and walks barefoot to the living room, expecting to see a police car outside, forcing herself to expect it, not letting herself even imagine—though of course she does, for just the teeniest second—that it’s him, John Paul, that he’d been trailing them in his Honda Civic all the way across Arizona and New Mexico and Louisiana and up through Vicksburg and Jackson. That when they’d stopped for McDonald’s outside of Shreveport, he’d been only a few miles behind them. That when she’d made Teddy pull over so she could pee at a rest stop near Meridian, John Paul had been close on their tail.
    But it must be, has to be, the police. They have found her. (She thinks this in a warped, time-slowed way, the same way she’d watched her husband reading the love letters she’d—stupidly!—stashed in her jewelry box, along with the plane tickets to Tahiti and a thousand dollars in cash.)
    But there is no police car, no Honda Civic, just a red convertible idling on the street. A boy in sunglasses sits in the driver’s seat. Someone bangs on the door again.
    The girl is maybe twenty, with dyed black hair hanging in her eyes. She’s wearing a yellow halter top, and blue eyes stare out of a sunburned face. “Hey,” says the girl. Liz waits, her heart still galloping at the thought of seeing—then the reality, the relief, of not seeing—John Paul or a cop standing there. “Um, I have something I ought to tell you.” Liz wonders if she should invite the girl inside, then decides against it. Maybe robbers actually knock on your door here. Maybe that’s southern hospitality.
    “What is it?” Liz says, trying to make herself look dangerous and not worth robbing.
    “I met this guy in Memphis. I only knew him for a week, but he was kinda weird, you know? Kind of . . . angry.” The girl frowns, and so does Liz. Is this some sort of roundabout religious solicitation? Is she going to produce a Bible or a pamphlet now and ask if Liz is saved? Liz has a ready answer: “I’m as saved as I want to be.” She’s been wanting to say this ever since she was accosted two years ago with this same question, and all she’d done was ask, “What are you talking about?” And the pamphlet-wielding little twerp had grinned at her and launched into a spiel about how she was going to hell. “Hell!” he’d cried, like he was telling her she’d just won a cruise. “Anyway,” the girl continues, “I told him not to contact me again, and he said, ‘Well give me your address so I can send you a letter.’ ”
    “A letter?” Liz says. “What kind of letter?” She half expects the girl to produce it, but from where? She has no pockets, Liz notices now, no place for letters or Bibles.
    “Just . . . a letter.” The girl is starting to look pissed. “I wouldn’t give him my phone number, so to get him to leave me alone I said he could send me a letter. Anyway, I gave him this address.”
    The boy in the convertible is staring at them. John Paul would never drive one of those things. Not now, anyway. But he might have, when he was younger. Liz doesn’t know what he’d been like when he was younger.
    “Not on purpose,” the girl hurries on. “I just made something up. One fifty-eight Central Street. Not even thinking that there might actually be a one fifty-eight Central Street.”
    “Do you want me to send you the letter if one comes for you?” Liz can’t imagine why else the girl is here.
    “No.” She shakes her head vigorously. “No way. I just thought I should tell you in case . . . in case someone comes looking for me.” She leans in closer; her eyes are bloodshot, and her breath smells sour and fruity. “I think he’s probably dangerous.” She backs away, still staring at Liz, then turns and skips to the convertible.
    Liz watches until the car is gone. It’s an early summer afternoon, and the air smells thick and floral, like a department store bathroom. There’s a Baptist church on the corner, and box-shaped houses just like hers squat up and down the street, some with rusty old cars in the driveways. It depresses her. She goes back inside and locks all the doors and hooks the chain.

John Paul’s ex-wife was the one who’d caused all the trouble. It would have made more sense, of course, if it had been his current wife, but apparently she’s a moron. No, it was Betsy, the ex, who came to the Study Abroad once one day looking for him—he was hard to reach by phone, always busy with some student who was leaving for France the next day but—whoops!—forgot about getting a passport. Or busy with some parent, who was calling to ask why his or her child had to live in a dorm with a nasty toilet and no air conditioner. (“It’s Paris,” Liz had heard him say one day, calmly, into the receiver. “It’s not Epcot Center.”)
    Just before John Paul was hired, Liz got promoted from administrative assistant to office specialist, which meant she was in charge of reimbursement and ticket procuring and taking the payments (a zippered bag full of cash and checks) to the bursar’s office at the end of the day. Yes, looking back on it (which she tried not to do), it seemed inevitable that something terrible was going to happen. At first, all the ladies in the office were excited about getting an actual Frenchman, and they were disappointed when John Paul explained that he was born in Kentucky and that his first name was John and his last name was Paul. Nothing French about it. In fact, he told Liz during one of their first lunches together, his parents had named his brother Less, “after the guitar. Except,” he said, “they spelled it with two esses.” She was entranced by the way he moved his fork to his mouth. “He changed it to Deke. Thought it sounded more macho.”
    Liz wasn’t disappointed in John Paul one bit. She was glad he was American, and that he was exactly her age, twenty-seven, and that he had just left his wife back in Nebraska.
    “My husband tried to leave me last year,” she told him. “But he came back.” She didn’t tell him that Teddy was the circuit court judge, only that he was thirty-three years older than she was (“Thirty-three!” he’d exclaimed, appropriately shocked), and then she told him how they met, how when her parents were killed eight years ago in a car accident, Teddy—a lawyer then—had handled their estate. He’d been married before, to a woman who died of breast cancer, and he knew pain. He knew the world was cruel. He had big hands and a kind, furry face, and the first time he kissed her, she felt her heart drop down to her feet and then spring up again.
    “Life isn’t fair,” she said to John Paul, one night after work. They were at Carlos Murphys, eating chips and drinking margaritas and watching basketball on the big-screen TV.
    “Damn straight,” he said, pointing a chip at her. “Damn right!”
    The next day at work, still slightly hungover from the margaritas, she let him take her into his office and push her up against the wall map of the world—she was staring at Tahiti—and lift up her skirt and rub her thighs. After a few minutes, he sighed and pulled her skirt down and said, “I think I have someone waiting outside for me. Send him in, please.” She had wandered out of his office in a numb, delirious daze, her palms and crotch moist.
    And then Betsy shows up, coming all the way to Tucson from Kansas City to try to win him back, rapping on his office door and then poking her ridiculous red head inside and saying, “Hiya, sweetie!” and seeing the two of them, Liz on his lap. Just sitting there at his desk in front of his computer, like she was a child he was teaching how to drive. Except that his hands were up her shirt.
    Betsy had stared for a moment and then stomped out of the office, and Liz heard her screech, “Who is that woman? Who is she?” And then she heard her supervisor Helen—who was jealous, who wanted John Paul for herself—say, “That must be Liz.”
    Because it wasn’t like it was a secret.
    Still, everything would have been okay; she was sure of that. It all would have worked out—yes, she might have been fired, but so what? If she’d been fired right then, they could have avoided all the rest of it.
    Or no. They could have avoided some of it, but Betsy would still have called Liz’s house and left a message on their machine, and Teddy would still have started snooping, a stickler for evidence.
    And what if she didn’t have access to all that cash, so easy to stash in her purse? Her problem, she knew—Teddy was constantly telling her—was that she didn’t think things through. Didn’t stop and say no, this is a dumb idea. He told her, “You can think of something and not do it.”
    This was after she’d ordered eight hundred dollars of pottery equipment over the internet. She’d just thought, Pottery, wouldn’t that be nice? And suddenly she was filling in their credit card number. Thinking and doing just flowed seamlessly together, the idea and the impulse melding until wham, there were four crates of pottery equipment on her front porch, or blammo, she’d booked herself and John Paul on a two-week trip to Tahiti. Paid in cash. Nonrefundable.
    It had never occurred to her to wonder what might happen at the end of those two weeks.

She stands at the window, wondering if John Paul might be parked down the street, waiting. She imagines what it would be like for him, seeing her open the curtains—already there are curtains; where did they come from?—and stare outside. She suddenly feels very beautiful, very mysterious. He had told her she was these things. He told her with his lips next to her ear, and he told her in magic marker on a pink message pad.
    The curtains are new and white, like a wedding dress worn by a Barbie doll. How had Teddy managed to get everything set up so fast? To find this house—which, aside from the fact that it’s in a podunk town, is not terrible—and put up curtains?
    If it was up to her, she’d still be curled up in a ball in their closet in Tucson, crying next to the shoe tree.
    “I’ll take care of everything,” Teddy had whispered, crouching down to hold her and kiss her ear. “I won’t leave you.”
    But he nearly had left, struck down eight months earlier by a heart attack on his way to lunch. After the doctor massaged his heart back to life, she stayed by his hospital bed and prayed, though she didn’t know how, and she stroked his sweet old hand and knew that she didn’t deserve this love, that it would be taken away, and there was nothing she could do but brace herself, the way she hadn’t braced herself for the police lights in her driveway when she was nineteen. Alone in their big bed, she thought of a story she’d heard somewhere, about a woman cut in half by a subway train. She was lying there, this poor woman, held together by the electric current, and as soon as the current stopped . . . but the story couldn’t be true, could it?
    And then Liz was thinking of Teddy leaving her forever, and then she thought splat, and suddenly there was a fistful of pills in her hand and then down her throat.
    That was the first thing she did without thinking. It got even easier after that.
    But she came back, and no one ever knew; she cleaned the vomit off her face and changed the sheets, and her husband, whom she loved but didn’t deserve, who would be taken from her, came back too.
    “Why would anybody ever leave you?” John Paul had asked. “That’s crazy!” And she said, “Don’t I know it,” and let him kiss all the places she couldn’t feel anymore, which was everywhere.
    Outside, a car is moving slowly down the street, an old gray El Camino. A strange man is staring toward her house, and he doesn’t slow down, but she knows what he wants, knows he has Tennessee plates and a gun and that he’s thinking of the black-haired girl.
    She desperately wants to call John Paul and say, “This drunk girl came to my door and told me her stalker ex-boyfriend is going to come looking for her here.” Her hands are on the phone—it works!—and her fingers are dialing, but it would hurt Teddy, seeing this number on the phone bill. She hangs up, her heart pounding in her brain, filling her head. She knows calling is a dumb idea; she should have a cigarette, should think it through, and then she’s opening the backdoor and hearing it slam behind her.
    She’s locked out. She’s barefoot. She has no keys. She has no money. John Paul is not coming for her, and a man from Memphis is trolling the streets with a broken heart and a shotgun in his backseat, and the police are looking for her to put her away. Teddy might come home any second now, or he might never come home.
    She takes a deep breath and squints. Beyond her yard is another, and then the street. Beyond that she can hear the hum of the highway that brought her here. She steps off the porch into the warm grass. She will think of things and not do them. With each step, she will think of something—Call John Paul—and not do it.
    Turn herself in.
    Hitchhike to Alaska.
    Climb into the car of a dangerous, love-sick man and let him take her anywhere, because she deserves to have her heart broken again and again, far away from the warm old hands that could bring her back to life.
    She will just keep walking until she’s thought of everything.

Becky Hagenston is the author of A Gram of Mars, which won the 1997 Mary McCarthy Prize. Besides previously appearing in The Gettysburg Review, her stories have been published in Black Warrior Review, the Southern Review, TriQuarterly, and many other journals, as well as in the 1996 O. Henry Prize anthology. She teaches at Mississippi State University.

“In Case Someone Comes Looking for Me” appears in our Autumn 2007 issue.