Chapter 21: It gets worse
Hell was raining down on Laurel.
Its name was Wyatt.
It was just before the break of dawn, two days after Laurel and Wyatt’s visit to Charlie’s house. The pair were inside the dark, ratty little room they’d rented for a week in a motel on the edge of downtown Asheville, that, as Wyatt suddenly swerved into its graveled parking area, Laurel prayed would be as abandoned as it looked.
She hadn’t been out of the room since first inhaling its cloying reek of insecticide.
Now she was sitting half-naked on the closed lid of the toilet in the room’s moldy, dank bathroom, shaking and trying to calm herself. Possessed by a fury more intense than any she had seen in him before, Wyatt had spent the long night slapping Laurel, yanking her around by her hair, throwing her down onto the rancid carpet, shoving her onto the bed, sucker-punching her in the stomach, on her thighs, on her back, all the places where bruises don’t show.
Though there was no one in the room next to theirs, if there were any other tenets in the motel at all, Wyatt made sure that throughout the night Laurel kept quiet anyway, by clamping his hand tight over the entirety of her lower face; by stuffing into her mouth a pair of her underwear, or his, or one of his dirty socks; by whispering, with his lips tight upon her ear, that she better not make a sound, unless she wanted it to be the last sound she ever made.
While in this position, he had bent his face as far down towards hers as he could, so that his dirty long dark hair formed a kind of tunnel through which she was looking up at his crazed, bloodshot eyes. In a voice the calmness of which frightened her more than any of his screaming ever had, he said, “You think you’re better than me, don’t you? You think your friends are better than me, too, don’t you? That faggot and that fat slut teacher of yours.” He released one side of her head for exactly as long as it took him to slap it. “Don’t you?” When Laurel, wide-eyed, shook her head no, Wyatt released and slapped the other side of her head before clamping it in his grip again.
“You lying bitch,” he said. Then he tilted his head a bit, and looked down at her almost wonderingly. “Who’s starting to turn red.” He smiled, but not with his eyes. “You look good red. But you know how I think you’d look even better? Pale, pale white.”
Then, with one hand on her neck, he reached back behind him, and began lightly, and not so lightly, punching her thighs.
Now Wyatt was asleep on the bed, the nearly empty fifth of bourbon lying on the floor where it had dropped from his hand.
And Laurel was sitting in the bathroom, trying to stop herself from shaking.
She closed her eyes.
When she had calmed down enough, she stood up, and, as lightly as possible, stepped to the bathroom door, which she had left open just a crack.
She stood just inside the door, her fingers touching the cool sink counter, listening into the darkness.
She heard Wyatt’s breathing, deep and slow and steady.
She knew the bathroom door squeaked if slowly opened or closed. So, holding her breath, she took a chance, and pushed it open as rapidly as she could.
Her gambit worked. The door didn’t make a sound.
She took one step into the room, and then froze. Moving her head as little as possible, she peered into the faint morning light, trying to see anything in the room that she could wear.
She guessed that the black round mass in the far corner of the room was her jeans, and that the small dark shape on the ground in the opposite corner was her red San Diego County Fair tee-shirt. She had no idea where her shoes were. And Wyatt had managed to hide somewhere in the room her purse, her cell phone, and the keys to her car.
Those things were probably under the bed.
If they were, that’s where they were going to stay. She wasn’t going to risk waking up Wyatt by poking around under there.
Stepping so slowly the air around her didn’t seem to move, she made it to what she was relieved to find were, in fact, her pants.
With painstaking slowness, she slid the jeans up and over her hips, thanking God they weren’t her tight ones.
A minute later that seemed like an hour, she was wearing her county fair tee-shirt.
Which, she discovered, had been covering her sneakers.
She bent, loosened fully the laces of her shoes, and then carefully stepped into of them, and then the other.
She thought of the little pamphlet that Mrs. Dulton’s friend had given her, now hidden underneath the inner sole of her right shoe.
“Thirty-five Woodfin Street,” the woman had said to her. “That’s where the Family Justice Center is. Thirty-five Woodfin. Remember that address.”
Once they were on, Laurel squatted to tie her shoes. Tightly.
If Wyatt woke up while she was still in the room, she would tell him that the only reason she’d gotten dressed was to be ready to go out and get him some breakfast as soon as he wanted any.
And if he woke up as she was opening the front door to the room—which he probably would, because of all the noise it would make?
Then what would she say?
That she was going out to get them some food?
That wouldn’t work. He knew that she had no money on her.
Maybe that she was just—but then she stopped.
It wouldn’t matter what she said.
What Wyatt had just got done showing her was that he was more than capable of killing her. And if anything would trigger his doing that, it would be catching her trying to escape the room that he had turned into her prison.
And nothing she could say would stop him.
So she decided that if, as she was opening the front door, Wyatt woke up, she wouldn’t say anything to him at all.
She would just start running. And screaming. And hoping that someone reached her before Wyatt did.
Now fully dressed, she tip-toed to the front door.
After pausing for a moment, she took a delicate hold of its deadbolt, and tried turning it to the right.
It didn’t budge.
Wrapping her fingers around the doorknob, she gently pulled it towards her, hoping to loosen the deadbolt. But the knob gave a bit, and in so doing emitted a sickeningly loud click sound.
Her heart in her throat, Laurel became a statue.
No sound issued from behind her except Wyatt’s steady breathing.
She tried turning the deadbolt again.
It still wouldn’t budge.
With one hand flat against it, she pushed the door slightly forward, and tried the deadbolt again.
She pushed on the door a little harder.
This time the deadbolt did turn. And when it did, it did so suddenly, making a bang that sounded to Laurel like a pistol being fired.
She heard Wyatt’s breathing stop, and then the sounds of the bedsheets being hurriedly kicked off.
Chapter 22: Dear Mom
I am very sorry for how long it’s been since I wrote or called you. I never should have allowed so much time to go by without reaching out to you. How could I do that to my own mom? I won’t let it ever happen again, I promise.
The reason it’s been so long since you’ve heard from me is because (and, believe me, this isn’t easy for me to write) I somehow allowed a horrible person — Wyatt, who I’m sure you remember — to basically take over and control my whole life.
The reason I didn’t contact you for so long was because Wyatt wouldn’t let me write or call anyone, not just you. If I got in touch with any of my friends, he would just go nuts. So, even before he took my cell phone away from me, I gave up using it. It was just so much easier and safer not to.
I’m so ashamed, Mom, of how I surrendered my life — everything that I had, that I was, that I wanted to be — to a guy who only wanted to destroy me.
I honestly do not understand how I could have done that.
But I can definitely tell you one thing, Mom: I’m going to figure out how I could have done that, so that I never do it again.
The good news is that I’m not going to have to figure that out by myself. The place where I am right now — the place I ran to when I escaped from Wyatt this morning — has this woman, a “case manager,” who I’m going to start meeting with. Her name is Phyllis. From the second I met Phyllis, I started feeling a lot better about everything. She is going to help me work out everything in my life that’s getting in the way of my leading a normal, happy life: my job situation, where I’ll live, any resources that I might need in order to either leave Asheville, or to make it here on my own. All of it.
Maybe the best thing Phyllis will do for me is to sign me up for these classes they teach here on domestic violence.
Mom, talking with Phyllis, just for the few minutes that I did, made me realize how long it’s been since I felt any hope.
Living without hope is the worst thing in the world. What’s even more terrible is when you don’t even realize you’re doing it, when you’ve been without hope for so long that pretty soon you’re just going through your life without it. Because then you’re not living at all. A life without hope is just … death that hasn’t happened yet.
That’s what my life has been like for the last two years.
But no more. Now I feel like that long nightmare of my life is over — and that I’ll never have to go through anything like that again. Because now, amazingly enough, I have a whole team of people who will work with me to make sure that I don’t.
But, obviously, I need to back up a little.
Mom, I haven’t told you this yet, but I’m not in San Diego anymore. I moved all the way across the country. I’m now in Asheville, North Carolina.
The reason I didn’t tell you that I was moving so far away is because I didn’t want anyone to be able to tell Wyatt where I was. I was already at the point where I wanted to get away from him — really, REALLY away.
My plan was to drive across the country, to Asheville, and then to call you once I was here and safe. (One of the main reasons I chose Asheville was because I knew that my old art teacher, Mrs. Dulton, had moved here. Do you remember Mrs. D.? She is so great. I saw her when we first got here! She seems really happy. She cut her hair super short.)
My plans for getting away from Wyatt once and for all didn’t work out like I’d planned, to say the least.
What happened was that Wyatt caught me packing for my escape. My suitcase was already full when he shocked me by coming home at least three hours before he was supposed to. I was so afraid of him that I just started talking before I even had a chance to think. I said something like, “Honey, I was thinking that you and I should leave San Diego. There’s nothing here for us anymore. Let’s go some place where maybe something good can happen for us. I’m only packing because I wanted to surprise you by showing you what a great idea I think this is. I was going to pack your stuff next, even though I don’t really know what you’d want to bring. I thought it’d be so much fun to just be, like, ‘Yay! Let’s go!’”
The next thing I knew, Mom, I was on my way to Asheville, just like I planned — only with Wyatt right next to me in the car, which was the opposite of my plan.
When we finally arrived in Asheville, we didn’t have anywhere to stay. Wyatt had this big plan about him and me staying at Mrs. Dulton’s — about us moving in with her, basically. But that didn’t work out. So we ended up staying in a motel so crappy even we could afford it.
Wyatt was more abusive to me in our motel room than he’s ever been to me before (and that’s saying something). So this morning, while he was passed out drunk on the bed, I ran away from him. There was this one moment, right before I opened the front door of our room, when I was sure I had woken him up, and that he was coming to get me and pull me back into the room. I think that was the most afraid I’ve ever been in my whole life. But he was only shifting in his sleep.
The second I was out of the room, and had closed the door behind me as quietly as I possibly could, I took off running. Once I was on the road of the motel I put out my thumb. I was so scared to be hitchhiking, but didn’t know what else to do. If Wyatt had come out of the motel, and found me, I know he would have killed me, probably right there on the street. So I figured I’d take my chances hitchhiking.
I had just stuck out my thumb when a really nice lady stopped to pick me up.
A few days before, when Wyatt and I had gone to Mrs. Dulton’s house right after we reached Asheville, a friend of Mrs. D’s was there, a woman who could tell that Wyatt had been hitting me. This woman managed to get me alone in a back room of the house, where she gave me a little pamphlet on domestic violence. She also told me to memorize an address: 35 Woodfin Street. She told me that if I ever ran away from Wyatt, that was the place I should go.
So that’s where I told the lady who picked me hitchhiking up to take me: 35 Woodfin Street.
And that’s where I am right now.
When I first got to this place, I couldn’t believe the size of the building. It looked like big court building, or a city hall, something like that. But once I’d made my way up the stairs outside, and gone through the big double glass doors, a woman named Maggie came out right away from her seat behind this glass enclosed area in the lobby, and held my hand.
She was immediately so good to me, so caring. I’m crying right now just thinking about Maggie. She was just … well, for one, someone I knew right away I could trust.
The first thing that Maggie wanted me to know was definitely the first thing I wanted to know, which was that I was safe.
Finally, truly, and for the first time it what felt like forever, I was safe.
In the reception area with Maggie was a really friendly policewoman—which made me feel doubly safe.
What Maggie was also very clear about making me understand was that everything we said together was 100% confidential.
I was so grateful for that.
I don’t even like saying this, Mom, but the truth is that so much of what’s happened to me is almost unbearably embarrassing. It’s absolutely nothing that I want anyone to know about. So the whole thing about our conversation being completely confidential was a gigantic relief to me.
Maggie walked me out of the lobby area, and through this super-locked door leading into a nice hallway. Then we went through another door, and into a kind of den — a little carpeted room, where there was this really nice couch and chair and everything.
And that’s where Maggie sat down with me, and just started TALKING with me.
She asked if I wanted anything to eat, or if I was thirsty, or wanted some coffee or tea. She asked me how I was feeling, what had been happening with me lately, why I was there. During this great conversation we started having, she asked me all kinds of questions — and then really, really listened to my answers.
It was always about what I wanted, what I needed, what I was feeling.
It made me realize how long it’s been since I felt that someone was really listening to me, Mom. The way you used to. Just being listened to by somebody who cares about you is such a simple thing. But it felt like the whole world to me.
I told Maggie everything that had happened to me, everything Wyatt had done to me, everything I’d been through with him.
At one point, she asked me if I wanted to see a nurse, just to look me over, to check and see if I’d been hurt maybe more than I even realized. I was pretty unsure about doing that, but then Maggie asked if I’d like to just meet the nurse. I said sure.
And that, Mom, is when I met Carol.
Another amazing, amazing woman.
After I met Nurse Carol, I wasn’t afraid of having her examine me. I don’t think anyone who’s met Carol could ever be afraid of anything again. She’s that great.
Maggie and Carol walked with me down the hall to another cozy little den room, where Nurse Carol and I sat and talked for awhile. She asked me a lot of questions, which I guess helped her get a better overall view of what was happening around all the stuff that Wyatt had been doing to me.
Then Carol said, “I’d like to take some pictures of different places on your body where I can see that you might have been hurt. Would that be okay with you?” But I wasn’t sure I wanted that.
Carol said, “It’s a good idea to have that visual record of the state of your health when you arrived here. Especially if you think you might want to file a police report against the person who did this to you.”
So I said okay, let’s do it. She has a little examining room right next to her office and the room we were in, so that’s where she looked me over and took the pictures.
I thought having photos taken of places all over my body where Wyatt had hurt me would be extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing for me. But it wasn’t. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most positive experiences of my whole life. Because being with Wyatt — being trapped by him, and being treated by him the way I was for such a long time — created a situation in me where, in a weird way, I was kind of totally disconnected from everything that was happening to me. It’s like I’d gone crazy, or something.
I don’t know the right words to say this.
What happens, when you don’t have anyone to compare your experiences to, is that you start to think that any crazy thing that happens to you is normal. Pretty soon, being smacked across the face for not putting enough sugar in your boyfriend’s coffee seems NORMAL to you.
But then, to have a nurse — a woman who is obviously smart, confident, caring, and extremely UNcrazy — take photographs of all the places on your body that she’s concerned about, because clearly you’ve been HURT in all those places, makes you realize, kind of all at once, that what’s been happening to you is really, really NOT normal or okay. That punching, kicking, and hitting a person is nothing but every last kind of wrong. That that’s just not supposed to happen, ever, to anyone, under any circumstances.
And it’s SURE not supposed to happen to you at the hands of someone who’s telling you, as they’re hitting you, how much they love you.
It felt like every click of Carol’s camera was pulling me further and further down to earth from the black cloud I’ve been floating around in for the last two years. That’s what it was like.
After we were done with the exam and the photos, I hugged Carol so hard I was pretty sure I was never going to let her go. And that seemed okay with her.
After my time with Nurse Carol, Maggie walked me back to the den we’d been in before. She talked to me about what I wanted to do next. She asked if I had a safe place to stay tonight, what my financial situation was, if I wanted to set up visits with a case manager. (That’s when I met Phyllis — who I already have an appointment with!)
Maggie also asked if I wanted to file a police report against Wyatt. I wasn’t sure. When she asked if I wanted to just talk to a policewoman, so that I could better understand what my options around that were, I said yes.
I’m so glad I did, Mom. Because, guess what? Officer Hazlett, the awesome policewoman who came in to talk with me, did a police report to help me file criminal charges against Wyatt. It takes my breath away just thinking about a warrant being issued for Wyatt’s arrest. But that’s what’s happening next.
The charges against Wyatt will be (I think) “assault on a female,” and “communicating threats.” My guess is after the warrants are issued, the police will go pick up Wyatt right at the motel, where he’s probably still lying on the bed passed out.
And then I’ll be safe from him.
That drop you see on the page below is one of my tears. I am feeling so many emotions right now, Mom. And all of them are good. It’s like all the positive emotions that I was supposed to have felt over the past two years—that I WOULD have felt if I’d been leading a normal, healthy life—are rushing through me now, like a bunch of wild horses let loose from the pen they’ve been locked up in.
I’ll be lucky if this whole page doesn’t end up being too wet for me to even be able to send it to you.
It’s so incredible to think of this big place I walked into this morning. Maggie and Phyllis work for an organization called Helpmate, which (since I have the brochure right here) “provides free and confidential services to victims of domestic/intimate partner violence in Buncombe County.” Nurse Carol works for Mission Hospital here in Asheville. Officer Hazlett is with the Asheville Police Department. Also in this one building is an organization called Our VOICE, which helps victims of rape and sexual assault. There’s also another group here, Pisgah Legal Services, which, if I had needed any kind of legal advice, they would have provided me.
And all of that is available to me, right here, for free, just for walking in the door.
As you know, Mom, I’m not a very religious person. But I have to say: Thank God for this place. Thank God for what it’s already done for me.
You know what’s been maybe the most powerful part of what’s happened to me today? Just the fact of meeting the strong women who work here. Maggie, Nurse Carol, Phyllis, and Officer Hazlett have made me remember that being a woman doesn’t mean that I have to be weak, or act stupid, or be out of control of my life. These women aren’t out of control of their lives. Not even close. Nobody runs their lives but them. Period.
Somewhere along the line, I forgot that women don’t have to just survive. We can thrive. And that “we” includes me. That’s what meeting these women here today has made me remember. I don’t know how I could have ever forgotten it. But I won’t ever forget it again.
Right now I’m waiting for a ride home from one more strong and powerful woman. She is going to let me live with her for a little while — which is another thing I can barely believe.
When Maggie asked if I had anywhere to stay for the night, or even anyone I just wanted to call, I called Mrs. Dulton. She told me that a lady I’d met when Wyatt and me visited Mrs. D. at her house wants me to come live with her. This lady, Leslie, has a farm way back in the mountains around here, and I guess could use a little help taking care of the place when she’s down here in Asheville, where she works and spends a lot of her time.
As you know, Mom, I don’t know anything about living on a farm. But to say that I’m willing to learn is one big understatement.
Me, feeding chickens! And maybe even MILKING COWS!
If it ever happens, I’ll send you a picture of me milking a cow, so that you can stare at it, and, along with me, totally not believe that it’s real.
But it will be. Because that’s the kind of stuff I’ll be doing on Leslie’s farm.
I would stay at Mrs. Dulton’s, but Wyatt knows where she lives. And if Wyatt escapes from the police, or whatever, he’ll go to her house looking for me. (Where, hopefully, he’ll also get his ass kicked by the two big guys — and one of their dads, I think — who live in the house with Mrs. D.)
So I’m waiting now for Leslie to come get me. I talked with her on the phone about twenty minutes ago. She sounded exactly as nice as when I met her. She’s super down-to-earth, and just really sweet. I kind of can’t get over that she’s just going to let me live in her house. She’s saving my life, basically. And she doesn’t even know me.
Whoops: there goes another tear. I’ll just write around it. See?
Okay, Mom, I’m going to go now. As soon as I get a new phone, I’ll call you (and send you pictures of me on the farm!). I love you. Sorry again that it’s been so long since I contacted you. But that phase of my life is over now. I’m back.
Chapter 23: Out of gas
“So this gas shortage is real,” said Tammy. She was looking at the plastic bags covering all the pumps at the vacant gas station closest to Mission Hospital, from which she and her passenger, Frank, had just come following Frank’s checkup.
“Gee, do ya’ think?” said Frank sourly.
“I can’t understand how I could have run out of gas so quickly,” said Tammy, pulling back onto Biltmore Avenue. “I swear I had at least a quarter tank just this weekend.”
Frank chewed his lower lip a little, and looked out his side window. Tammy thought she heard him mumble something.
“What’s that?” she said.
“Nothing,” said Frank.
“Well, this is a real problem,” said Tammy. “My fuel light’s been on since we left the house. I figured we’d just get gas after your appointment. But if this station is empty, I’m gonna guess nobody else has gas around here, either.”
“I’d say that’s a fair guess,” said Frank.
“You know, back in San Diego, you have to hunt for a church, but gas stations are on every corner. Here, it’s exactly the opposite. I’m still not used to it.” She turned to Frank, who, in her little car, looked like a giant. As she’d learned to do during the two months that she’d been taking care of him, Tammy tacked toward the positive. “Anyway, it was so great to hear that you’re doing better, Frank. Your doctor was pleased.”
Tammy stayed the positive course. “Well, he is an awfully nice man. He’d probably come right out—and bring us some lemonade, too. Day as hot as this.”
Seemingly absentmindedly rubbing his hand back and forth across his broad upper chest, Frank said dispiritedly, “Maybe he’ll bring a little red wagon we can sit in while he wheels us home.”
“Maybe,” said Tammy. She glanced over at him. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Sure. Perfect. I love my new life.”
Under normal circumstances, Frank’s miserableness would have concerned Tammy. But these weren’t normal circumstances. In her whole life, Tammy had never run out of gas. The thought of doing so now, with Frank in her car, was freaking her out. But only on the inside: ten years of teaching junior college had taught her a thing or two about masquerading panic as aplomb.
Alas, they did not.
“Well, isn’t that something?” said Tammy. She got the distinct impression that the illuminated little gas pump on her dashboard was growing brighter. And pulsating. And emitting the sound of an air raid siren. “Tell ya’ what. Let’s check the Shell station up here a ways, just past the freeway. And if they’re out of gas, we’ll just head on home, and take it from there. Sound good?”
“No, it doesn’t sound good. I thought we were going to the grocery store.”
“I’m afraid that was before we ran out of gas—and certainly before there was none for sale. Besides, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for us to go grocery shopping, do you?” If Mary Tyler Moore had been any sunnier, she’d have incinerated the planet. “We have so much food at home, doncha think?”
“No. Not that regular people eat. I’d like some real food for a change, if that’s okay with you. I’m tired of this stupid diet you have me on. I want a steak and potatoes.”
Digging her fingernails into the steering wheel, Tammy said pleasantly, “Well, if this station is out of gas, then we are out of options. We’ll be lucky to make it home after that.”
When Frank failed to respond, Tammy looked over to find him again staring silently out the passenger side window.
Why wasn’t he complaining about her obvious failure to plan ahead? It wasn’t like him not to take at least one swipe at such low hanging fruit.
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Frank, tell me the truth. Do you know something about why my car is out of gas?”
He kept his head turned away. “Why the hell would I know that?” he said to the window.
“Well, you know, it’s not exactly a secret that you like to borrow people’s cars. As far as I know, you’ve never taken MY car out for a secret joy ride. But maybe you have.”
Now staring out the windshield, Frank said, “Sure. During the one second a day—if I’m LUCKY—that one of you kids isn’t watching over me like a mother hen, I snuck out and drove your car around. Because THIS is such an irresistible car to be in I just couldn’t resist. Jeezus, gimme a break.”
“Well, then, how I ran out of gas will just have to remain a mystery, I guess. Okay, here’s the station. Cross your fingers, and hope they have gas.”
Hopes dashed, replaced by yellow gas handle sacks.
“Well, that’s not good,” said Tammy.
“Isn’t Trader Joe’s right up the street there?” said Frank.
“It sure is,” said Tammy, circling the empty station before coming back out onto the entrance lane for the I-240 West. “But we’ve got to get home, buddy.”
Instead of taking the 240 all the way out to West Asheville, though, Tammy got off on the very next exit.
“What are you DOING? I thought you wanted to go HOME,” said Frank. It was a decent imitation of Oscar the Grouch.
“I do want to go home. But I also don’t want to run out of gas on the freeway. I figure I’ll go down Haywood, cross Patton, and then cruise all the way down Clingman to the bridge.”
“Oh,” grumbled Frank.
“That okay with you, Captain?” Her voice caught a little. She knew her car. She didn’t know its gas indicator went so far to the left. Charlie’s house seemed like a thousand miles away.
And then, halfway down Clingman Avenue, it might as well have been.
“Oh, no, no, no,” said Tammy, as the car began sputtering.
“Oh, this is just GREAT,” Frank spat.
Tammy barely heard him. She was concentrating too hard on what was happening.
Brakes still worked.
No one in the rearview mirror. Light traffic ahead.
Nobody dead yet.
Like she’d been doing it all her life without simultaneously having a nervous breakdown, Tammy steered her lifeless car into the first exit around the traffic circle just before the Haywood Street Bridge, and then immediately into the gravel lot just across the street from the Phil Mechanic Studios.
“Oh, my GOD!” she cried, turning off the car. “I did it! We’re okay!”
Before she was done talking, Frank was climbing out of the car.
“Wait—what?” she said.
By the time she, too, had gotten out of the car, Frank was heading across the street, straight for Phil Mechanic’s.
“Frank!” cried Tammy. “Stop!”
But if anything, he started walking faster, right into the street.
Chapter 24: The Art of the Deal
Half-way across the street, Frank stopped walking. If his goal was to have a car plow into him, he couldn’t have picked a better place to stand. A driver coming from his right would probably see him in time to brake; a driver taking the first exit off the traffic circle would mow him right down.
Tammy was at his elbow in a moment.
“Frank,” she said. “You can’t stop here, okay? You’re going to get hit by a car.”
“Just gimme a moment,” said Frank. He looked exhausted.
“Just move forward a few steps with me,” said Tammy, very lightly moving him forward. “Either that or, you know, become a hood ornament.”
Once Frank started moving forward, he kept going, until he and Tammy were all the way off the street, and sitting in two chairs set in the shade outside of Phil Mechanic Studios.
“Wait here,” said Tammy. She shot across the street, and grabbed a couple of bottled waters from the cooler of them she’d started keeping in her back seat in case something like happened.
“Here you go,” she said, handing one of the waters to Frank. Next she pulled her phone out of her purse. “As luck would have it, I am a member of Triple A. So I’m going to call them, and see if they can bring us any gas.”
As double luck would have it, they could, and would be there in about twenty minutes.
Once Tammy was assured that Frank was in need of nothing so much as sitting in the shade and drinking some cool water, she said, “Now, look, big guy. As you know, I try my best to keep out of your business.” She ignored his exaggerated snort. “But I must ask: What’s up with the bolting out of the car? Where did you think you were going? And why?”
Tammy looked over her shoulder at the old brick Phil Mechanic Studios building. Being an artist, she knew what about the building she found so compelling. But what would motivate Frank to jump out of her car and charge towards it like a maniac?
“Because you’re a fan of old brick buildings?” she said.
“Yeah,” said Frank sarcastically. “There’s just something about bricks I can’t resist.”
“Well, what is it, then? What’s so special about this building?”
“That it sold earlier this year for at least two million dollars.”
“I know, right? That is SO much money.”
“Wrong. If that’s all it sold for, Lifshutz made a killing.”
“Yeah. James Lifshutz. The Texas developer who was smart enough to swoop in on this building.”
“You know his name?”
“Of course I do.”
“Why are you so interested in this building, Frank?”
“I’m not. I could give a crap about this building. But you know what I AM interested in—a lot?”
Tammy shrugged. “Art?”
“Pfft. Right. Art. Because that makes so much money.”
“Sure. But what are the odds? On the other hand, you know what can’t HELP but make money, hand over fist? That big, beautiful river back there. By which I mean the land along that river. You look at that river, and you see flowing water. I look at it, and I see flowing money. You’ve driven along Riverside Road and Lyman Street, right?”
“Of course I have. The art studios all through the River Arts District are amazing.”
“I’m sure they are. But I don’t give a rat’s ass about them. What I care about is the land they’re on.” Frank sat up a little straighter, and leaned forward in his chair. He seemed to be gathering energy as he spoke. “Let me tell you something, Tammy. I’ve been in the development business a long time. I’ve seen a lot of wonderful opportunities come and go. I’ve been lucky enough to get in on some of those opportunities myself, at exactly the right time. When that happens, it is a beautiful thing.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Tammy.
“It’s like money raining from heaven. And I’m tellin’ ya, in all my years, I have never seen anything like the fortunes waiting to be made along that river. Never. And it’s right NOW, do you understand? The moment to make that money, to get in low and come out high, is right this moment.”
“But hasn’t that moment already passed?” said Tammy. She pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “I mean, two million dollars, for THIS building? Don’t get me wrong: I love Phil Mechanic’s. The artists working in these studios are doing some of the best work in the RAD. But two MILLION? It feels like I could knock this building over by leaning on it.”
“You couldn’t, but who cares? It’s the land that matters. And, yeah, it would have been great to have been here a year ago, much less ten, when, for a few million dollars, I could have bought all the land for a mile along this river. And believe me, if I’d known what was going on down here, I would have. But that fat lady hasn’t sung yet. We’re still within that window of opportunity—a window which, as you say, is closing very quickly—when a man can lay down one million dollars today and walk away with ten million tomorrow. And you better believe I’m gonna get in on some of that action.”
“You’re gonna buy land in the RAD?”
“Do I LOOK stupid? Of course I am. Whaddaya think, I came down here because I love banjo music so much? I’ve got investors lined up behind me, with checkbooks in their hands, just waiting for me to call ‘em. And I will. Soon.”
Tammy took a slow sip of her water. She recalled the time that Leslie had said Frank would definitely develop real estate while he was in Asheville. But it never occurred to her that he would develop property in her beloved River Arts District.
Sounding more defensive than she meant to, she said, “You know, Frank, there’s a lot more going on in the RAD than just the land that’s here.”
“Like hell there is. That’s a sad delusion, Tammy. The ONLY thing going on along that river is the land. I don’t know if there’s hotter land for less money anywhere in the country right now. In twenty years, this whole stretch of river is gonna look like the Left Bank of Paris.”
Tammy’s voice rose in pitch, and she spoke rapidly. “Not if people come in here, and just start ‘developing’ the land, without any respect or appreciation for what makes the RAD so great right now, Frank. The reason the Left Bank is so amazing is all the ART that’s there—all the galleries, studios and museums that define the entire area. The Left Bank would be nothing without the traditional arts and crafts being done there—the little shop where they sell meticulously crafted umbrellas and walking sticks, the place where they’ve sold handmade candles for two hundred years, the chocolatier whose hot chocolate is so magical is IS art. The French cherish, and PROTECT, all those kinds of businesses, Frank, because they understand that making one unique and beautiful thing that’s meant to last forever is much more noble and wonderful than is making a thousand identical things that are meant to end up in a dump somewhere. The RAD actually IS on its way to being the Left Bank. That’s the miracle of what’s happening here. But that living, breathing miracle will vanish the moment some money-crazed developer decides that what this area REALLY needs is a T.G.I. Friday’s, or an Abercrombie & Fitch, or some goddamned HOTEL that makes half a mile of the river its own private property.”
“Jeez, Louise: calm down, Joan of Arc. Whaddaya yellin’ at ME for? I’m not the enemy. I understand that ONE of the reasons the land here has become so valuable is because of all the artists who moved in here. I get that. I’m not a complete lout. I just don’t CARE. If artists want to keep making their art here, fine. I hope they do! I hope enough people BUY that art to make keeping the artists here a viable commercial option. But what’s Lifshutz already said he’s going to do with this building? Turn it into condos, retail space, and restaurants. And of COURSE that’s what he’s going to do with it. Because condos, stores, and restaurants make money. And yes, he’s said he’ll also include a few art studios. I hope that he does. But how long do you think he’s gonna let those studios stay there when they can’t afford the rent anymore? He’s not a charity organization. And he’s not a wealthy patron of the arts in medieval Europe. He’s a modern American businessman. So if the art studios that he lets stay here make money, that’ll be great. I’m sure he’ll be very happy about that. But if they don’t, then their heyday here is over, and they need to move on to the next crappy location that they can begin to turn around before the real money comes in and kicks them out.”
“Oh my God!” said Tammy. “How can you just SAY that? How can you be OKAY with that?”
Frank looked genuinely confused. “That’s like asking me how I can be okay with water being wet, or elephants being big. It’s just the way it is. This is what capitalism IS, Tammy. It’s not my fault. I’m not anti-art. I’m anti-not making any money. The word has gotten out that the city of Asheville is gonna do the heavy lifting on turning this into some of the most desirable real estate in the country. People just like me are flocking here now, cash in hand. A whole lot of those people are going to make a whole lot of money buying all the land along this river. What kind of idiot would I be if I didn’t make sure that I was one of those people? What should I do, volunteer to NOT to make money, because not enough people buy art? I’m not a social engineer. I’m not the French Minister of Culture and Arts. I’m just a businessman. Businessmen make money—if they’re any good at what they do. As it happens, I am.”
Tammy took a deep breath. She had to back out of this conversation; one stroke victim at a time was enough.
She took another sip of her water. In doing so, she leaned back her head. Up in the sky above her, black against the clear blue sky, a lone raven silently soared toward the river.
Chapter 25: Why are men the way men are?
That night, long after dark, as Frank lay asleep in his bedroom, Tammy and Charlie, each holding a glass of wine, were sitting on Charlie’s porch.
“So Frank’s ready to invest already?” said Charlie.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” said Tammy. “I’m pretty sure by this time tomorrow the whole River Arts District will be known as Frank’s Place.”
“Oh, great. Todd’ll be so glad to hear it.”
Tammy leaned her head back. Every night now, more and more stars were visible through the trees. She found it thrilling, how quickly fall fell. “Charlie, can I ask you something?”
“Why are men the way they are?”
“How do you mean?”
It took a moment for Tammy to find the right words. “Why are men so driven to pee on everything?”
Once Charlie was assured wine wasn’t going to come shooting from his nose, he said, “Good question.”
“So, what’s the answer? You’re a man. Fess up.”
“Okay, fine. But you can’t tell ANYONE I told you this. I’m breaking the Man Oath of Silence by confiding in you. Don’t make me regret it.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Okay, here it is. The reason men pee on everything is because they can.”
Tammy waited for more. When she saw that none was forthcoming, she said, “That’s it? That’s your whole answer? Because they CAN? I want my money back.”
Charlie shrugged. “You asked.”
“Well, you have to admit, that wasn’t much of an answer.”
“I admit no such thing. A complete justification and explanation for why men do the awful things they do lies in those three words: Because. They. Can.”
“So that was a real answer.”
“As real as every skyscraper ever built, baby. What do they call the Vance Monument downtown?”
“‘In The Pants of Vance.’”
“And the Washington Monument?”
“I don’t know.”
“‘Engorged George.’ And the giant obelisk in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City?”
“Okay, I get the idea.”
“Then you understand why those funny names aren’t really funny at all.”
“I’m saying that men aren’t exactly shy about the fact that they LIVE to make the world in their own image. And they MUST do that. They have no choice. They can’t help it.”
“Because it’s not about money. It’s about power.”
But Tammy was on a roll. “It’s the same way with Ryan. I know Ryan loved me. I know he loves the kids. But what he REALLY loved was his company. That’s where his real attention was. That’s what he was really passionate about. In the end, what he cared about most of all, by far, was how successful his company was, how expensive a house he lived in, how fancy a car he drove. Finally, he cared more about how the girl on his arm LOOKED than he did for his twenty-two-year-old marriage.”
“Ryan’s an idiot.”
“Maybe. But he’s also typical. I just don’t understand that whole … I don’t know … angry, power-crazed thing men have.”
Tammy sighed. “And then along came Donald.”
“Yes! Exactly. And then along came King Donald. Finally, someone’s let loose to run around out in the world the same angry, spoiled, entitled, rutting power monger that for so long has been raging and screaming inside of THEM. Although, you know, what’s really screaming inside of them are the little boys they never grew out of.” He started doing a baby brat voice. “‘Mommy said I was a special prince, and I’m NOT!’ ‘Daddy, and everyone else in our little town, told me that being a white male means I’ll always win—and I’m NOT!’ ‘All girls were supposed to love me the way Mommy does—and they DON’T!’ All these men, for whom the American dream has devolved into nothing but one long sleepless night, now feel so powerless to make things better for themselves and their families that they’re about ready to go truly berserk. ‘No one’s listening to me! Why won’t anyone LISTEN to me! WHY AREN’T I IMPORTANT?’ And then along comes Big Daddy Donald, in all of his radioactive orange glory, proudly braying, while the cameras roll and the spotlights shine, all the same things that they’ve only ever dared to whisper behind closed doors. It’s like the second coming! It was bad enough that a BLACK man was their king—but at least he was a man. But coming rapidly towards them now is the ULTIMATE shriveling of their manhood: an enthroned WOMAN. No! Never! It’s too much! It cannot be! Man your stations! Throw her in prison! Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!”
“Wow,” said Tammy, nodding. “You’re fun when you get drunk. Sort of.”
Charlie held up his half-empty glass of wine. “I’m hardly drunk.”
“I’m sorry I’m raving. The ongoing vitriolic reaction of the whole White Straight Male Patriarchy to the cracking apart of their foundation is just … wearing me a little thin these days.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
After a long pause, Charlie said quietly, “The reason men do all the awful things they do really is because they can. And the reason they can is because men, in the main, can, and have always been able to, beat women up. It really is that simple. Women are hardwired, on the most basic level, to fear men; men are hardwired to know that, and to let it turn them into cretins. Men do what they do because they know they can. They come into the game knowing they hold something near to absolute power over at least half the people on the planet. That is a lot of power. And you know what they say about power.”
Tammy nodded, and then looked back up at the stars. “So what’s the answer? How does this ever get better?”
“Women will get stronger and more powerful, as they already are. And men will become more enlightened, as they already are.”
“Are they? I know women are getting stronger; you can’t live in Asheville, and not be assured of that. But are men growing more enlightened?”
Charlie shrugged. “I guess all we can do is hope they are.”
Tammy’s phone rang. She picked it up off her lap.
“Who is it?” said Charlie.
Tammy looked at Charlie with a surprised expression.
“It’s Ravi,” she said.