JUNE 11, 1995
It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?
And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. They’re building a big bypass so the beach traffic won’t have to slow for the speed trap on the old Main Street. He saw the construction vehicles, idle on Sunday, on his way in. Places like this bar-slash-restaurant, the High-Ho, are probably going to lose what little business they have.
High-Ho. A misprint? Was it supposed to be Heigh-Ho? And if so, was it for the seven dwarfs, heading home from the mines at day’s end, or for the Lone Ranger, riding off into the sunset? Neither one makes much sense for this place.
Nothing about this makes sense.
Her shoulders are thin, pointy, hunched up so close to her ears that they make him think of wings. The front of her pink-and-yellow sundress is quite a contrast, full and round. She carries herself as if she doesn’t want to attract any male attention, at least not tonight. On the front, he can’t help noticing as he slides on a barstool, she’s not so pink. The little strip of skin showing above the relatively high- necked dress has only the faintest hint of color. Ditto, her cheeks. It is early June, with a breeze that makes it easy to forget how strong the sun is already. Clearly a modest type, she wears a one-piece, so there’s probably a deep U of red to go with those shoulders. Yesterday, fingerprints pressed there would have left white marks.
He wonders if she’s meeting someone here, someone who will rub cream into the places she can’t reach. He would be surprised if she is. More surprised if she’s up for leaving with a stranger, not shocked by either scenario. Sure, she gives off a prim vibe, but those are the ones you have to watch out for.
One thing’s for sure: she’s up to something. His instincts for this stuff can’t be denied.
He doesn’t go in hard. He’s not that way. Doesn’t have to be, if that doesn’t sound too vain. It’s just a fact: he’s a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan. Tall and muscular with even features, pale eyes, dark hair. Women always assume that Ken wants a Barbie, but he prefers his women thin and a little skittish. In his downtime, he likes to hunt deer. Bow and arrow. He goes to the woods of western Maryland, where he can spend an entire day sitting in a tree, waiting, and he loves it. Tom Petty was wrong about that. The waiting’s not the hardest part. Waiting can be beautiful, lush, full of possibility. When he was a kid, growing up in the Bay Area, his ahead-of-the-curve beat parents put him in this study at Stanford where he was asked to sit in a room with a marshmallow for fifteen minutes. He would get two if he didn’t eat the one while he waited. He had asked, How long do I have to sit here for three? They laughed.
He didn’t learn until he was in his twenties that he was part of some study that was trying to determine if there’s a correlation between success and a kid’s ability to manage the desire for instant gratification. He still thinks it was unfair that the experiment wasn’t organized in a way that allowed a kid to get three marshmallows for sitting twice as long as anyone else.
He has left two stools between them, not wanting to crowd her, but he makes sure she hears when he orders a glass of wine. That catches her attention, asking for wine instead of beer in a place like this. That was the idea, catching her attention. She doesn’t speak, but glances sideways when he asks the blonde behind the bar what kind of wine they serve. He doesn’t break balls over the selection, which is red and white. Literally: “We have red and we have white.” He doesn’t bat an eyelash when they serve him the red cold. Not a sommelier-ordained-sixty-degree cold, but straight-from-the-fridge cold. He takes a sip, summons the barmaid back, and says, oh so politely, “You know what? I’m happy to pay for this, but it’s not to my taste. May I have a beer?” He glances at the taps. “Goose Island?”
Another quick sideways flick of her eyes, then back to her own drink—amber, rocks. Wherever she’s going tonight, it’s not far from here. He looks into his own drink and says out loud, as if to himself: “What kind of an asshole orders red wine in a tavern in Belleville, Delaware?”
“I don’t know,” she says, not looking at him. “What kind of an asshole are you?”
“Garden variety.” Or so his exes—one wife for a span of five years, maybe seven, eight girlfriends, which strikes him as a respectable number for a thirty-eight-year-old man—always told him. “You from around here?”
“Define from.” She’s not playing, she’s retreating.
“Do you live here?”
“I do now.”
“That sunburn—I just assumed you were someone who got a day or two of beach, was headed back to Baltimore or D.C.”
“No. I’m living here.”
He sees a flicker of surprise on the barmaid’s face.
“As of when?”
A joke, he thinks. A person doesn’t just stop for a drink in a strange town and decide to live there. Not this town. It’s not like she’s rolled into Tuscany or Oaxaca, two places he knows well and can imagine a person saying, Yes, here, this is where I’m going to plant myself. She’s in Belleville, Delaware, with its saggy, sad Main Street, a town of not even two thousand people surrounded by corn fields and chicken farms. Does she have connections here? The barmaid sure doesn’t treat her like a local, even a potential one. To the barmaid, blond and busty with a carefully nurtured tan, the redhead is furniture. The barmaid is interested in him, however, trying to figure out whether he’s passing through tonight or hanging around.
Which has not yet been determined.
“Let me know if you want someone to give you the skinny on this place,” the barmaid says to him with a wink. “It would take all of five minutes.”
Barmaids and waitresses who flirt this overtly make him a little nervous. Bringing a man food or beer is intimate enough.
He lets both women alone, drinks his beer, watches the inevitable Orioles games on the inevitable TV with the inevitable shimmy in its reception. The team is good again, or, at least, better. As the redhead’s third drink reaches its last quarter inch, he settles up, leaves without saying good-bye to anyone, goes to his truck in the gravel parking lot, and sits in the dark. Not hiding because there’s no better way to be found than to try to hide.
Ten minutes later, the redhead comes out. She crosses the highway, heads to the old-fashioned motel on the other side, the kind they call a motor court. This one is named Valley View, although there’s no valley and no view. The High-Ho, the Valley View, Main Street—it’s like this whole town was put together from some other town’s leftovers.
He waits fifteen minutes, then enters the little office at the end, and inquires if there’s a room, despite the big red vacancy sign filling the window.
“How many nights?” the clerk, a pencil-necked guy in his thirties, asks.
“Open-ended. I can give you a credit card, if you like.”
“Funny. You’re the second person today to ask for an open-ended stay.”
He doesn’t have to ask who the first one was. He makes a note to himself that the chatty clerk will be chatty about him, too.
“You need my credit card?”
“Cash is fine, too. If you commit to a week, we can give you the room for two hundred fifty. We don’t get many people Monday through Friday. But, you know, there’s no kitchenette, no refrigerator. You gotta eat your meals out or bring stuff in that won’t spoil.” He adds, “If the maid sees stuff sitting out, she’ll tell me. I don’t want ants or roaches.”
“Can I keep a cooler in the room?”
“As long as it doesn’t leak.” He hands the credit card over. “I can give you a better rate if you pay cash,” the guy says, clearing his throat. “Two hundred twenty dollars.” Guy’s got some sort of scam going, must be skimming the cash payments, but what does he care? He can last a long time in a place that’s $220 a week, even if there’s no refrigerator or stove.
He wonders how long she can last.
By Laura Lippman
Published by Faber & Faber (1 March 2018)
What kind of woman walks out on her family? Gregg knows. The kind of woman he picked up in a bar three years ago precisely because she had that kind of wildcat energy.
And now she's vanished - at least from the life that he and his kid will live. We'll follow her, to a new town, a new job, and a new friend, who thinks he has her figured.
So who is this woman who calls herself Polly? How many times has she disappeared before? And who are the shadowy figures so interested in her whereabouts?
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