Thomas N. Dennis
They were driving down the interstate one bright Sunday afternoon near mid-winter, one of the times Bill had suggested they “just go for a simple drive—just go nowhere.” So she clammed up and they got in the car and started driving around and around the city. Bill tried to talk but she wasn’t into the trouble it would take to listen to him. She thought her own thoughts and stared into the green pines they kept passing. Rows and rows and rows of them. Before the end of the day they would have completed a circle: from their home down south where the nicer, more expensive homes were being built, back around near where she worked in the pitiful side of town, and then through the downtown section without stopping.
She didn’t know what he was getting up nerve to tell her, but Donna was certain it could not be good. Probably something about work; what else did they talk about? The news? Could it be that he was having an affair? Not this unprepossessing, balding engineer, this man who hadn’t changed since their marriage day over twenty years ago.
There was no news at all in that morning’s Sunday paper, not one word about the woman who was found dead in her pool, a wife Donna's age, who lived just a few houses down from them. She had gone out and spoken to the decent-looking paramedic and found out the truth.
There was no over-riding world or national news, either, to keep her transfixed before the giant television that dominated their expansive living room. It was as though the country had gone to sleep, or at least the news had. Or was it just quiet, that Sunday? No crazed shooters, no gun-toting hijackers. A slow Sabbath afternoon. She remembered what she’d read about how in Judaism a great importance was put upon the Sabbath; they actually did remember the Sabbath and even had sex in order to make it holier. She’d read the accounts herself. Her mind went back to the woman.
She simply asked Bill if he’d seen any news about it.
“About what?” he answered, eyes on the road. “I’m not inside your head, I don’t know already what you’re thinking about, you know.”
Mentally she screamed out her favorite expletive: Piss-ant! She sometimes mentally blurted other curse nouns and verbs but would never have allowed them to escape her rather thin and always painted lips. Baptist soccer moms did not use such words. For no reason at all, she wondered what that morning’s sermon at the church had been about – did it apply to their situation in any way? Yet she could not recall the subject, nor a single word the lisping preacher uttered. She happened to know that he only got the job because he was a former quarterback at the famed University.
A few moments passed before he turned his ruddy, hairless face from the road to look askance at her.
She just shook her head. He was right; she had assumed he knew her thoughts.
“I was just wondering who killed that woman down the street.”
“Maybe she killed herself.”
Donna shook her head; that was unimaginable. “I’d bet that hippie-dippie husband of hers had something to do with it.”
Around jawbone junction (as the locals called it) she saw the people in the back seat of a car and noted calmly that they were covered with white; at first she thought they might be Islamic women but they were covered almost completely by what was apparently a light cotton cloth of one piece, shared by two shapes who seemed to be conversing with one another. A woman in the front seat was not covered. You could see their heads moving under the material. Donna’s beak-like nose bobbed a little grease against the icy window.
“Stop. I mean slow down. Look at that, Bill.”
What are those people doing with those people? She envisioned either pornographers or slave-traders, somehow. A trade that used the interstates at points. Local woman foils interstate pornographers.
“What’s their number. Bill slow down so I can—"
“What? Speed up?”
“You’ll have to slow down,” she felt her heart throbbing in her forehead, and for a moment she was so fiercely angered that her eyes bulged behind their lids, “so I can get those peoples’ tag number.” A man’s dark-haired, mustached head, despite the cold, stuck out the open window; the white cloth made a whipping sound she could almost hear. For a second or two she imagined herself describing the moment for Marguerite Deemant, the local newswoman who generally covered stories like this. Donna admired Marguerite, despite her good looks and poufy hair.
She found a pencil in the glove box and wrote down the car’s tag on the back of a business card. It was a Texas tag. She was certain she’d uncovered something extremely evil. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed 911 with no hesitancy in her movements. She wished she could call that woman on cable who was always so concerned with abandoned or kidnapped children – what was her name again? – the one with the snarly manner?
“Who are you calling?” Bill asked, alarmed, like the time she hit him with the hockey stick, his eyes large and red behind the horn-rimmed glasses.
She widened her eyes at his. “You didn’t see them?” she shouted.
My God, Donna thought, he is so ignorant sometimes. Why did I marry him anyway? She really couldn’t remember. The trees were flashing by. The car with the sheet-covered slaves was moving on.
“Will you keep up with them for me, please?”
“With who? I wish you’d tell me what you — ”
She pointed a bony finger toward the car. “There are sheet-covered people in the back seat of that car with the foreign man driving it,” exasperated, “and I’m calling to report them.”
Finally someone answered.
“Yes. 911?” She composed her voice. “I want to report a car whose driver is a foreign person and there are some people in the back seat, I think they’re children, who are covered with sheets or they may be . . . can you hear me? . . . they may be tied up in sheets. I can’t tell. But something really wrong is going on and I—"
Bill had an omigod expression on his face, the brow wrinkled, bristly eyebrows almost touching.
She gave the operator all the details. They said they’d have someone on it almost instantaneously.
Bill asked, “They used that word? ‘Instantaneously’?”
Donna was mad at him now. She merely nodded assent. Why could he never see the larger picture in things? Just like when their daughter had had her wreck, all he was concerned about was how much it would cost to fix the car – he had no idea how intoxicated the girl was, and probably did not care. Girls will be girls, he probably would have said. But I never drank, I never did the wild things these girls today do, Donna thought to herself, pinching her lips together unconsciously. She pulled down the mirror on the shade and looked at herself. Piss-ant husbands!
She watched the Sunday evening news but there was only the story of the murders at the trailer park up in the northern part of the county, the story of the tanker and the tractor trailer, and the story of the cow which had escaped from the pen. There was really very little else on the evening news, aside from unexciting segments on politics. Bill ignored her as usual. She prepared her clothes for work the next morning, put in a load of clothes, swept the kitchen, and put on her robe before going into her bedroom to make the call.
It took some switching about, but she finally found a man who knew all about her call. Bill was making some odd noises – she heard beeps -- in the living room, or was it the TV? The dog? She decided to ignore him as he was always ignoring her. Except when he wanted sex. Which he was going to get none of for a long while, if she had any say about it, which she did. He never said what he wanted to say, did he? She had forgotten what she was mad at him about, and if someone had forced her to say why, she could not have given a lucid reason. She waited with her ear to the phone. Finally:
“Yes, ma’am, you made a call this afternoon about people in a car with Texas tag number….?”
“That was my call. I just kinda wondered what had happened, you know, it –“
"That would be call number 473. Let me look…”
He was obviously going down a list.
“There were some people covered in sheets in a car,” she felt she had to explain it all over again to him. Tilting her head to hold the phone between neck and shoulder, she pulled at some stray eyebrow hairs with a tweezer.
“Yes’m, here it is right here. There were arrests, a man and a woman and the children’s grandparents were called to come and get them.”
She wanted to slap the man. “So what were they doing!?”
“Oh, it says the man was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. . . .”
“And, let’s see, the woman was going to be questioned by the INS, that’s the Immigration and— ”
“I know who it is,” she said. “What else? What about the people covered with the cloth?”
“There’s a big word here I have never seen before, ma’am. It says the children were, let's see, they had some kind of skin disease— Hey Bob, what is this all about here?” he called out to someone else. Donna heard them discussing it for a minute. “Bob knows more about it, here’s Bob, he was involved in it ma’am.”
“Yes ma’am? So you called this in?”
“I sure did, officer, I always call the po-lice when I see something wrong going on, as something surely was in that car with those people – I guess kids – covered up in the back seat like that…were they tied up?”
There was a small silence. “No ma’am, it was the children of the suspects. They had a type of disease called congenital porphyria. It’s a skin disease. I saw a show on 20/20 about it. They have to keep the kids covered up with cloth during the day, or they’ll get these awful lesions all over their skin. The show I saw had the kids playing at night…it was the only time they could get outside. It was a bunch of kids that all had that disease, and they were all playing outside at night under a full moon, kinda odd, you know? They looked strange being hauled about in those sheets, I can see why you might have thought something, uh, unseemly was occurring.”
“Yeah, I, uh—” She heard no noise at all from the living room now. She wasn’t really interested anymore in what the officer was saying. Her mind had moved on. "Thanks for the info...”
“Well,” he said, “we thank you, ma’am. That fellow had two joints on him and his wife was an illegal immigrant.”
“The kids— ”
"They’ll be all right. There’s nothing they can do for that porphyria, you know, it’s incurable when it hits kids. Grandparents in Louisiana are on their way to get those kids.”
“No thank you, ma’am….”
Bill slipped into the far side of the bed, sighed deeply, and was soon asleep. She could tell because the texture of his breathing changed as he neared deep sleep. As he started into the snoring segment, she got up and turned on the television and turned up the sound. Too much silence kept her mind awake.
Thomas N. Dennis lives near Lovick, not terribly far from where he grew up in central Alabama. A short play of his, No Prozac For Hamlet (1995), was published in New Zealand (Deep South) and he has published three books through Lulu: Beautiful Illusions (2004), Magic Sweat (2008), and most recently, Consolations of Loss (2010) – a memoir about transience and losing people you love. It is rumored that his new work-in-progress concerns hair.
Thomas N. Dennis