SHORT STORY | CHRISTMAS IN NO MAN'S LAND
It probably wouldn't matter if Hank had remembered where he'd parked his car, because it's most likely buried in a foot of snow by now anyway and the dying gold and violet twilight is playing tricks on his eyes and he should have known better than to have left it on a side street in this Godforsaken neighborhood in a snow storm in the cold hearted dead of winter. But his girlfriend, Kathy, loves John Singer Sargent's work and he'd wanted to get her to the Gallery opening before it closed, so he thought he'd park the car himself and save the hassle of having to deal with the parking garage Nazis down the street. But now he can't find the damned thing anywhere and he's lost, and all he can do about it is glare into the face of the menacing darkness, thinking, that by parking the car on the street in this neighborhood, he may have just made the biggest mistake of his life
Kathy, who had flown in from the University of Wisconsin for Christmas break, is being unbearably gracious about the whole deal and it's just irritating the crap out of him. She's gliding along arm in arm beside him, kicking through the snow like a third grader playing hooky without a care in the world. If she was anything like his last girlfriend she'd be shouting at the top of her lungs letting him know just how she feels about him getting them both good and lost in this sleazy no man's land in the middle of one of the most dangerous hoods in downtown DC.
But Kathy is not the type to kick someone when they're down and gives him a purely benign look that she'd apparently been saving for just such an occasion. "Hank," she demurs as coolly as a cat eyeing a three legged mouse, "I am not going to mention that we may have been better served using the parking garage that we both saw off Farragut West. After all, as I mentioned earlier while flying past it on two wheels, it is lit up like a Christmas tree and there's a guard with a gun standing at the entrance twenty-four hours a day. So I'm going to be quiet now and walk quietly down this dark and sinister street and pray to God we don't get bludgeoned to death before we find your car. Fair enough?"
Kathy's legendary sarcasm is not lost on Hank, but before he has a chance to retaliate, he notices three young black men slinking along in their direction on the opposite side of the street wearing the full gangster regalia, low slung baggy pants, tattoos, gold necklaces the size of small kitchen appliances, and backward baseball caps tilted at gravity defying angles. Hank's mood goes suddenly south. "Shit" he says, turning suddenly towards Kathy, "do you have your cell phone with you?"
"Hank, my precious darling, I am not going to mention that I've practically begged you a dozen time to break down and buy yourself your very own cell phone because, if I did, it would most likely turn you into a very grouchy person which would of course make me grouchy and, once I told you that I left my cell phone back at your apartment, it would make you even more grouchy. So I won't mention that either, ok?"
"Good grief, Kathy, what good is a cell phone if you never remember to take it with you when you go out? "
A nervous tension cuts silently into the well intended good humor as Hank notices the three black, rapper wantabes quickly crossing the street and moving towards them, laughing a bit too loudly.
"Kathy, I don't like the look of this. Once those thugs saw us they crossed over to our side of the street and they're definitely coming our way. I want you to listen to me very carefully, ok?"
Not sensing any particular danger, Kathy tugs playfully at his sleeve, "You silly man. I've seen you in a bar fight once in Georgetown defending my honor as you recall, and I have no reason to worry about three teenaged hip hoppers decked out in bling bling and clown outfits."
"Kathy, please. Listen to me. Those are not kids, or rappers. I live here and I know. They're coming for us and I can't take all three of them. I can slow them down, but you have to get ready to run. Do you hear me?"
Sensing the genuine tension in Hank's voice, Kathy speaks slowly, cautiously alarmed but defiant, giving him a good natured nudge in the ribs, "I'm not running anywhere and I'm not leaving you here alone. I'm not that easy to get rid of. If you want to break up with me why don't you just say so."
But Hank's not listening. "You have no choice, baby," he whispers ominously. "When I give you the signal, get in the street and flag down the first car that comes by, you hear me? Pound on the hood if you have to but don't let whoever's driving get past you. And once they stop and you get in the car, have the driver call the cops. Do you hear me? Tell them the west side of 1st Street just south of Massachusetts Avenue, and then take a cab to my house. You know the address. I'll meet you there later, ok? I'll be alright, now get ready. I'll tell you when."
Looking back up the street, Hank notices a car turning off F Street onto 1st and turns to Kathy. "I'll take the first guy down if I can and then try to keep the other two busy while you get your butt into the street and stop that car. You see it?" She turns and sees the car, but she's so terrified she can barely speak, "I can't, I can't leave you…" But there isn't any time to argue. The biggest and most dangerous looking of the three kids is coming fast, the other two holding back. "It's almost time, Kathy, get ready."
The big guy in the lead leaps over a child's toy on the sidewalk, showing off, and nearly stumbles. When he gets back up and dusts himself off, he's standing dead in front of Hank's face. Hank whirls and screams at Kathy, "Go, damnit, run!" And Kathy runs, flying as fast as she can in high heels into the blazing headlights of a smoke colored SUV that's swerving down the middle of the road towards her. Turning for a second to see what's happening to Hank, Kathy sees all three of the young black men circling him, moving in close. She jumps into the street and slams her fist on the hood of the fast approaching SUV, shrieking at the driver to stop, and when he does, she dives in the passenger door and begs the bald driver to call 911. Through the still open driver's side window she screeches, "I'll be back, Hank!" And she's gone.
Hank watches the SUV sail by and spins back around to face the attackers, his face a twisted mask of rage. Startled, the big kid in front reels back on his heels and shrugs, "Yo, home, whatsup with that? You're bitch leave you?"
The even taller beanpole of a kid behind him laughs so hard he nearly chokes, his gold teeth flashing in the neon street light. "Yo, Jack," his grin growing wider, "that be one hot mama to be kickin' out in the street."
The shortest of the three chimes in, "You musta said somethin' bad assed low to blow a balloon that big up a dime bootie like dat, dog. She be buggin', yo. What's a matter wit choo?" All three boys start laughing now and Hank is so dumbfounded he has to spit the words out. "What you guys want? You want money?"
"Yo, fool, we all wants money," the big guy in front shouts, only semi-mockingly. "But we just be looking to find our hotel. My bo janglin' man, Baby Charles here say he know how to get there but he don't know jack, you dig? We thought maybe you from around here. You look like you one a them politician types and might know where you be going so we thought we check you out. We from Miami and gotsta get back to the hotel before our coach finds out our sorry black asses ain't where they s'posed ta be by curfew. You know what I'm saying, dog?"
Hank looks around like he'd just been punked, wondering when that Ashton Kutcher motherfucker's gonna pop out of the bushes and flash a video camera in his face. Standing there like a tongue-tied KKK Grand Dragon who just got busted burning a cross on Oprah Winfrey's front yard, he stammers, "Jesus H. Christ, man. What the…?"
"Yo, homey, we be basketball players, not muggers, sheeet," the shortest of the three kids in the back cracks, suppressing a gap toothed grin, "You thinks all black brothers is gangstas or somepin? Yo, what's up with dat sheet?"
Hank unclenches his fists and uncoils slowly, his face turning cherry red, wondering how he's going to hide the swastika the three boys obviously think he's got burned into his forehead. "Jesus, guys, I'm sorry. I didn't know. It's dark and we're in this shit hole neighborhood, no offense. You can understand, right?"
"Yeah, we understand," Baby Charles snorts, faking indignant outrage. You a white, Alabama cracker that thinks we black folks is all on welfare and gots nothin' better ta do than go walkin' 'roun dis hood in the a snow torm, mugging honkies for crack money. We understan' alright." Then his face lights up and all three boys start laughing so hard their pants nearly hit the ground in unison. "Ok!" the short guy suddenly shouts. "Gimme your money yo, sheeet." The beanpole jumps in," Give me yo coat. And your shoes." The big guy can't resist, "And your watch. And your credit cards. You got any rubbers?" They'd keep going but they can hardly stand up they're laughing so hard.
The big guy finally smiles, towering over Hank, and puts his arm around his shoulder." Yo, dog, we just messin' wit you. Like I tole you befo', we just came over here cuz we jes wantin' to ax you and your fly lady where the Harrington Hotel is, yo."
Thoroughly chastised, his flaming red face (and neck) now impossible to hide, Hank stutters meekly, "Uh, yeah, I, uh, do. It's on 11th and, uh, E Street. You're only six or so blocks from there." Pointing north he adds, "Just go that way until you hit 11th and turn left. You can't miss it."
"You de man, cuz. We'd like to stay and rap wit choo, but we's gotsta bail." The big kid digs around in his giant sized pockets and drags out two crumpled tickets. "Here be two freebies to the prelims. Best see us fo we git to the finals, yo. We be kickin' and cuttin' down net in two weeks." The beanpole looks down at Hank, "We be lettin' you go about your bidness now, massuh, and good luck getting them lazy darkies ta bail dat cotton fo you." Another round of uncontrollable laughter drowns out the sound of a car, speeding down the street, kicking up snow, but it's just a group of lost tourists looking as bewildered as Hank is. He looks back at the three black kids who are still yucking it up as they jingle and jangle their way up 1st.
"Jesus, how embarrassing was that?" Hank says to himself. Still too mortified to pee straight he kicks himself hard and heads back up the street to look for his lost car. It takes him half an hour but he finally finds it half covered in a ghostly grey veil of dirty city snow. He cranks the engine and races back to his apartment in McLean to meet up with Kathy.
When he stumbles into the apartment, it's almost eight o'clock and Kathy isn't there yet. No note, no phone message, no nothing. Just a violent storm of silence that seems to cackle like a witch in his ears. "Crap, this is weird," he tells himself. Kathy should have been back and already chewing his bigoted ass out over the little paranoid debacle he'd just pulled downtown by now, working him over good about not buying a cell phone and forgetting where the damned Toyota was. And why the hell didn't he just spring for a damned garage like she'd asked him to? He'd rather listen to that than to the explosive silence that's howling through his empty tomb of an apartment.
Beating himself up about it isn't making him feel any better so he calls Kathy's mother in Madison to see if Kathy's called. She hasn't. Something's not right here. She's had all kinds of time to call the cops and then get back to the apartment. She knows the address and she has a key. It doesn't make sense.
Hank's hand shakes slightly when he pours himself a vodka neat and checks his phone messages again. Nothing. It's been nearly two hours since he'd last seen her, and still no Kathy. Maybe instead of calling the cops she'd gone down to the station to make sure they actually responded to her report about the supposed mugging. He calls the precinct near Franklin Park but they haven't heard from her and there's been no report of any mugging anywhere near there. Nor have any of the other precincts nearby heard anything.
"Ok…calm down," he scolds himself, "you can figure this out. She's just confused and scared, and who knows what she did, or where she went, or who that gang banging bald bastard driving the SUV was. She'll be there soon. Most likely, after she'd stopped the SUV and called the cops, assuming the driver had a cell on him, she probably had him drive her back to 1st to see what had happened to him. It would be just like her to talk some admiring fan into doing that. She probably figured he'd be laid out on the street bleeding half to death by then. "Damnit, Kathy, I'm so sorry," he chastises himself. "What in the hell was I thinking sending you off into the street like that on a night like this? Who knows who that driver was. And what the hell was I thinking? I never had a racist bone in my body until tonight. And look where it got me? Damnit, Kathy. Where are you?"
Hank calls every police station in every district in DC but there's no report of a mugging on 1st. And no mention of Kathy calling one in. The police sergeant at the Idaho Avenue branch tells him to come down in the morning and file a missing person's report. "Go to bed," he says," she'll show up. They always do"
After drinking himself into a stupor, Hank decides there's no way in hell he's going to wait till morning to find out what's happened to Kathy. In case she calls, he changes the message on his machine to let her know every place he can think of that he'll be and drives half smashed through the muddy drifts of oily black snow, heading downtown to look for her. But he can't find her anywhere. He stops to call his message machine again and again but there's still no word from her, just a garbled message from her panicked mother in Thunder Bay.
He stops in front of the police station on Idaho Avenue, dreading what he might learn, but there's still no news about a mugging, although there had been a crank call that someone had overlooked earlier from a young woman, reporting that an attack of some kind had supposedly gone down over on 1st a few hours ago. The front desk sergeant tells Hank, "Police have been trying to locate the woman who'd called but can't. They're most likely assuming that the call had been some kind of hoax. It could be the woman you're looking for but it's still too early to file a missing person's report. Come back in an hour. Maybe we'll have something for you by then."
Hank heads back to his car, growing more and more terrified that something may have happened to Kathy. Too nauseous to think rationally, he begins to feel beads of sweat working up under his collar in spite of the quickly dropping temperature outside.
Driving for an hour he covers every square inch he and Kathy had been earlier, but the sky has grown dark and it's spitting snow again, and he can barely see a foot past his face. "Please, God!" he screams into the bitter, frozen emptiness, "Don't let anything happen to her!"
An hour later, fresh out of options and patience, he skids up over the curb and leaves Toyota car running in front of the Idaho Street station. The place is packed but Hank fights his way to the sergeant's desk. "I was here earlier," he stammers, "have you heard from the young woman that reported the mugging yet? Has she been reported missing, or hurt, or anything?"
"No, nothing yet," the bored sergeant drones, as if reciting autopsy statistics to a first year med student, "and with the snow and all, it looks like it'll be a fairly quiet night. But we did just get a call in about a rape and strangulation incident over by on Scott Circle off 1st. That's about it."
Hank's legs nearly go out from under him and he can't feel his fingers. Sweat begins soaking through his shirt. "A rape and a what?" Hank asks, the words nearly cutting off his circulation. The sergeant rattles on, "They've got a young woman over at GW University Hospital, but she probably won't make it. Got beat up pretty bad. Some psycho left her body in a dumpster. And it's cold out there. You think she could the one you're looking for?"
Hank can't breathe and has to force the words past his constricted throat, "I don't know, was the woman's name, Kathy Louise Parker?" almost afraid to say the name. "That's not on here," the sergeant replies. "Her name's being held pending notification of next of kin. You next of kin?" Hank's horror at what he's hearing slams like a hammer against his chest. "No, I'm not next of kin, I'm her boyfriend, and I left her out there. Apparently I got her into this because I'm a racist pig. Can't you tell me anything else? I'm begging you. I sent her off with some bald bastard in an SUV. I made her to get in the damned car. I thought we were going to get mugged and…", but he can’t go on, choking back the acidic bile that's been snaking its way up his throat.
Seeing the despair that's crept across Hank's haunted face, the sergeant scratches his head and takes another look at the report. "Well, let's see here, it seems three white, neo-Nazi skinheads had been cruising a suspected meth lab near 14th Ave and K Street just east of Franklin Park when an officer spotted a broken tail light on their stolen Ford Expedition. The sick bastards would have gotten a free pass but the officer discovered a woman's purse which none of the macho, homophobic dickheads could account for lying in the back seat. And on the way to the station, one of the hopped up crank heads finally confessed to picking up a young woman earlier in the evening who he said had been hitch hiking a few blocks north of the White House on Mass Ave."
Hank's face turns ghost white and he grabs the desk to brace himself. "Did you say GW University Hospital on 23rd?"
"Yeah, that's right," the sergeant says, in a hushed whisper, catching the alarm frozen on Hank's face. "But I never told you that, ok?"
Ricocheting off a slow moving snow plow, Hank rams his Toyota through the drifts of charcoal colored snow on K Street. Tears burn his eyes and his chest is pounding so hard he doesn't hear the siren screaming behind him, trying to get past. He parks in front of the Emergency ambulance-only entrance and sprints up to the admitting desk. Nearly petrified with fear and dread, he practically screams at the attendant, "Katherine Louise Porter. I'm her next of kin. Which room is she in?"
After a perfunctory glace at her sign-in sheet she shoots back, "Excuse me young man, but no one with that name has been admitted here tonight. You sure you've got the right Hospital?" Certain he does, Hank pleads with her, "Look again, ok? I'm sure she's here!"
"And I'm just as sure she isn't," the somewhat irritated attendant fires back. "Check your source again and try the other hospitals, ok?" Too stunned to be angry, Hank fights to hold himself together and staggers back into the street, roaring off into the cold blank night and nearly running over a half frozen cop who was just about to jam a ticket under the Toyota's frozen windshield wiper.
Running out of choices fast, Hank crosses the Potomac and shoots up the GW Parkway towards his apartment in McLean, praying that, by some miracle, it hadn't been Kathy they'd found. Maybe she'd gotten back home by now. He'd called every hospital in DC and Kathy hadn't been admitted to any of them. He has no choice but to believe that the girl in the dumpster isn't her. It can't be her.
It's all Hank can do to keep moving, wanting to be there at the apartment when she gets home. Stopping at a phone booth near Langley, he checks his messages, but still no word from Kathy or the police. He plows on through the muddy snow on Chain Bridge Road, praying for all he's worth that whatever's happened, it hadn't been Kathy they'd found.
Exhausted and too emotionally drained to think straight, he drags himself up the three floors to his apartment and nearly collapses on the landing. When he finally opens the door and steps inside his heart nearly stops, and a terrifying flood of blood starts pounding through his veins when he smells fresh coffee and he sees a new bouquet of roses in a vase on the kitchen table.
Standing there with a steaming cup of Colombian Roast in her hand, is Kathy, looking at Hank as if he'd just returned from a trip to Mars. He has to grab the counter to keep from passing out. "Where the hell have you been, Slick?" she asks, as casually as a night time talk show host. Hank steadies his rubbery legs and covers the distance between them in seconds. Throwing his arms around her he can no longer hold back the tears and buries his face in her thick, black hair. "Oh, my God, Kathy. I thought it was you they'd found downtown in that dumpster. They said you weren't going to make it. I went to GW Hospital but it wasn't you. I called everywhere and I couldn't find you anywhere. I thought you'd been hurt, or killed. But you're here. Where have you been? My God, Kathy. Oh my God!"
"You keep saying that, which is rather odd if you think about it, since, as I recall, you haven't been inside a church since I've known you. And, come to think of it, the more obvious question should be, where have YOU been? I was worried half sick to death about you. I ran all over the stupid city in a blizzard looking for you. The poor guy that picked me up will probably be getting a divorce any day now after all the time we've spent together trying to track you down. And wouldn't you just know it, the guy didn't have a cell phone, go figure," giving him that better-shape-up look, "so he took me to the Corcoran to use their phone and waited for me while I called 911 like you told me to, and then we went back to Mass Avenue to see if we could find you and to see if you were ok, but you weren't there. Then we waited for the police but, of course, they didn't come for an hour and we couldn't find you anywhere. So I pounded on the door of a nice little old black lady who lives next to the spot where we saw the muggers, and she told me that she'd seen three Negro boys and a white guy talking on the sidewalk earlier in the evening, but they all left, giggling like a gaggle of little school girls. No mugging. No knock down, drag em out brawl. No nothing. So what happened anyway? Did they hurt you? Are you ok? You going to join the NAACP or what? Talk to me!"
Staring sheepishly at his icy, salt caked shoes while keeping Kathy securely wrapped up in his arms so she can't get a good swing at him, Hank mumbles defensively, "They weren't exactly muggers."
"Please tell me they weren't Seventh Day Adventists recruiting for converts."
"Not exactly," he stammers, digging his face even deeper into her freshly shampooed hair to hide the humiliating shame glowing on his flushed cheeks. "They were basketball players."
Kathy steps back, thoroughly bemused, and throws back her head, only half succeeding in hiding the imperceptible grin that has begun to spread itself across her pretty, but very obviously relieved face. "Basketball players?"
"Uh, yeah. Basketball players. From Miami. They were just looking for directions to their hotel. Thought we looked like we'd know where the Harrington Hotel is. Funny huh?"
Raising an already dubiously arched eyebrow, Kathy muses incredulously, "Uh, no, not so funny there, David Duke. You thought those guys were muggers just because they were black, is that what you're telling me? Is that why you put me through all this?"
"I know, I know. But they weren't muggers. They were basketball players from Miami. Tall ones. Did I mention that?" Too overwhelmed to untangle his face from her hair for even one, unprotected second, Hank can't think of a single other thing to do except change the subject as fast as possible. "So, you wanta go shopping for a cell phone, or what?"
Unable to restrain herself any longer, Kathy lets out a howl of pure joy at seeing Hank there, unharmed and safe in her arms again. "Well, Slick," she croons slyly, handing him a brand new cell phone that she'd wrapped in a red ribbon and had been hiding behind her back. "I beat you to it, sweetie. Merry Christmas! Yo ho ho."