Congratulations to William Jensen, whose short story “A Quiet Place to Hide” (NDQ 83.3/4 (2016) was recognized in the 2017 Best American Mystery Stories. We (and the author himself!) missed this honor this past fall when we celebrated the other authors whose work was noted in the 2017 edition of Best American Essay. To make up for this, the Will agreed to allow us to reprint the story here in full!)
A Quiet Place to Hide
By William Jensen
I was kidnapped twice. First I’ll explain how my father stole me, and then I’ll tell you about the prostitute. The order of events is important.
My parents had been high school sweethearts in Camp Verde, Arizona. They’d planned on attending college and getting married, but Vietnam was going on and the summer before enrolling in the university, my father received a draft notice and found himself in Southeast Asia for the next two years. When he came home he kept his promise and married my mother. But the war had changed him. I think he saw enough death over there to make him want to enjoy as much fun and pleasure as being alive could offer. He liked drinking, gambling, and chasing women, and he worked only when he absolutely needed to. My mother put up with this for a while, but it wasn’t long after I was born that she kicked him out. That didn’t keep him from coming around of course. He stopped by whether my mom wanted him to or not.
He’d swing by before he got drunk or stoned or lost in a three day poker binge with some of the cowboys who worked the Silver Plate Ranch. But every now and again he’d show up late, waking us. Once he banged on the front door around midnight, and my mother was greeted at the door by a slobbering Saint Bernard my father won playing craps. I woke up and thought the dog was magical because it was so big. I cried when Mom made my father take the dog away. Another time Dad didn’t knock. He busted open the lock and let himself in. Mom and I found him standing naked in the kitchen drinking milk out of the carton. A woman in a cocktail dress sat at the table holding a towel to a bloody lip. I didn’t see him for a while after that.
Then one night in that blur between spring and summer, he rapped at my window until I awoke. I was six.
“Let me in, Parker.”
I slid out of bed, pulling a blanket around me like a cape.
“Why are you outside?”
“Daddy lost his keys. You want a new toy?”
I smiled and nodded. I opened the window. Cold winds floated in off the desert floor and the air tasted of stone, sand, and saguaro flowers—like overripe muskmelon. My father pulled himself through and fell to the floor in a soft thud. He was a little drunk.
“Where’s my toy?”
“Daddy will take you to buy a new one. You want to go now?”
“The stores are closed.”
“I know one that’s open.”
Dad kneeled and put his arms around me. The house was quiet. He wore a denim jacket over a worn undershirt. He held me close to him, and I put my chin on his shoulder as he stood and carried me away. His beard, bushy and wild, smelled of sweat and campfire smoke. We snuck out the window like two cats, and he carried me to his Pinto and put me in the backseat. Dad told me to sleep. He started the engine. We rolled away.
I didn’t know it at the time but my parents had been fighting over me. Dad was working in Phoenix and wanted me to come live with him. Mom had been against it. Now my father had decided to resolve the matter in his own special manner.
Dad drove through town and headed south. I stared out my window and tried to stay awake. Up until then my world consisted of playing outdoors and exploring the arroyos and gulches after a hard rain, chasing jack rabbits through the brush and wading in the Verde River. Everything was about to change. I fell back asleep to the hum of the engine, and when I awoke it was dawn and we were driving into the puffed up chest of Phoenix.
The sunrise sliced between the buildings in hot streaks. My eyes felt crusty. My mouth went dry. We stayed on the freeway until we got to the center of the city. He took the off-ramp and slowed down as he rolled to one red light after another. The world had transformed in one quick ride from red and brown earth to gray cement and iron.
I didn’t know where I was, but I knew my father had not been honest. I began to cry.
“Stop it,” he said. “If you’re a good boy we can have fun later today.”
“I want Mom.”
Dad paused. He had both hands on the wheel. The car took a left turn onto a small street behind a grocery store. Dad looked at me through the rearview mirror.
“Mom doesn’t want you anymore,” he said. I immediately began to wail.
Obviously, my father was lying. But I was young and believed him. He told me it would be okay. He told me he and I would have fun together. He promised me toys, pizza, and cartoons. He was a man on a streak who wasn’t about to start losing.
Dad pulled up to a square stucco cottage and parked. The place looked near abandoned. The front consisted of jagged rocks and yucca. A chain linked fence ran around the perimeter. All the neighboring houses had bars on the windows. Dad held my hand as he walked me through the gate and across the yard to the door. The insides lay practically bare. A television sat on the living room floor in front of a beat-up couch. A card table and a plastic lawn chair waited in the kitchen like a lonely puppy. The walls were naked and white with off-colored blotches where holes had been covered and smeared with spackle.
“Welcome to your new home, little man,” said Dad. I tried to stay motionless. I didn’t make any noise. Dad placed me on the couch and turned on the television. A rerun of Leave it to Beaver played. Dad went to the kitchen and reappeared with two Tupperware bowls filled with cereal. He handed me one as he sat beside me. “See,” he said. “Nothing but good times with your pops.”
Sunshine burned outside the windows and bled in through the blinds. Cars rushed by on the freeway behind us. Dogs barked not far away. I don’t remember what was going through my mind. I simply felt a type of nervous anxiety that I had to grip onto to keep from gushing out. I wouldn’t see my mother for several months, not until the police found me wandering the streets in my underwear.
My father had essentially gone off the grid. The house where we lived wasn’t his, neither were any of the bills in his name. He paid for everything in cash. I found out later that the place belonged to an army buddy of his, and my father worked odd jobs for him in exchange for rent. For the first few days my father spoiled me. He took me out for hamburgers and movies. He let me stay up late. I didn’t have to brush my teeth. He bought me stuffed animals and comic books and candy. But then he had to go back to work, and I was left alone during the day while he put up drywall and collected trash around construction sites. My mother knew who had taken me but the police had no way to find my father.
There wasn’t much for me to do during the day. I watched soap operas, flipped through copies of Mad Magazine and Spiderman, and I listened to the radio—Knight Ranger, Jackson Browne, Blondie. Dad instructed me not to go outside. Though I’m sure he said this to keep me from being seen, I obeyed him. Everything surrounding us was sharp, hot, and dangerous. A small door opened to a back alley where a chained-up Rottweiler with mange would lunge at you, all fangs and drool in the midday heat. Puddles of glass shards lay on the blacktop out front. There were no clouds. Just sun, metal, concrete, and fumes from cars and trucks tearing across the desert as fast as they could go. It wouldn’t be until dusk that my father came home with a fifth of whiskey or a case of light beer. After he threw back a few drinks, he’d usually take me out to a fast food joint and he’d eat his fries while I tossed around in the ball pit until I tired myself out. At night the heat didn’t go away but the desert became alive. I saw coyotes scavenging near the dumpsters. Old men sat with bleeding scalps beside the railroad tracks. All the pavement turned the desert into an oven. I never saw the stars while I lived with my father.
The worst was when Dad had his nightmares. His slow wheezing would be interrupted by blunt mumbling followed by gasping and screaming. His howls came from his room in streaks of pain and fear. All I could do was stay on the couch and hold my blanket and stare at his door. After a while his yells dimmed to a whine, a light would come on, and Dad would stomp out and drink water from the kitchen sink’s faucet. If he looked at me I pretended to be asleep.
“I know you’re awake,” he once said to me. I slowly opened my eyes. He stood by the couch with a beer in his hand. “You having fun living with your pops?” I didn’t say anything. He sat on the arm of the couch and drank some of his beer. “Well? You like it here?”
“No,” I said.
“No? What’s not to like? We need to toughen you up. This is where anything can happen. This is the city of second chances. To new beginnings.”
He raised his drink and took another sip.
“Myth of the Phoenix, Parker. The bird that rose from the ashes. See, there used to be people here called the Hohokam and they had all these canals to bring in water. Duppa and Swilling rebuilt those canals many years later. Rise from the ashes. Just like us, compadre. We’re starting over and we’re going to do it right.”
Dad rose and drank his beer. He staggered back to his room. My father might have been a hedonist, but he was also an optimist. He believed better things were always right around the corner. He was just enjoying himself until these better days arrived.
Some nights he came home with his pals. They’d play cards, show me magic tricks, and call me names: Sport, Bud, Buckaroo. They’d also get roaring drunk and curse and yell. Sometime they’d get into knife throwing competitions and toss their blades into the drywall. They were all from someplace else and were just passing through. I tried to sleep through their bellowing but it was never much good. If they saw I was up they’d pour beer over my head or blow smoke in my face. I wanted Mom and I prayed for her to come and find me.
Women visited my father too. They came after dark. They wore mini-skirts and shoes with big heels that clomped around on the floor. Their heads comprised of hairspray and smeared make-up. Dad called these women his friends, as in “Meet my new friend Candy,” or “This is our friend Peaches.” Dad would give the lady a drink and then they’d go to the one bedroom while I watched late night movies.
The last prostitute my father came home with was named Zelda. I must have already fallen asleep when they came home. I woke up on the couch one Saturday morning to the noise of cartoons and a woman coughing. Zelda came out of Dad’s room in a short tough burst. She gently closed the door behind her. She looked at me. Her eyes were big and round, as if in a constant state of surprise. She had frizzy permed hair and tan skin.
“Hi,” she squawked and adjusted her bra strap. A red purse dangled from her shoulder.
“I’m Parker,” I said. Scooby-Doo played on the screen.
“My name is Zelda.”
She walked behind the couch and touched my hair, and then she touched her own as if wanting to compare texture. Her lips went flat and straight as she smiled. She let out a short, muffled laugh.
“Are you friends with my dad?”
“Sorta. I’m like a friend for hire. You know, like when you’re feeling blue.”
I smiled and then she smiled. She stopped touching her hair but continued playing with mine. Her fingers slid from the top of my head to the side of my face. She put her palm over my ear and her thumb rubbed my cheek.
“Do you like school?”
“I don’t go to school,” I said. “Not anymore.”
“I wasn’t good at school. They told me I had fits. I bet you do real good in school.”
Zelda’s head tilted slightly to the side. Her fingers felt cool against my skin. Dad snored from the other room. I wasn’t sure where she was from but she had a type of accent that stretched out her vowels. She started gnawing on her lip and her eyes went blank. She stopped touching me. She smacked her lips but didn’t say anything.
She sat and talked with me for a while. I stopped watching the cartoons. She wasn’t like my father’s friends—the ones who got loud and drunk. When I spoke I could tell she was listening and not just nodding and waiting for me to go away. Her voice was gentle and calm. She told me about places she’d been: New York, Florida, California. I asked her if she was here to start over like Dad and me.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think that window came and went.”
“Could you make me something to eat?”
“I can make you toast,” she said as she stood. She straightened out her skirt. “That’s about all I know how to cook.”
“I don’t think we have any bread.”
A car backfired outside and Zelda dropped to the floor, covering her ears. She pulled her knees to her chest as she trembled. She looked as if she were trying to make herself as small as she could, like she wanted to become a crumb and vanish into the dirt on the ground. Dad’s snores grew louder. Zelda whimpered.
“I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t mean to,” she said as she pushed herself up. She tugged on her skirt and muttered apologies as she looked around her until she locked her sight on me again. Her eyes looked different, like they were focused on something far away. Dad let out a heavy snort. Zelda covered her mouth as if trying not to yawn or scream. She reached out to me, practically in tears.
“You’re coming with me, Patrick,” she said.
“My name is Parker.”
“We got to go, baby. Come on, Patrick.”
She reached across the couch and snatched me. She used both arms and lifted me off my seat. She picked me up as if I was a bag of groceries or a sack of school books. She clutched me to her sternum and stomped out of the house before I realized what was going on. I felt small and light against her frame. She plucked me away and then we were gone.
She carried me to Van Buren where we got on a bus for a few blocks. The sun was baking everything to a crisp. The streets lay hot and black. Gas stations and convenience stores sat at every corner. The sky was gray and the land was all colorless concrete.
No one said anything on the bus. Zelda kept my head to her collarbone, rocking me a little, whispering to me and calling me Patrick. You should know that there was something calming about her that made me forget she was a stranger leading me away. I didn’t care where we went or how we got there. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t nervous.
When we got off, Zelda took me to her home, a small room in a run-down residency hotel. The lobby smelled of an odd mix of dirt, laundry, detergent, and Gold Bond body powder. We went up the stairs to her place, and when she unlocked her door she looked at me with a grin as if excited to surprise me. There wasn’t much to look at. A bed. A television. Heavy curtains pulled shut to keep out the sunshine. A lone beam shone between them and across the center of the floor. Dirty clothes lay everywhere. The bed was unmade with the sheets kicked halfway off. You could hear the traffic and the radio playing mariachi music from next door.
“I know it isn’t much,” she said. “But it’s a quiet place to hide.”
I just stood there. Though I was worried when my father whisked me away in his Pinto, at least I knew who was whisking me away. Now I was with a stranger, a stranger who kept calling me Patrick. Part of me knew I should have tried to get away from her, to get back to Dad. But I also felt I needed to escape my father. I had not seen my mother in weeks and I had no idea if I’d ever see her again.
Zelda came up to me. She touched my hair again. I stared at the ground. She put two fingers to my chin and lifted my head.
“Hey,” she said. “Don’t be sad.”
And then she smiled. It was strange. Almost as if she cast a sweet and simple spell. I suddenly wasn’t upset or afraid. For the first time in a long time I felt perfectly safe.
Zelda and I went and lay on the bed and watched reruns of I Love Lucy, The Dick van Dyke Show, The Honeymooners. My cheek rested on her chest. I closed my eyes and listened to her heart. Her skin felt warm, almost hot. I heard her breathing. We fell asleep like that, our bodies curled together.
When I awoke, the TV was off and Zelda and I had slid beneath the crumpled blankets. We were still locked onto each other. I liked how her hands felt on my shoulders and the side of my ribs. She pulled a sheet over our heads, sealing us in a thin cocoon just for two.
“No one can get to us here,” she said.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
“Can we get McDonalds?”
“You don’t want that. You want to stay here. Here is better.”
“But I’m hungry.”
Zelda sat up straight. The sheet fell to her lap. She used her right hand to brush my hair back.
“I can get us some food,” she said. She got out of bed, found her purse, and started digging through it. “Don’t worry. I can get us some candy bars or some chips. Do you like chips? We don’t have to go outside.”
“I want nuggets.”
“Just wait a minute, Patrick baby. I’ve got something here. I know I do. How about gum? Do you want some mints?”
Before I could respond, a knocking came at the door. Zelda froze. There was more knocking and then a voice called out, “Z! Open up. This is Lizard. I know you’re in there.”
Zelda’s lower lip curled. Her body trembled. She said nothing. I stayed quiet. She looked around the room and rubbed her eyes.
“Okay, baby,” she said. “I’m coming. Just a second.”
Zelda lay her purse on the bed and went and answered the door, slowly at first and then whoever was on the other side pushed it all the way open. Zelda took three steps back.
The man who came in was tall, lean, and pale. He wore white jeans and a black tank-top. His blonde hair was thinning into spikey tuffs around his skull, and he had the brightest, greenest eyes I’ve ever seen. His lips stayed snarled so you always saw his teeth, sharp and yellow and decaying near the gum.
“What the fuck, Z?”
“Don’t bubblegum talk me, Z.”
“Shut it. Now I take my money or I take your thumbs. Your choice.”
He pulled out a blackjack from his back pocket and softly swung it into the meat of his palm. Zelda took three more steps back.
“It’s okay, Lizard. I got your money. I do.”
Lizard maintained eye contact with Zelda, but when he got to the foot of the bed he stopped and swung his head like an eagle and put his sights on me. His pupils constricted to grains of dust. His body shook a little, almost as if a billion ants lived underneath his skin. There was little to no fat on him but he wasn’t muscular.
“Who the fuck is this?”
“That’s Patrick. You remember Patrick.”
“This isn’t Patrick, you dumb whore. Remember the bathtub? Jesus. Tell me your name, kid.”
I was still in bed. I told him my name was Parker. Lizard looked at Zelda. Then he looked at me. His teeth chattered as he stared at me. A bus rolled by outside the window. A neighbor’s television played a Spanish language game show. Somewhere a baby started crying.
“Come here,” he said. I didn’t move. “Kid, I said come here.”
Lizard returned the blackjack to his back pocket and made a half-lunge across the bed toward me. I tried to scoot away but he pulled me by my ankle until he could hoist me up. Zelda screamed. Lizard took me to the closet and threw me in. I sat on the floor beneath the hangers. He shut the two doors and wrapped a piece of panty hose around the handles to keep them locked. The doors consisted of blinds so I could still see the legs, hips, and arms of Lizard and Zelda. I watched and held my breath.
“You little bitch. You stupid monkey-bitch.”
“Lizard, it isn’t a problem. I’ve found Patrick now so we can go home now.”
“Have you been smoking that new shit?”
“Baby’s been good, Lizard.”
Lizard pulled out the blackjack again. Zelda put up her hands to protect herself. None of it mattered. She didn’t get the chance to yell. Lizard hit her in the head. It sounded like cracking open a rotten nut. Her body collapsed on the floor. Lizard kneeled and hit her again. He cursed her, but I didn’t hear what he said.
I know I was crying because I felt the tears on my cheeks. My jaw locked so hard I thought my molars would explode. Lizard hunched over Zelda’s body. I saw Zelda’s feet tremble and go still. He hit her again several more times. Each smack sounded louder and wetter than the last. Everything I had been holding onto—the fear and anger and loneliness—was let loose. Adrenaline pumped into every muscle and fiber in my body, and I felt as if I was floating.
I punched the door’s blinds. I kept hitting and smashing, using my entire body, until I splintered an exit through the blockade. A high pitch roar came across the room. It hurt my ears. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. That was the only noise. I pulled myself through the hole, scraping my arms and legs bloody raw on the shards. I flew at Lizard’s face. I was all claws and fangs. Lizard shoved me off. I dropped to the floor and the screaming stopped.
Lizard stood and hovered over me. I sat on a pile of timber. Zelda lay in front of me. Her face was a red blotch. She didn’t move. Lizard took a step toward me. His lips snarled so far back they looked like they had been cut off.
“Kid, I don’t know who you are or how Z found you, but you just made the last dumb decision you’ll ever make.”
He kneeled and I tried to scoot away. He snatched my shirt and yanked me toward him. At the last second I grabbed a sharp wedge. Lizard opened his mouth as if about to recite some threat or prayer. Zelda lay a few feet away. Lizard pulled me so close I felt his breath on my brow. I didn’t think about what I would do. The rest just happened.
Before Lizard could speak, before air could rush past his vocal chords to utter some noise, I did it. I lifted the stick and slammed it into Lizard’s left eye.
Lizard let go of me and his hands froze in front of his face as if afraid to touch the weapon or the wound. He screamed and twirled in a demented and painful dance.
“I’ll rip your spleen out. This isn’t nice. That’s not fair.”
I shot out of the room to the hall and the stairs and to the lobby. I was still barefoot and without pants. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. When I hit the sidewalk the afternoon heat slapped me like burning sandpaper. I looked down the boulevard in both directions. I can’t recall which way I went. The world was all pavement, barbed wire, cactus, and broken glass. I began to run with my arms outstretched, ready for anything.
William Jensen is the author of the novel, Cities of Men (Turner Publishing, 2017) and his short fiction has appeared in The Texas Review, Stoneboat, Tinge Magazine, and other various journals and anthologies. Mr. Jensen now lives in Texas. Learn more about him at www.williamjensenwrites.com.