Teresa Burns Gunther
A Hard Man to Find
Bill told Marlene he had business to take care of, alone. He didn’t say he was going after his son.
It rained most of the drive from Oregon to Seattle on US-101. The frantic twitching of the windshield wipers didn't help his nerves. He practiced what he’d say to his son, Ryan, but all he could hear were his father’s damning words about his inadequacy.
He found his wife's hiding place around midnight, a fourplex shouldered by two pines, on a dark street in a part of town the world had stepped on, hard. He took a small, ugly pleasure at how she’d fallen in the world without him. A Chevy sat in the driveway, another betrayal; she’d sold the Ford, or she had a new man. He wondered which room was his son Ryan's, watching until the building disappeared behind the cold frosting his windshield.
Bill had coffee in the motel's steamy diner the next morning before sunrise. It was full of people and languages that made him feel foreign. The waitress perched on the edge of his table twirling a pencil rough with teeth marks. She asked if he was new in town, looking him over like he was something special—a nice boost before he went off to confront the woman who’d run away with his son.
Three months earlier, Bill had been in Cleveland at the Last Stallion with the Carjacked—as the guys laid off from the plant called themselves. He’d just worked eleven straight days of bit jobs, still hoping for something permanent, still hoping that his wife, Connie, would bring Ryan home. The blond cocktail waitress moved through the bar talking and telling stories with a devil smile and pretty eyes. She left happiness in her wake, unlike Connie, who’d become a woman intent on finding fault and measuring other people’s misery against her own while never losing count of Bill’s drinks.
The Last Stallion wasn’t the Carjacked's usual place, but the TV at Riley’s was on the fritz that night, a fact he’d later call an omen. He made his way to the end of the bar where the waitress placed orders. Her name tag read Marlene and she was curved up just right. She moved like she ran on music, and he imagined that if he put his ear to her belly, he’d hear a melody. She peered up at him with a grin. Lord help him. For Bill, blonds were the gear the world needed to spin. He recalled his father's advice: Don't set your dreams on a beautiful woman, she'll only bring you sorrow, but Bill's sorrow was brunette.
"Where ya sittin', hon?" Marlene's voice was husky like good whiskey is smooth. Her hand on his arm shivered something through him. "I can get you whatever you want."
"Now, that’s just what I was thinking." In the mirror behind the bar a big fool was grinning. He straightened, manned up his smile. "A round for the Carjacked." He indicated the men yelling at the widescreen. "And something for yourself, miss."
"A gentleman," she said. A calendar on the wall behind her showed it was August 3rd.
"It's my birthday," he said, stunned. He'd never lost track of the days, had always been a Monday-Friday 8-5 man.
Bill's friends howled in outrage over a call against the Indians, who like the Carjacked were on a losing streak. He sat, wondering if Ryan was watching the game. Marlene delivered the drinks. "On the birthday boy," she said, inspiring hoots and insults: May the road rise with you even if your pecker can’t, and you don’t look a day over sixty. Bill was thirty-four.
In the seventh inning stretch, some pencilneck at the bar started talking dirt about guys on unemployment tearing America down, which kicked up a shit storm. Bill stayed out of it; he had his eye on Marlene.
At closing time, he waited by the door. The wary bartender eyed him over his limp mustache, but Marlene said, "He seems harmless," and let Bill walk her home.
"You think it’s gonna cool off?" Marlene asked, studying the night sky. The streets were deserted but for the rustle of litter and leaves in the hot breeze.
"Maybe," he said. "But I’m more interested in talking about you."
She gave him a sorrowful smile. "Don't be." She told him her life was a mess, a bad divorce. “Now he’s trying to take away my girls."
"I’ve got a life to put back together myself." He asked where she was from and learned they'd grown up in the same town. He wondered how differently things would have turned out if he’d met her first.
At her apartment, Bill asked to go up. She said no.
"You said yourself I’m a gentleman."
"We'll see." She kissed his cheek and slipped inside.
Walking back to his truck, he felt more hopeful than he had for some time, certain he'd get Ryan back, imagining a second chance. He thought of his older brother, Tim, who became the engineer his father wanted, lived straightedge for Jesus with a wife he adored; but Tim's life went balls up and Jesus hadn't granted any second chances.
Bill was twenty-two when he met Connie at a wedding. She was shy and quiet, different from other girls, and taking college classes at the JC. Not usually a drinker, she was wild with champagne love that night. Three months later she was pregnant and wouldn’t hear of an abortion, so he married her. His friends warned it was a mistake, but she was the first girl to win his father's approval. They had a rushed city hall ceremony, his brother Tim as best man. His father handed Bill a check for fifty dollars and said he hoped Connie could make a man of him.
Bill hadn’t thought much about kids, so his love for Ryan bowled him over. From the beginning he vowed to be the father he’d wanted for himself. When he insisted Ryan needed siblings Connie said, "Why? He has you." He and Ryan followed sports, played catch, and fished, always swapping jokes. Ryan would prompt, "Did ya hear the one about . . . " and point to Bill to finish. Sometimes they laughed so hard they couldn’t breathe.
At first, he convinced himself Connie was good for him, that her lank brown hair and narrow hips were what he wanted. They got along fine while he moved up the line at Ford, but five years in Connie started complaining. For Bill, making people laugh was one of life’s great pleasures, but Connie stopped laughing.
Bill's father, a maintenance worker at the mall, had wanted more for his sons, urging them to study medicine or engineering. From the time Bill could walk he could take anything apart and put it back together again, but letters and numbers got squirrelly in his brain. While Tim became a mechanical engineer, Bill barely graduated high school, one more way he'd let his father down. Connie started siding against Bill when his father came to dinner, itemizing his shortcomings. Bill tried to laugh it off, worried Ryan would think him less of a man.
When Bill lost his job, Connie decreed that ballgames and beer were a luxury they couldn't afford. She never said a word about the odd jobs and double shifts he worked, the home repairs, or the mortgage paid on time. Beer, jokes, and sports, that’s all you are. If it weren’t for Ryan, he'd have quit her altogether.
Drinking may have been part of what went wrong, but Bill was easier with a shot under his belt and better able to tune out her complaints. He told Connie if Jesus didn't want men to drink, he wouldn't have changed water to wine. A man needed to laugh, raise a little hell sometimes. He'd thought she understood that.
Then one night, after working a grueling twelve hours, Bill opened a beer and she started in dishing up her misery. He told her to get a job. "See how easy it is out there." She screamed, bug-eyed with fury, and Bill saw how much she hated him. She called him a loser in front of Ryan, blaming him for her unhappiness. She wouldn't shut up. When he raised his fist, the fear in her eyes rattled him. He turned his anger to the wall, looking for her pinched face in the plaster, and the sheetrock flew. Ryan shrieked, "Stop!" He looked at Bill like he was a monster, then bolted for his room and locked the door.
Bill sat in his truck, massaging his sore hand, waiting for Ryan after school the next day. He tooted his horn and Ryan waved, his smile half grimace.
"Hop in." Bill pointed to him. "You scream—"
"—I scream," Ryan said dully.
In the truck eating ice cream, Bill apologized for his temper. "I’m trying hard to take care of us, but your mom won’t give me a break."
Ryan thought about this. "Were you gonna punch her?
"A man doesn't hit a woman."
Ryan circled his ice cream with his tongue.
"But I wanted to."
They drove home in silence. As Bill turned into the driveway, Ryan said, "Knock-knock," but the joke fell away, unfinished. Bill roughed his son's hair and invited him on his weekend fishing trip with the Carjacked, though he'd have to miss school on Monday. Ryan grinned, his chin pink with strawberry ice cream.
Connie said no. "There's only two weeks until summer and he's failing math." A counselor had recently labeled Ryan with an alphabet soup of troubles that just proved school sucked for boys. Bill learned about dyslexia then, how symbols got confused in some people's brains. The only name his father had for it was stupid. Bill felt bad Ryan inherited this from him, yet pleased his son was more like him than Connie. In the end, Bill went fishing without Ryan, promising a backpacking trip when school got out. He returned the following Monday night to an empty house and a note: We're leaving. You're a violent man and we don’t feel safe.
Ryan's school Principal twisted her hands, explaining how Connie took Ryan's records and left no forwarding address. Bill checked his bank account; his only surprise was that she hadn’t taken it all. At the police station he learned that Connie filed a complaint against him. Bill told a cop they'd had a fight and yeah, he'd punched a wall, but never touched her. "She took my son!" The cop just said, "Give her time. They always come back, if just for money."
Bill roamed the town, even went to the church Connie dragged Ryan to on Sundays, but no one had seen her. It was weeks before he cornered his father-in-law, a small, nervous man whose wife had run out on him too. All he'd say was, "She moved west."
He should have pushed the cops harder. He'd have gone looking himself, but where? He drank instead, nursing his anger over how he’d been wronged, and missing Ryan.
A week after meeting Marlene, Bill took her to a Chinese restaurant before her shift at the Last Stallion. He told her about Connie and Ryan; she told Bill about her divorce.
"Irreconcilable differences—he’s an asshole and I’m not." She had a way of putting things that made Bill laugh. "I’m living in a donut’s hole without the sugar." Bill asked if she still loved him. "Absotively not! He's already got someone new."
"The man’s a fool to give you up."
"You still love yours?"
"Not sure I ever did," he said, knowing it was true.
Marlene had wanted to go west, too, to be near her sister, but her ex wouldn’t leave his mother. She wanted her girls to grow up with family, "in the redwoods, by the blue Pacific—a place to be alive." Bill liked the sound of that. Marlene's plan was to go to her sister's, get settled with a job, then send for her girls, who were six and eight and blond like Marlene. Over pizza one night, she introduced Bill as her "friend" and "a dad with a son named Ryan." She cooed over the girls' crayon drawings, enjoying them in a way Connie hadn't enjoyed Ryan, reminding Bill of his mother, a loving woman, soft and tender like Marlene, but never loved properly in return. They toasted Big Fred with Shirley Temples. That was Marlene's name for God and a secret they kept from her ex. "Big Fred and I are on a first name basis," she said, "after all the hell he’s put me through."
"Where's Ryan?" the girls asked, swiveling their heads; for half-a-second Bill looked too. Marlene said, "Ryan's on a trip with his mother," but their questioning little faces shamed Bill for letting the months slide by, hoping the cops were right and Connie would bring Ryan home.
At his house the next day, there was a message on the machine. "Dad?" A breath. "Dad? You there? It's me. Ryan." Bill played the message over and over, frantic for a number to call back. He repaired his busted wall and filed a missing person's report. After a sleepless night, he hired a lawyer to sue for desertion; it was going to take time and money he didn't have, but the phone told Bill that Ryan wanted to be found. He changed his outgoing message: Ryan. I'm looking for you. Call my cell, reciting the number just in case. Bill's plan was: Help Marlene move west and find Ryan.
The day they left, he put his toolbox, three suitcases, and an ice chest in the back of his truck, glad that Marlene didn’t have much baggage. He took her to say goodbye to her girls on the way out of town. She squeezed them close while the mother-in-law chewed her thumbnail, keeping a wary eye. Marlene told her babies she loved them and was going to find a sweet place for them all to live. She blew kisses from the truck. The youngest cried, "Mommy," reaching out her chubby little arms, but grandma grabbed her hand and pulled her inside. Once Bill’s truck rounded the corner, Marlene slumped in the seat, hands to her chest.
"Can you hear my heart?" she moaned. "Ripping in two?"
He rolled down the window and sucked in air to keep his wits. "It’s a terrible thing," he said, but told himself to let her cry, that what was needed was distance. He floored it to the interstate, his compass set west to the redwoods and Marlene's sister, who lived in a big house by a river in a green place where they were welcome.
Bill left Cleveland taking I-90 to I-80 past the plant; he tipped an imaginary hat, then gave Ford the finger. He'd worked hard, moved up the ranks to foreman, made himself a man he’d like to know. He'd taken Ryan to work a few times to show him off, reveling in his son's pride.
"I know what you're thinking," Marlene said.
"Okay Crystal Ball Woman," Bill said. "Reveal my mind."
"You’re probably asking yourself, 'What the hell am I doing with a failure, a woman who runs out on her kids?'" She got teary again.
How could he judge her when he'd lost his own son? He asked if she planned on crying the whole trip. "If so," he said, "I'll have to pick up a sump pump." She twirled a strand of her blond hair, looking out from behind her sunglasses like she was trying to decide. She wiped her eyes and used her tissue to clean off the dashboard.
"No use wasting good tears," she said, and dusted the cab. "Sorrow," she said, "is my new cleaning agent!"
He pulled her close to give her some love. Even with her troubles she could laugh, and that was medicine he needed in his life. In Defiance, they made a pit stop. Bill bought plastic cups and made gin rickeys from the ice chest to lift them up.
They made it to Fort Wayne before five, the sun hard in their faces. He wanted to check on his brother, who’d been after him to visit. On the exit ramp he noticed the front right tire was riding low but was relieved it was just a nail and could be patched.
Marlene said, "That’s Big Fred’s way of telling us we’re on the right path."
At a service station, he called Tim, but the secretary at his office said he no longer worked there. He tried to remember the last time they’d talked. Tim answered his home phone and told Bill to hurry.
They arrived with pizza and a six-pack of coke; Tim didn’t drink, for Jesus. Bill warned Marlene not to mention Big Fred, but when they stepped onto Tim's porch, they found Jesus stuffed in boxes: pictures, crosses, and books. Dust and water stains said he'd been there a while.
Tim opened the door and threw his arms around Bill who was surprised to see his big brother so stooped and gray at thirty-eight. Tim told Bill he’d given up on God, "after he couldn’t be bothered to send one little miracle to save my sweet wife who did so much for his son." Bill didn't do business with God; knowing sin was invented to make a man feel ashamed and he had already had his father and wife for that.
Tim and Joanne shared a sweet love. Bill brought Connie along, once. She'd disapproved, no doubt hating their happiness. Joanne, a round, kind woman, unable to have children of her own, doted on Ryan.
Tim grabbed a handle of whiskey off the counter, faced Bill across the sticky oak table and poured. The house was a mess and smelled sour, like an old man, like things gone bad.
"Haven’t you got a hello for Marlene?" He pulled her onto his lap.
Tim slapped a hand to his head. "I’m losing my manners without my Joanne. And now Dad's gone too." He shook his sorrowful head and poured Marlene a drink then looked around expectantly. "Where's our Ryan?"
"Connie ran off and took him. I'm tracking them down."
Tim looked at him hard. "Connie's one miserable bitch." But those were the last words Bill could agree with as he kept talking. Crazy talking. Marlene raised her eyebrows.
"Now Tim," Bill said to his brother's conspiracy theories about ISIS, the EPA giving Joanne her disease, and Planned Parenthood murdering babies. "What the hell are you talking about?" Tim was never a nut job beyond being a holy roller. "Where're you getting your information? University of Jimmy Beam?" Bill suggested he read a book and reminded him he’d been better off with the Holy one. "It's terrible you lost Joanne, but people die, it's just…the way of things."
Tim gave him a wild look, hopped up, leaned forward, eyes sparking. He lifted his side of the table, like he was weighing it, like he might flip it over.
"I didn’t mean anything. Calm down," Bill yelled.
"Hey now," Marlene said. She opened a window above a sink with dirty dishes to let in a frail breeze. She gave Bill a look that said what he could see himself. "Tim, honey?" she said. "Tell me a story about your Joanne. I'm real sorry I never met her."
Tim exhaled a long, whistled breath and collapsed in his chair. Marlene served up the pizza, gone cold, as Tim bragged of Joanne's fishing prowess. Bill, no longer hungry, passed his slices to Tim who looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Marlene smiled, listening to him ramble. Bill was just happy he'd climbed down off his crazy horse. It was unnerving seeing Tim, caved in with grief, defeated, the one who'd done everything right. He took Marlene’s hand under the table and traded a squeeze thankful she was there. Thankful she wasn't Connie.
When they went to bed, Marlene and Bill started moving together, taking their comfort in each other until Tim banged on the wall and said, "Mercy. Have some mercy," which took the fun out of it altogether.
In the darkest hour of the night Bill was taking a leak when Marlene screamed. He raced back to find Tim standing over her, dazed, ghost-like. He steered Tim back to bed and sat with him until he was sure his brother was asleep, watching as Tim snored. Moonlight through the window lit his cadaverous face, his open mouth missing two back teeth gave off a sour stink. Who would love him now? Bill was sixteen when his mother died, and he lost the one person who’d truly loved him. Trucks moaned and rattled on the interstate half-a-mile away. Bill wondered where so many people were going in the middle of the night and why folks couldn’t just stay put and love each other.
They packed up before the sun, and left Tim a note of thanks for the hospitality. Bill wanted to say something to cheer him, but what can words do for a man who’s given up? Marlene slept on the seat as he drove. He was an asshole for not visiting his brother more after he'd lost the love of his life. The sunset sky bled colors like it was reflecting all the hurt in the world and it was hard not to let it get a hold on him. He rode for miles alongside a vintage red Impala, a Devil’s Tower sticker on its bumper. A woman sat close under the driver's arm; two kids slept in back. The man waved, his smile so certain of happiness that Bill had a furious urge to wrench his wheel and bump him off the road.
Oregon was pretty, but the low-hanging clouds and the closeness of the trees felt claustrophobic after the big skies of the open road. They got to Marlene’s sister's place three nights later. Jan was blond, too, with a cute wrinkly nosed smile. Thinner and more intense than Marlene, she looked out from behind her glasses like she had you figured out. Her husband, Mel, was a tall, frail man, though in pictures on the wall he was big and strong. He’d just won a cancer marathon, limping weakly to the finish line.
"I’m stronger every day," he said, but the weakness of his voice terrified Bill.
"I've got my tools." Bill jerked his thumb to his truck. "I like to keep busy. Let me know if you need anything done."
The next night, they sat around the dinner table with Jan and Mel’s kids, drinking wine while Marlene and Jan shared funny childhood stories, the kids egging them on. Mel talked up Bill's fixing things he hadn’t been able to get to "since the bad Mr. C came to town." He rubbed his fuzzy head and made cancer jokes. Everyone laughed. It was how a family should be. The boy, Aiden, was a baseball fanatic, an encyclopedia of stats, like Ryan. Later, Bill tossed the ball with him, waking the ache for his son he'd been trying to hide down deep.
When the kids went to bed, Marlene told Jan the wrecking-ball story of her divorce, how she'd temporarily lost custody. Jan paced from fridge to sink.
"I can’t believe you left the state. You’ll never get them back now."
Mel tried to shut Jan up, but she was steaming.
"Don't you know, Mel?" Marlene said. "Jan's always right."
Aiden, wide-eyed in the doorway, asked what was wrong. Mel hustled him back to bed, assuring him everything would be okay. Bill hoped he was right.
Jan asked why Marlene didn't call for help. "We could have found you a better lawyer."
Bill saw that Jan was the sister who did everything right, went to college, and though younger by two years, seemed certain and solid in ways that Marlene was soft. Jan was an engineer with Boeing, like Mel. They made good money and had insurance, so even a thing like cancer couldn't bring them to their knees.
In bed, Bill told Marlene he believed in their starting-over plan, but Marlene curled, cheek to knees, like a little girl. She said if this was starting over it wasn’t much fun. It gave him a hollow feeling. He’d been leaning on her optimism.
They stayed clear of the house during the day until Jan cooled off and Marlene was herself again. Bill found construction work, and Marlene got a job at a Hallmark and took every shift they’d give her. She called her girls each night. Eventually, the sisters made up. Marlene agreed that Jan was right and accepted her offer to hire her a lawyer.
Two weeks later, Bill parked in front of the house after work. He popped a beer and sat watching the windows filled with light bought with the kind of money that kept trouble at bay. With Mel's help and Bill’s experience, he'd landed a solid job at the United Streetcar plant in Clackamas, making the best money he'd ever made. Bill's father always said a man made his own luck. Bill wanted to believe it. He told himself he was only thirty-four, and maybe there was still time. He'd been carrying Ryan’s picture in his pocket, memorizing every bit of his face, but what good was that doing? He pulled out his phone and called Connie’s father, counting the rings. Since leaving Ohio, he’d tried the man five times. This time he answered.
"A son needs his father," Bill said, startled by his own loud voice. His lie, that the FBI was on Connie's trail, inspired the man to cough up an address. Seattle, only one-hundred-seventy miles away. Bill sat for a long time listening to the river tumble and sigh.
The morning was dark in Seattle. Rain blurred the windshield as Bill drove. He felt underwater and thought of geese—or turkeys?—who drowned because they hadn’t the sense to stop looking up, openmouthed, at the rain. He parked across the street from Connie’s, screwing up his nerve. The shabby brown fourplex resembled her mood; nothing for a garden but flattened weeds.
"Look out," he said to no one. "Here I come." He rehearsed his practiced speech but stayed put. Until Jan’s voice echoed in his head, asking Marlene what her little girls must think. He shoved his door open, stepped into the soggy world, pulled his jacket over his head, ran to the door, and pushed the doorbell. He didn't hear it chime. He knocked.
The door swung wide. A shirtless kid in pajama bottoms squinted up at him. Ryan. His dark hair stood up on one side. His eyes went wide with recognition. He grinned, then frowned, putting up his guard, making Bill proud to see his son knew a thing or two.
"Hey." Bill longed to clap his arms around him. "You are a hard man to find." He smiled, his cheeks twitching with nerves. Ryan’s brow creased with suspicion, confirming Bill’s guess that Connie had fed him lies.
"Can I come in?"
Ryan checked over his shoulder, then pointed to the street. "I'll come out," he whispered.
The door closed softly. Bill wondered if Connie was home and who else was there. He ran back to his truck, brushed off the seat, and stuffed receipts and tissues in the glove. He turned on his radio, then turned it off. Ryan had grown in five months. He had a new life. Bill wondered if schools were better in Seattle. Connie always gave Bill her blaming face when Ryan struggled with math. That face in his head stirred up a panic, fear that Ryan wouldn’t come out, imagining the terrible lies Connie had told him. When the front door opened, Bill was surprised to find his engine running, the truck in gear, his foot on the brake. He turned it off. Ryan sauntered down the path barefoot, in jeans and his Indians hoodie, oblivious to the cold. He climbed into the cab.
"Hey." He sat, rigid, hand on the door, waiting for Bill to begin.
"I've been looking for you. You okay?"
Ryan nodded, gave him an uncertain sidelong glance.
"I've missed you," Bill said wondering what rules his father would have for a moment like this, but his father would never have been in such a spot.
"How are you?" Ryan asked, color rising in his face.
"Good. Now that I've found you."
Ryan's feet tapped a nervous beat.
"So," Bill said. "Did you hear the one about—" He clutched the steering wheel, wondering how a man who could fix anything had no clue how to put this back together.
Ryan, eyebrows raised, waited for Bill to reveal the humor in their story, how they’d ended up this way in the world, so far apart. The doubt in his face made Bill afraid that he'd already failed at being the father he'd wanted, that it might be too late.
"Dad?" Ryan bounced his knees, fast and nervous, shivering the truck. Rain pounded the cab's metal roof.
Bill tried to laugh but coughed, a strangled sound. "So, this guy goes fishing, catches one this big—" He inched his palms wide, then wider, a joke they'd shared many times. "Huge. He brings it home to show his son, but he'd—" Bill snapped his fingers — "disappeared."
"Mom said you'd come." Ryan's voice cracked. "Why didn't you?"
"Hard to find someone if you don't know where they are, if they run 2500 miles away."
Ryan blinked rapidly, trying not to cry.
"When I didn't show, what'd she tell you?" Bill set a hand on Ryan's knees to still them.
"That you probably changed your mind."
"Jesus," Bill said, fighting down his fury. "You didn't believe that did you? When I got home, you were gone. Cops said you'd come back. I waited 'cuz I had no idea where you were."
Ryan looked stricken. "I called you."
"Yeah. But I didn't know how to call you back."
Ryan inhaled sharply and collapsed back against his seat. They sat listening to the raindrops, the cab steaming up.
"How'd you find me?" Ryan asked finally, his voice shaky.
When he was a child, Bill's mother read him a story of a bunny who runs away, and his mother always finds him. Bill read the story to Ryan many times, making the hero a father rabbit. His father never read to him, and it wasn't until he died that Bill learned he'd flunked out of high school. Suddenly he understood: his father was dyslexic.
Ryan jumped. "What?"
Bill shook his head. "Listen, Ryan, I'd never stop looking for you."
"Okay, but how'd you find me?"
Bill swallowed. "FBI helped."
Ryan turned to face him, eager for the story and scooted forward on his seat, his face tense. He made a fist and rapped his knuckles against the dashboard—knock-knock.
Bill watched the world disappear beyond the fogged glass of the cab, searching his mind for a joke to make things right, but in that moment, nothing was funny. Instead, he began to tell his son the story of his own life, about trying to do his best, hoping to tell it simple and true, hoping it might be enough.