Heather woke up disgruntled to the sound of her father’s ancient penny loafers clacking on the hardwood floor. He’s an empty nester, she remembered, and decided he was entitled to weird habits. She felt bad for her mom.
The sound of the sink blasting and the coffee maker being turned on drove whatever chance she had of falling back asleep way out of town, and she threw off her covers. As she zombie’d toward her bedroom door she accidentally kicked her suitcase, knocking her plane ticket under her dresser. She bent down to her hands and knees and peered through the slit of space between the floor and the furniture. She tried to grab it with her fingers, but they proved too stubby.
“Well, that’s not a good sign,” she said to herself as she braced her hands to the side of her dresser. She huffed, puffed, and pushed the six and a half foot tall armoire on the hardwood floor. It was louder than she expected it to be. She heard an approaching click-clack and was greeted by her father’s bathrobe and morning breath.
“What’s all the yelling?” He said.
Heather took a knee and grabbed her ticket, ignoring her father’s choice of idiom to describe the noise. Mark, her dad, looked at the floor, “Oh, honey,” and grimaced, “it’s scratched.”
She looked at him with tired eyes. “Is there any more coffee?”
“No, but you can make a fresh pot,” her father smiled back and click-clacked back to the kitchen where he waited for Heather to enter and make another pot of coffee.
It was the beginning of the summer and Newark Airport was buzzing with bodies excusing and shoving past one another on their way to their personal retreat from normalcy. Heather was feeling guilty and hoped her mom would do this goodbye quickly, even though she knew that was out of the question.
“I’m so proud of you,” Rachel, Heather’s mom, said to her outside the bag check. Rachel took her daughter’s hand and held it tightly. “When I was your age, and I did this stuff, your grandma never took me to the bus station. Much less went with me,” she said this motioning at Mark, suitcase on wheels next to him.
Heather nodded and wished she could tell her parents this good-will tour was just an excuse to see a band play and talk to the drummer after the show. But, instead of saying something honest, she pulled a quote from a YouTube documentary she watched: “People need their families. I just want my voice to be heard.”
“God,” Rachel said, trying to hide her worry, “just be safe.”
“I will be. I’ll even have a bodyguard until I meet up with Deanna.”
Mark smiled at his daughter, hoping that this whole ‘protesting ICE at the border’ crap was just a phase. He didn’t want his daughter on any of Trump’s hit lists, anymore than HE wanted to be on them. “She’ll be safe, Ray.”
Rachel threw her arms around Heather’s neck and squeezed tightly, taking in the smell of her shampoo, her eyes welling up inadvertently. She shook it off by looking at her husband: 53, pudgy, bald, wearing a bowling shirt over basketball shorts. She thought about what their son, Brian, would say. (Something to the effect of: “Tom Ford, eat your heart out”).
“I know she’ll be safe,” Rachel said, kissing Mark on the cheek. “It’s you I’m worried about.” And she was, too. He didn’t travel well when they went to Maine last August, especially after getting the runs from that cucumber gazpacho. “No gazpacho this time, Mark.”
“I don’t think that’s traditionally Tex Mex,” Heather said with a heaping tablespoon of side-eye.
“Okay, so land in El Paso, get to the hotel, sleep.” Rachel said, as she’d been saying all week. Heather could practically recite this speech word for word, noting how clearly worried her mom was. “Next morning go to the protest in,” Rachel looked at her phone, “Allamoore, then dad brings you to…?” Rachel looked at Mark for him to continue what the plan was.
“Fort Happiness,” Mark said with a knowing smile
“Fort Bliss, Mark. This is important please don’t joke.”
Heather watched her parents bicker and made a mental note to accelerate her plan to move out again.
“I take Heather to meet Deanna at the Burns family’s house in Fort Bliss. We have dinner, I go back to the hotel, and the next morning go to the airport, drop off the rental, and come home, where you pick me up here, and we go get Thai?”
“If everything goes smoothly -”
Heather thought, yeah, definitely moving before the end of the summer.
“And you and Deanna,” Rachel concluded, “are going back to protest the next day, and then seeing what band again?”
“Ugh. And you know the band from school, too.”
Heather nodded, hoping her parents would miss her blush. They did.
Rachel felt the gravity of the moment and steeled herself with her classic refrain.
Rachel continued to say ‘okay’ over and over as she hugged Mark and Heather and watched them get online for security. She patted her purse, slung over her shoulder, for her car keys. She palmed them and looked up at the giant glass windows of Newark Airport.
A plane took off in front of her and she tried to remember if her car was in A4 or F4.
The Stories They Would Tell
“I’m used to waiting for Mark, but this time feels different,” Rachel said to the woman behind the help counter at the arrivals desk in Newark Airport’s Terminal A, trying to implore her to do more than type a name into a computer. Get on the phone, she thought.
“It says he never boarded the flight,” the person replied, staring at the computer screen.
At least say it to my face if he’s dead, Rachel thought. Oh my god, he’s dead, she continued to inner monologue, oblivion at her periphery folding in closer.
Her face went white and the agent at the desk waved her hand at two security officers, worried Rachel was going to faint and crack her skull and she’d have to stay late to fill out accident paperwork.
The two cops rushed Rachel and she went limp for a moment. But, immediately recognizing the scene she’d caused (tourists were staring, finally given a story from New Jersey to bring back to Germany that didn’t involve sex or cursing), her face was flush again and she pulled out her phone.
“Is everything alright miss?” The taller officer asked.
Yanking her arms free of their hands, Rachel nodded. And then shook her head. “My husband went to Texas with my daughter and dropped her with her friends and then was supposed to come home this afternoon but he never called and his phone is off and he wasn’t on his flight.”
The cops looked at each other, and would later congratulate themselves for not suggesting this crazy lady’s idiot husband had gotten himself kidnapped by the cartel.
Rachel was holding Mark’s phone charger in her hand, and she was planning to make a dramatic show and tell of it when he arrived off the plane. Now she clutched it as if it was the last piece of him in the world.
“If you want to come with us to our offices, we can call down to the station there, see if he’s on their radar.”
“Okay,” said Rachel, not really listening. She was dialing Heather’s cell.
Heather had skipped the second day of protesting. After the first day, she’d felt emotionally exhausted, but was definitely surprised by the passion she managed to tap into. The situation in the detention center was dire, and she felt compelled to do something. Whether she actually would was to be determined.
But, since her dad wasn’t there to make her feel guilty anymore, the original plan prevailed, and she went with Deanna for lunch drinks to pregame for the first night of Blood Moustache’s two-night residency at Tricky Falls.
“So you’re from Jersey?” Asked the older female bartender, handing Heather back her ID.
“Edison,” replied Heather.
“I’m from South Brunswick,” said the bartender with a smile, and a knowing recognition that this kid would either be a great time or a problem.
“Then that calls for shots, no?”
And, the jury’s still out, thought the bartender as she reached for shot glasses.
Deanna approached the bar and the bartender retrieved another shot glass. She poured three tequilas.
“Tequila,” Deanna said squeamishly.
Heather flattened her gaze at the bartender and said in a loud whisper, “Not from Jersey.”
The bartender laughed and lifted her glass from the bar. Heather joined her, and Deanna begrudgingly followed suit. They drank.
The bartender asked, “You guys hanging out early for the show tonight?”
“Yeah,” Deanna said with a hoarse exhale. “Wow.”
“Like we’re back in the dorms, right?” Heather asked excitedly. This had been her first night out alone with Deanna since college.
Just then her cellphone rang. Heather looked at it and saw ‘Mom.’ She felt a pang of familial worry and reached into Deanna’s purse for her Juul. She moved to go outside.
“Smoking USBs,” the bartender said after her. “It’s weird.”
Outside, Heather answered. “Hi mom.”
“Honey, is your father still with you?”
“No, he left the Burns’ house last night after dinner and went to the hotel.”
“Did he text you that he got there?”
Heather checked her phone. She felt her stomach drop out. “No.”
There was a long pause between two generations of Lefkowitz women. In the parking lot, a yuppie in an American Flag tank top riding a Harley for the second or third time in his gilded life turned into the lot, threw his leg over the bike, and immediately dumped the 600 pound machine on the ground. He struggled to pick it up as Rachel came back on the line.
“I’m going to the police station at the hotel.”
“Sorry I mean the airport. I’m going to call the hotel.”
“I’m calling Brian.”
“I love you,” Rachel said and hung up the phone.
Heather told the dial tone she loved it.
Brian unscrewed the spray nozzle from the bottle of Febreze and ran it under the tap. He didn’t have enough money in his checking to get another bottle from the Jersey City Heights bodega where it’s literally eight ninety-nine, so he figured, gets low, throw some FREE water in there, and boom – nobody who comes over knows we smoke.
The door to Daniel’s room opened up Brian looked up from the sink worried. Shit, he said to himself.
Daniel shuffled out of the bedroom and walked down the railroad apartment’s center hallway toward the living room and kitchen. Brian assumed he was about to receive a classic Daniel flip out for making too much noise too early even though it was four in the afternoon. Also he hadn’t mentioned that his parents were coming over after his dad got back to Newark.
Instead though, Daniel turned and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. Brian heard the tap run, and then the sound of vomiting. Great, Brian thought, now considering needing enough Febreze to clean the bathroom.
His phone buzzed on the coffee table in the adjacent living room. Daniel emerged from the bathroom as Brian cautiously moved to his phone.
“Worried it’s Matthew?” Asked Daniel. Matthew owned the restaurant where Daniel and Brian were waiters.
“Fuck him if it is, I can’t work today.”
“Why, you got a date?”
Brian looked at the caller ID. “It’s just my sister. I’ll take it outside.” Brian grabbed his keys off the coffee table.
“Why’s it so clean in here? Where’s the remote?”
“My parents are gonna be here in like ten minutes.”
Daniel growled to himself. “So I have no choices in this apartment, I guess.”
Brian slammed the door behind him and went into the hallway of his building. He descended the stairs as he answered, “Sup. How’s Blood Moustache? You talk to the drummer yet and get all googly eyes?”
Brian stopped bouncing down the stairs and turned around. “What? How do you know?” He went back up to his apartment and fumbled with the keys at the knob. Daniel opened the door angrily from the inside and walked immediately to his room, where he slammed his door back at Brian.
“He wasn’t on his flight back. Mom’s freaking out at the airport.”
Brian went to his room and grabbed the Marlboro 27’s off his dresser, a lighter, and went back into the hallway, and to the door, and bounded down the steps to be outside.
“Can you get over there?” Heather asked.
“Of course,” Brian lied. He did not have enough money for an Uber to the PATH, much less to the airport. He thought about going to the restaurant and taking money from the register and apologizing later.
“Good. He left last night from Dee’s house and was supposed to go the hotel.”
“He’s not there?”
“Mom’s calling them now.”
“Jesus, dad,” Brian said through a deep pull of smoke. “We can’t leave him alone at all, can we?”
“He was fine at the protest yesterday. I think he was even getting into it.”
“Did you have to tell mom and dad you were going to a protest? Mom wouldn’t have made him go if she thought it was just to see Dee.”
Heather waited a beat, hoping her older brother would recognize that he was being accusatory at the worst possible time.
“I didn’t mean that, Heath. I’m sorry. I’m going to the airport. I’ll call you when I get there.”
A Day Later
When Mark dragged his suitcase through the automatic doors at the airport in El Paso, he was terrified for a two reasons. The second reason was that he had never tried to change a flight before, and especially never a day after the flight he was supposed to be on. The rental car hadn’t been a problem to return a day late. They’re happy to get another day’s money out of me, Mark mused. But, he was dreading the annoyance of the process. That, and he was pretty scared of getting arrested.
He had only been at the counter long enough to provide his ID when the person behind the desk’s phone rang. She held up a finger to Mark before he could even speak, and his heart stopped. She looked up at Mark pointedly while hearing direction from her supervisor, and hung up.
“Sir, you’re being asked to go to security immediately.”
“Why?” replied Mark, now preparing himself for the possibility of spending a portion of the next few years upstate somewhere.
“I don’t know. Are you Mark Lefkowitz?”
“Yes.” Mark looked up from the counter and directly into the security camera behind the agent, deciding that running out of the airport would be a pretty obvious admission.
“Then you’re being asked to go to the security office.”
“I just missed my flight is all. Is that a crime?” Mark was reaching. He hated the way it felt.
“Sir. The security office is,” the agent leaned over the counter and pointed, “all the way past the Hertz rental, down there, through those glass doors.”
Mark followed the agent’s finger and felt like he was being directed to the gallows.
Mark’s travel sneakers squeaked on the freshly waxed linoleum. Mark pushed the glass door open and expected ICE goons to be on him in a dog pile. He’d maybe, in a few years, get a chance to sue their asses for whatever injuries he was about to sustain. But, my phone is god damn dead, he remembered. He wondered how it would play to ask the cops who beat him to also photograph the evidence.
The chubby, salt and pepper desk sergeant sitting behind the metal desk in front of an undulating fan looked up from a manilla folder and smiled at Mark. Mark found this surprising, as he hadn’t considered he would be played with before being eaten..
“Mister Lefkowitz. I’m relieved to meet you,” he said, standing and offering an outstretched hand. “Rudy Jimenez,” he said by way of introduction.
Mark shook it, again, expecting that thing from movies where a handshake turns into a handcuffing. But it didn’t happen.
And in that moment, he realized he would now be put to the test of telling the story he’d practiced all morning.
“Your wife and I have spent a lot of time on the phone together,” Rudy said as he picked up the phone from his desk, sitting down again. He motioned to the chair in front of Mark for him to sit.
Mark sat and removed his phone from his pocket. It had been dead for a day and a half. “Officer Jimenez?”
“Rudy, do you happen to have a charger?” Mark offered his phone to Rudy, who was cradling the receiver to his desk phone between his head and neck.
Rudy looked at Mark’s dad phone: a Samsung paperweight from 2011. “Actually,” Rudy said, opening his desk drawer. “Yes.” He took a chord out from the mess of pens and pencils and gave it to Mark. “I had that phone for years until my son made enough fun of me to upgrade.”
Mark took it and spied an outlet on the wall next to him. “Can I plug this in?”
“Definitely. You’re going to have a few messages I think.”
Mark stood and squeaked over to the wall, thinking how quickly he’d change into his loafers if he ever got home again. He bent down and pushed a chair out of his way, and definitely pulled something in doing so. He plugged his phone in and stood with a groan.
Behind him, Rudy spoke into the phone. “Hi, Rachel? It’s Rudy. I have great news.”
The scream from the other side of the phone was immense, and Rudy pushed the receiver away from his head, laughing.
“I think she wants to talk to you,” Rudy said. He passed the receiver to Mark, but the shouting was loud enough to hear clearly.
“Oh my god, thank god, oh my god.”
“Hey dad,” shouted Brian from somewhere near his mom.
“Brian’s here with me,” Rachel offered, in that inimitable mom way of offering information no one but her husband, who at any point could stop listening, might need clarification on.
“Hi guys,” Mark said, preparing himself for the best acting of his entire life.
“Where were you, honey? We were so worried,” Rachel lamented.
“It’s very stupid, Ray.”
“Oh, Mark,” Rachel said in a way she immediately felt guilty for.
“I know, I know,” Mark lamented in his best impression of the family guilt trips he’d gotten throughout his childhood. “I left Deanna’s house two nights ago, and then my phone died. So I didn’t have any directions to get back to the hotel, and I took a wrong turn and got all kinds of lost. Then, get this—the car runs out of gas.”
“Oh Mark,” Rachel sighed, resigned to the fact that she’d married, and was still in love with, a complete idiot.
“I know. Bonehead Lefkowitz. Should have requested Hertz fill the tank when I picked it up.”
“So you walked to get gas?” Brian asked.
“Uh, yes,” Mark stalled, just to make sure he was still on track and not getting too excited. “I slept in the car that night on the side of the road, and in the morning, yes, I walked to get gas. The nearest station took me literally all day to get there. So I get gas, and I have to go back to the car, and I asked for a ride from the station. I got that guy lost. By the time I got back to the car, it was the middle of the night. We gassed it up, and I went back to the hotel.”
“Why didn’t you call me when you got there, Mark?” Rachel asked.
“My phone was dead, babe. I’m really sorry.”
“The hotel phones were dead, too?”
“All my numbers are in my phone. Nobody, except Officer Jimenez here at the airport, had a charger for me.” Mark felt good about the dismount. His wife had asked all the questions he assumed she would.
“Oh my god. Thank GOD you’re safe,” Rachel said, almost as a chant.
“Dad, we’re getting you a new phone on the way home from the airport.”
“Okay, Bri. That’s a deal. Honey, I’m gonna go see if I can get a ticket back, or should I go see Heather?”
“Get your ass on a plane home,” Rachel demanded. “Let Heather have her vacation back. Brian, are you -”
“I’m texting her right now,” Brian said to his mom.
“Okay,” Mark said. “I’m charging my phone. I’ll text you when I know what flight I’ll be on.”
Rachel’s voice bled through the analog architecture, the cord from the wall carrying a signal from thousands of miles away like a military-grade missile searing toward a target on the other side of the world.
“I love you, Mark. Come home.”
Mark smiled, and nodded politely at Rudy. “On my way, Ray.” He passed the phone across the desk. At that, his own cell turned on and began to blast his text alert sound over and over. Mark and Rudy locked eyes and their dad-faces twinkled at one another like stars on separate orbits aligning for a brief moment in time.
Rudy watched Mark walk out of the office, dragging a suitcase behind him. He noticed that for all his talk of day-long walks for gas, he wasn’t sunburnt except on his left forearm. And, he didn’t look any worse than any other Yankee down at the border to see the edge of their global jurisdiction. Probably got in a pinch at a brothel, he thought.
Quietly jealous, Rudy sat down again before the desk fan and steered his laptop to Amazon to look for backup phone chargers.
That afternoon, as the plane sat impotent on the tarmac, Mark sat squished between two former athletes, or so he figured, and shook his head realizing he didn’t have any chance of an armrest.
The flight attendant addressed him by surprise.
“What will you have, sir?”
Mark’s head fell back on the headrest and he smiled and said, “A double scotch and soda, if you have it?”
“I’m sorry sir, our airline does not serve alcohol on domestic flights.”
The attendant wasn’t sorry. Mark could sense this. He rocked his head rocked forward and he pinched the bridge of his nose. “Coffee, then?”
“Of course.” The attendant poured a coffee from a carafe on their pushcart, passed it to Mark, and moved to the next row of passengers.
Mark sipped the off-brand, jet black crap, and went over the details of his story again. He didn’t want to slip up at all when he got home. He wanted to keep his family safe from his choices, and also, didn’t want to have to explain why he made them.
Because the answer is complicated.
Mark left the Burns house on schedule, and had gotten very lost after his phone died. He did pull over and sleep on the side of the road. But, gas had not been the issue. He was just pretty tuckered out.
Mark would never, for the rest of his life, forget or forgive himself for the panic he displayed in the middle of that night. The fear he spewed from his face, speech, and body language was tremendous. He hated himself because when a stranger knocked on the window of Mark’s rented car, and Mark looked up to see a Mexican man looking through the glass, he hit the locks and turned the key.
But, then the man quickly backed away from the car with a look on his face that Mark was inextricably empathetic of. It was a face which conveyed fluctuating gravity, that there was a balancing act happening just off-screen. The face said this would be another in a long line of disappointments.
Mark saw dust scuttle behind the stranger, and opened his car door out of a growing sense that he might be needed. The interior light from the car spilled out of the open door and washed over a woman and a young girl, their features heightened by the low yellow light, stark against the black-blue sky beyond them. Mark stood on the road and looked up and down the highway, waking up from a weird car sleep to a very extreme reality before him.
The man frantically whispered in Spanish, and Mark caught maybe one of every ten words after taking four years in High School sleeping through French. Finally, the man held up his cell phone, the same as antiquated monolith as Mark’s, and typed into a translator. He passed the phone to Mark and it read in poorly-translated English.
“My family need help.”
Mark took the phone and it again sort of translated back in Spanish.
“What you do need?”
The man opened a Google Map and showed Mark an address in Kansas. It was 11 hours away. He stood looking at the phone for longer than he thought he would if someone had offered this to him as a hypothetical. By way of getting on with it, the man produced a sweaty wad of $20s and $10s and held it out for Mark. It wasn’t much, but it wouldn’t be bad to have around, Mark thought, and then chastised himself.
He began an internal morality play. Mark wanted to help the guy, but he didn’t want to get arrested for human trafficking or whatever makes people not do this all the time. He didn’t like the optics of the possible headline, “Suburban White Guy Saves Poor Mexicans, Gets Arrested.” Who would take care of his family if he went to jail?
Mark wished he’d ever done anything right in the past, and then maybe he wouldn’t feel so compelled to step in.
Instinct began to take over as Mark made eye contact with the stranger again, and saw the tired eyes of a father going above and beyond. The guy has a wife and a kid, Mark thought. He recognized that he’d been down the same road – that of the unprepared father – and it brought up the his desire to be the kind of guy wasn’t ashamed to ask for help if he needed it. Maybe then he’d be part owners in that beach house his brother bought, instead of feeling like the help every time he visited.
Mark shook himself from his myopic self-loathing and opened the back door to the car for the woman and little girl.
As they drove beneath the stars, Mark saw a vision of his grandparents in Poland. He’d never met them. Maybe because no one had given him the ride he was providing this family. He grew sad upon realizing that hadn’t even crossed his mind while standing in the road just hours before.
When they arrived in Colby, Kansas, there was a blue panel van waiting behind a convenience store, by the dumpsters in the parking lot next to flattened wax cardboard vegetable boxes. Flies buzzed. Mark pulled around back of the business and killed the engine. The father looked at Mark with a strange combination of gratitude and amazement. He nodded to his wife and she reached over her daughter to open the back door for her. They exited, and Mark followed.
He walked them on the hot concrete to the van, and a young man in a drug rug poncho emerged from the driver’s seat and spoke to the family in Spanish. He knew their names, which gave Mark a sense of quiet relief.
They piled in the van’s sliding door following many thank you’s, and the driver turned to Mark. Though he clearly knew who they were, Mark did not like this green peace looking guy, and grew uncomfortable at the idea of leaving this family with a white guy with dreads.
“So, what’s up man, you some good samaritan?”
Mark shrugged, hating this moment.
The driver took this answer as an admission of guilt. “Paid you, huh?”
Mark was offended. “They offered. But, no. I didn’t take it.” He thought about asking if this smart-ass had any kids, but bit his tongue.
Surprised, the driver shook his head and went to the driver’s side door. He entered the van and passed a blank business card with a handwritten phone number on it to Mark through the passenger window. “If you like to drive, we can always use guys. One of our best was supposed to get them, got picked up last night.”
Mark took the card and put it in his pocket. “I don’t know,” he said. He did not like the prospect of interacting with hippies, even well-intentioned ones.
The driver nodded and looked ahead, “Sleep on it, amigo.” He turned the key and the engine rumbled.
Mark went inside the store and asked if it was possible to print directions out, saying his phone was dead and he was very lost. The good old boy behind the counter allowed him to use the office in back, and Mark printed Mapquest directions back to El Paso. As he walked back to his car, he watched the panel van drive out of the lot and head north.
Then, Mark drove back. He had an eleven hour trip on his hands, the longest drive he’d ever done alone since college. No kids complaining, no wife wishing he would talk more. He played classic rock radio, bought a pack of cigarettes, and drove like he was 18 again, rediscovering an excitement for having a driver’s license. Mark realized he had seen more of the country he thought he knew over the last 20 hours than he had in his entire life.
As he re-entered Texas with still about four hours to go, the fantasy faded. He found himself comparing the satisfaction he got helping a family in need to what he had probably put his family through: the worrying, the fear, the agony. He also nervously considered the possibility of consequences for his actions.
For the last few hours, he came up with his story, and when he finally arrived back in El Paso, he went to the airport, and fell asleep in the car. When he woke up, he went to go see Rudy.
The same flight attendant approached Mark on their way back from first class. “Will you be finishing your coffee sir?”
Annoyed by the obvious answer to the question, Mark responded: “No, thank you.” He handed her the mug and saucer with one hand, and held his phone with the other.
“Sir, you need to shut your phone off until we reach Newark,” they said with a tone that turned the heads of the passengers on either side of Mark, hoping maybe they’d see a fight break out.
“Sorry, I will,” Mark replied, trying to type as fast as he could.
Mark finished entering the phone number from the business card he’d gotten from the driver into his phone. He saved the contact, and turned it off. He smiled to the attendant, who gave tight, curt teeth back, and walked away. Mark ripped up the card and stuck it between the cushions of his seat.
“Nice phone, bro,” said the sarcastic giant to his left.
Mark wasn’t listening. He was trying to concentrate on remembering to check what airlines do serve alcohol between Newark and El Paso.