Fiction June 2004

Until Gwen

Your father looks down at the gun in his hand. "This going to fire?"

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat. Two minutes into the ride, the prison still hanging tilted in the rearview, Mandy tells you that she only hooks part-time. The rest of the time she does light secretarial for an independent video chain and tends bar, two Sundays a month, at the local VFW. But she feels her calling—her true calling in life—is to write.

You go, "Books?"

"Books." She snorts, half out of amusement, half to shoot a line off your fist and up her left nostril. "Screenplays!" She shouts it at the dome light for some reason. "You know—movies."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Hookers, Guns, and Money" (May 5, 2004)
Dennis Lehane talks about Mystic River, Hollywood, and "fiction of mortal event."

"Tell him the one about the psycho saint guy." Your father winks at you in the rearview, like he's driving the two of you to the prom. "Go ahead. Tell him."

"Okay, okay." She turns on the seat to face you, and your knees touch, and you think of Gwen, a look she gave you once, nothing special, just looking back at you as she stood at the front door, asking if you'd seen her keys. A forgettable moment if ever there was one, but you spent four years in prison remembering it.

"... so at his canonization," Mandy is saying, "something, like, happens? And his spirit comes back and goes into the body of this priest. But, like, the priest? He has a brain tumor. He doesn't know it or nothing, but he does, and it's fucking up his, um—"

"Brain?" you try.

"Thoughts," Mandy says. "So he gets this saint in him and that does it, because, like, even though the guy was a saint, his spirit has become evil, because his soul is gone. So this priest? He spends the rest of the movie trying to kill the Pope."

"Why?"

"Just listen," your father says. "It gets good."

You look out the window. A car sits empty along the shoulder. It's beige, and someone has painted gold wings on the sides, fanning out from the front bumper and across the doors. A sign is affixed to the roof with some words on it, but you've passed it by the time you think to wonder what it says.

"See, there's this secret group that works for the Vatican? They're like a, like a ..."

"A hit squad," your father says.

"Exactly," Mandy says, and presses her finger to your nose. "And the lead guy, the, like, head agent? He's the hero. He lost his wife and daughter in a terrorist attack on the Vatican a few years back, so he's a little fucked up, but—"

You say, "Terrorists attacked the Vatican?"

"Huh?"

You look at her, waiting. She has a small face, eyes too close to her nose.

"In the movie," Mandy says. "Not in real life."

"Oh. I just—you know, four years inside, you assume you missed a couple of headlines, but ..."

"Right." Her face is dark and squally now. "Can I finish?"

"I'm just saying," you say and snort another line off your fist, "even the guys on death row would have heard about that one."

"Just go with it," your father says. "It's not, like, real life."

You look out the window, see a guy in a chicken suit carrying a can of gas in the breakdown lane, think how real life isn't like real life. Probably more like this poor dumb bastard running out of gas in a car with wings painted on it. Wondering how the hell he ever got here. Wondering who he'd pissed off in that previous real life.

Your father has rented two rooms at an Econo Lodge so that you and Mandy can have some privacy, but you send Mandy home after she twice interrupts the sex to pontificate on the merits of Michael Bay films.

You sit in the blue-wash flicker of ESPN and eat peanuts from a plastic bag you got out of a vending machine and drink plastic cupfuls of Jim Beam from a bottle your father presented when you reached the motel parking lot. You think of the time you've lost, and how nice it is to sit alone on a double bed and watch TV, and you think of Gwen, can taste her tongue for just a moment, and you think about the road that's led you here to this motel room on this night after forty-seven months in prison, and how a lot of people would say it was a twisted road, a weird one, filled with curves, but you just think of it as a road like any other. You drive down it on faith, or because you have no other choice, and you find out what it's like by the driving of it, find out what the end looks like only by reaching it.

Late the next morning your father wakes you, tells you he drove Mandy home and you've got things to do, people to see.

Here's what you know about your father above all else: people have a way of vanishing in his company.

He's a professional thief, a consummate con man, an expert in his field—and yet something far beyond professionalism is at his core, something unreasonably arbitrary. Something he keeps within himself like a story he heard once, laughed at maybe, yet swore never to repeat.

Presented by

Dennis Lehane is the author of seven novels, including Mystic River (2001) and Shutter Island (2003). He is currently working on a novel set during the Boston police strike of 1919. He lives in the Boston area.

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