Chapter 11. In the Kitchen

Demetrius sank into the small couch in the Rainwood House kitchen, knees slightly bent, head raised on the pillow he’d made out of his rolled coat. He sighed at the luxurious feeling of comfort, but couldn’t close his eyes. Lying there, he gazed around the room, now lit only by the pale silver sheen of the overcast sky filtering through the uncurtained windows. He listened to the plants whisper and rustle; the plumbing gurgle, hiss and occasionally groan. He heard, or felt, constant low vibrations, some like distant surf and others like softly jangling stringed instruments.
A sound salad, he thought woozily. Or a sound lasagna, with layers of noises from low to high. He pulled the blankets tighter around him and tried to relax, but his bruised knees and other aching body parts began clamoring for attention. Then, his intestines. With a groan, he threw off his covers, padded across the chilly floor, and lifted the tie-dyed sheet to enter the bathroom.
After washing his hands, he touched the small radiator next to the sink and grimaced at how little heat it was producing. As if reacting to his unvoiced criticism, the radiator gave a shrill bleat. Demetrius jerked his hand back, banging it against the sink. It was the hand he had bashed against the doorknob in his fall down the basement stairs, and he let out a yelp of pain.
Granny Gus’s soothing voice sounded in his mind: “Count your blessings, honeybunch.” “Okay, Granny,” he replied aloud, settling himself on the couch once again, nursing his hand and focusing on the softness and warmth of the blankets. And especially on being safe—at least for now. He let out a sigh, and his eyelids finally slid down over his eyes.
Instantly, as if lying in wait, images began reeling through his head: Larsen jerking at the bullet’s impact and pitching forward; himself racing through the alley and diving into the garbage; then himself at his apartment, frantically scrubbing his locks and trying to sort out what he should do; and then, his hand giving a goodbye caress to the images of the young people on the Liberated Zone poster taped to his door before slipping out, clutching his duffel bag and the sack of putrid clothing.
Gripping his bags, he had tiptoed down the stairs and out the back door; then, after a long, nervous look around, he crossed the small, poorly lit parking area to his Toyota. The dashboard clock read 1:27—three hours since the shooting. He started the car and drove carefully out of the lot. Keeping just under the speed limit, he headed to the Arboretum. He wasn’t sure why; he felt the flow carry him there, so he let it.
As he drove, the delicate face of Sherry rose in his mind. She was a Japanese bonsai artist and assistant curator of the Arboretum’s Bonsai Collection. Attracted by her shy smile and the hint of sensuousness in her gentle fingering of the tiny trees she shaped, in June he had embarked on a cautious campaign to get to know her. The quest had been a healing tonic after the tempestuous mess he’d gotten into the previous winter—with Jane, of all people. Michael’s disbelief and scorn, Jane’s sense of fitness reasserting itself, and his own horror of appearing ridiculous, had helped quash the crazy passion which had somehow taken possession of him and Jane for a few wild weeks. Once they came to their senses it had taken the spring and summer to gingerly feel their way back toward their old comradely threesome. For Demetrius, the LZ garden had been a usefully strenuous distraction, but inching toward a relationship with Sherry had been the best balm for his emotional bruises.
He pictured her dark lashes against her smooth, rounded cheek as she bent over a miniature tree. Could he ask to stay with her? He had finally worked up to getting her home number. But he shook his head at himself, clutching the wheel. Assuming he was not making this whole thing up—and the shots still ringing in his ears strongly suggested he was not—the law would surely come snooping around his work, questioning his colleagues.
He turned onto R, a small residential street that led unexpectedly to the Arboretum entrance. As he rolled slowly down the quiet street, he watched the dark trees towering behind the fence on his right, their branches swaying like beckoning arms in the autumn breeze. He imagined the comfort of being under them. Unlike so many city kids he knew, he had always loved the woods, even at night. It was fitting that as babies unable pronounce his name, he and the twins had shortened it to ‘Tree,’ the nickname most old friends and family still called him.
He parked several hundred yards up the street from the entrance, got out of the car, and walked to the brick and iron gate, securely locked at this hour. Straining his ears, he heard no vehicle, and guessed the guard was patrolling one of the interior roads running through the Arboretum’s four hundred and forty-six mostly wooded acres, perhaps down near the Anacostia River. Not possessing a key to the front gate—and surely the guard would be alerted if someone opened it at this hour—he considered the wrought-iron fence that encircled the park. Its thin vertical poles protruded like spikes above the horizontal crossbar, but they weren’t very sharp or very high. He approached the fence, reached up and grabbed the bar.
He pulled himself up a few inches, feeling his hands strain painfully against the cold iron. Then he let go and stood frowning into the darkness beyond the fence. It would be a scramble to get over it, but once inside he would have no trouble concealing himself. Neighborhood kids snuck in sometimes; occasionally homeless people slept there as well. Several good hiding places came to mind. But he had no food or outdoor bedding. He shook his head, recalling the pizza in his refrigerator and shivering as a chill breeze found its way up the sleeves of his sweatshirt.
He was friendly with a number of coworkers in addition to Sherry, but he couldn’t ask them to risk bringing him provisions and a sleeping bag. Anyway, with winter coming on it was useless to consider hiding outdoors, even if he were a lot tougher than he was. His inevitable discovery would make him appear not only guilty but stupid.
Slowly, Demetrius turned and walked back toward his car. It was a 1994 Corolla with nearly 200,000 miles on it, bearing dents from several minor incidents, and with a generally dumpy appearance he’d attempted to spruce up by plastering its back bumper with political stickers. One sticker showed the vintage Black Power fist. Another, the newest, said, “Sean Bell was murdered,” referring to a young African American who, that very November, had been shot by the New York City police—on his wedding day.
Demetrius recalled an afternoon that past summer when Knuckle had accompanied him to get some gardening supplies. The boy had pointed at his bumper stickers and remarked that they were stupid because they made his vehicle too recognizable. Demetrius had replied that they made his car easy to identify in case it was stolen. Now he rolled his eyes at himself, the dumb law-abiding citizen.
He slid back into his car. Clenching his teeth at the noise, he cranked the ignition and drove away. A few blocks north he parked in an industrial-looking area where he hoped an orphaned automobile would arouse little interest.
As he picked up his duffel bag he caught the foul odor seeping from the doubled bag containing his garbage-slimed clothing. He couldn’t bear the thought of the cops’ disgusted faces when they found it. He reached in and pulled the sack out of the car and set it on the ground beside his duffel bag.
When he locked up the Toyota, he felt a sudden constriction in his chest. With a glance over his shoulder at the deserted street, he placed a palm gently on the car’s flank. Then he leaned forward and planted a kiss on the window. The imprint of his lips glowed in the sodium light from the street lamp, like a Luna moth.
He picked up his bags, straightened his shoulders, turned and began striding briskly along the small dark back streets. He tried to look alert, cool, and extremely able to take care of himself, which was true, being stronger than he looked, if a tad out of shape. Once, he had successfully fended off three would-be muggers who hadn’t expected him to fight back. His real fear was of hidden electronics, cameras, listening devices—invisible enemies, impossible to counter. And of course, dogs, guns, and groups of hostile men, particularly those in uniform.
When he was close to New York Avenue he toyed with the idea of turning toward Bladensburg Road, gliding past the police station, and discreetly giving it the finger. But the thought of ending up in News of the Weird—“Escaping cop-shooter nabbed outside police station!”—kept him to the back streets until he had crossed New York Avenue and was several blocks into the down-at-heels neighborhood on the other side. Then he made his way back to Bladensburg Road, turned right, and began walking north toward Maryland.
He walked steadily, avoiding the darkest shadows and the bright pockets of light under street lamps, passing seedy shops, unprepossessing houses, barb-wired lots filled with parked busses. Behind a deserted greasy spoon he dropped the sack of soiled clothes into the dumpster. The smell of chicken grease wafted up from the bin, making him feel queasy, but hungry, too. He thought of how he’d been compelled to hide in the garbage and suddenly felt breathless with rage. He clenched his fists, set his jaw and forced himself to put one foot in front of the other.
After what seemed a long time, but was probably not much more than an hour, he saw a well-lit shopping center ahead on his right. By the entrance was a sign that read “24-hour surveillance,” with a large picture of a camera. He crossed the street and turned left along a curving road with small houses and shops. As he passed over a bridge he looked down over a low parapet at a train track winding away into blackness, the smell of damp earth mixed with diesel fuel rising from below. When he looked back over his shoulder, the narrow street seemed to flow away from him like a dark stream.
A little ways further, a wide avenue appeared. Demetrius crossed it and found himself in a neighborhood of narrow streets, old-fashioned-looking houses, and tall trees. He felt better at once under their shelter, but after a few more steps exhaustion swamped him. In the dim glow of a streetlamp he made out a large stone church down the street on his left. Could he rest behind one of the bushy junipers that grew around it? What if he fell asleep? It was early Sunday morning; in a few hours the place would be swarming with church folk. He plodded onward.
Harsh thrumming welled up behind him. He whirled around. A helicopter searchlight split the shadows a couple of blocks away, the machine flying so low it appeared to be prowling among the treetops.
Demetrius veered down a small side street. An alley appeared and he darted into it. It was twice as broad as those in his neighborhood, and ran between widely-spaced houses rather than close-set buildings. Tall trees arched over it like a tunnel. He’d be invisible to the chopper if he kept close to the densely tangled fences at the sides. He ran hunched over, feeling the whip of dry vines in his face.
At the top of the rise he crouched down, gasping for breath, hugging the rough bark of an oak tree overgrown with English ivy. The chopper hovered low, its insect legs dangling down, its roar filling his head. In horrified fascination, Demetrius watched the searchlight prod like an insistent finger around each of the houses, inching up the alley.
Surely the light couldn’t reach him under the tree, its branches still thick with leaves. But hadn’t he read somewhere that they used infrared sensors? His own body heat might be drawing it toward him. Even now the pilot might be radioing for ground reinforcements.
He turned his gaze in the other direction and made out a gate standing partially open about twenty yards away. He lunged toward it, slipped through, and pressed up against the inside of the vine-entangled fence, watching the spotlight move back and forth across the alley like a ghostly bloodhound. It was just yards away when he wrenched himself out of his paralysis and hurled himself across the black expanse of lawn toward the even darker shape of a house, the only thing big enough to swallow him from view. And swallow him it had.

Demetrius opened his eyes. Portions of the tie-dye sheet draped across the kitchen ceiling hung down in irregular shapes, like a stalactite formation. Plants fluttered everywhere like bats in the shadows. For some reason, the bizarre kitchen reminded him of the toy shop in the The Nutcracker, full of colorful toys and sweets ready to come to life in the night.
You need to watch that outta-control imagination, he warned himself. He closed his eyes, and this time exhaustion began pulling him under. But as he sank into sleep the pleasant fantasy of dancing toys changed into a more urgent scene, populated by elephants whose deep-toned warnings reverberated across empty African plains—and back to the sonorous darkness of the Rainwood House basement.
That afternoon, as silently as he could, Demetrius had changed into his clean pair of slacks and a crew-necked maroon sweater his mother had given him. He had always thought it dorky, but now he felt grateful—dorky would look unthreatening. He hadn’t dared shave without a mirror—a nice impression he’d make if he showed up with blood on his face—but hoped the little proto-goatee sprouting on his chin would further his look of harmlessness.
So who was this citizen he was pretending to be, he wondered, as he smoothed his clothes as well as possible. “Cole Robert Benson.” The name popped into his head. Softly, he repeated it aloud. ‘Cole’ might be for Nat King Cole, whom he used to listen to on his grandmother’s old phonograph. ‘Robert’ would be for Robert Kennedy, he supposed—a white liberal Demetrius had always liked. And ‘Benson’? George Benson, probably. Or maybe the Benson and Hedges cigarettes he had briefly smoked in his twenties when he was aspiring to be bourgeois.
“Thanks,” he’d told his unconscious mind, for suggesting this mild and mainstream name for his new persona. He waited for additional inspiration regarding his new identity, but nothing more surfaced. “I’ll make it up as I go along,” he resolved. “Go with the flow.”
He tucked into his waistband the little bag containing Granny Gus’s birthday money, to which he’d added about a hundred in cash he kept in his apartment. That thousand would need to last him for who knew how long, and who knew what kind of expenses. He pondered the seven thousand and change he’d squirreled away in his savings account. A decent security cushion, but how to access it? He’d passed an ATM on his trek up Bladensburg Road and had stood for some time contemplating it, then decided a withdrawal would put the police on his trail. He had resumed his trudge and for good measure had thrown away his cowboy hat a few blocks down the road, in case the ATM camera had picked up on it. No point in doing this disappearing act, Demetrius had told himself, if he didn’t do it as thoroughly as he could.
As he tugged down the cuffs of the maroon sweater and smoothed the ugly trousers, the thought had struck him that the kids in the crew, and probably most of his neighbors, would be better able to handle this situation than he was. He was too easy-going, too soft. Too ‘country.’ He should give up this crazy project of living on the lam, and go back and face the police.
But Jane’s penetrating black-eyed gaze came into his mind. “Did the reasons that made you run change?” she would ask. He pulled at a dreadlock and shook his head no. He longed for the twins, who would cut right through his fuzziness and come up with a plan.
“Just keep on with this for now,” he told himself, stuffing his sneakers and used clothing into the bottom of the duffel bag. “You got away. Now get a room.”
He heard a burst of singing above him, the woman’s voice, not the girl’s. He’d heard her sing several times during the hours he’d been hiding in her basement, in a voice much more tuneful than the child’s. He found this encouraging: people who sang had to be somewhat open-minded. He recalled her expression, “collective household.” That sounded progressive, he mused, although likely a hippy, tofu-y kind of progressive. But that was better than a fascist.
Or a racist. What if she was a racist? Latinos often were. That is, they weren’t hypocrites about it as white people often were. She might say, “The room’s been taken,” like in those studies where a black and then a white person pretend to inquire about the same job or housing and the black person is told it’s been filled, but when the white person shows up it’s suddenly available again.
If that happened, he would just…well, he would just have to think of something else.
As he brushed the dust off his bag, Demetrius wondered how he would explain his inquiry about the room if there were no sign in front of the house. Panic began to jangle in his mind. He rubbed his temples. Maybe he should do this tomorrow.
A loud gurgle jolted him. He looked down at his stomach, reminded of a scene in a Charlie Chaplin movie—Modern Times?—where Charlie and a woman sit in a room glaring at one another, both their stomachs noisily growling. Earlier, the basement had seemed a place of safety to Demetrius. Now its mood seemed to have changed, as if pushing him out, telling him, “You can’t stay here, you’ll look even worse tomorrow.” He tugged at one of his locks, imagining how he’d appear to the people upstairs, and shook his head. No woman would let a hollow-eyed, desperate-looking stranger into her home.
He didn’t dare turn on his cell phone to find out the time, fearing it would give out some identifying signal, but he could tell the day was waning. As evening approached, his chances would plummet. He took a deep breath. It had to be now.
There was one last task. He crept to the wall near the door where he’d seen some garden tools hanging on hooks, and got down some short pruning sheers. He knelt on the sack of hardened cement and snipped off his dreadlocks one by one, as close as he could to his head, wincing under the pull of the dull blade. Then he rubbed his scalp to blend the nubs together, banishing from his mind the time he’d put into cultivating his locks. Then he rummaged in his bag until he found the black beret he’d stuck in there, another gift from his mother in her campaign to nudge him away from dressing like the crew kids, something he liked to do because he felt super-comfortable—not to pretend he was ten years younger, as Jane always teased him. He planted the beret on his head, trying for a conservative angle.
He held his locks in his fist, like the stems of a bouquet, then crouched to stuff them under the sack of hardened cement. After giving his clothes one last smoothing, he eased the basement door open and mounted the steep stairway he had fallen down the night before. When his eyes cleared the top of the stairwell, he stopped and carefully scanned his surroundings. Dried grasses and vines rustled in the breeze. Above them danced a brilliant canopy of yellow, red and orange leaves. Seeing no people or any other threat, Demetrius hurried back down and picked up his bag. Softly, he pulled the door shut behind him, leaving it unlocked as he had found it, then crossed the yard on silent feet to the follow the alley he had fled through a few hours earlier. He reached the street, circled the block and approached Rainwood House as if for the first time.

Demetrius lifted his head from his makeshift pillow and took one more long look around the kitchen. With a sigh, he let his heavy lids drop, and snuggled deeper into the softness of the short couch where he lay. “Not too bad a getaway for an amateur,” he heard Jane’s voice say as his mind drifted off. “An amateur what?” he wanted to ask her, but sleep pulled him under.

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