Judy Tu closed her office door. She went behind her steel desk and adjusted the nameplate that said, DR. JUDY TU DIRECTOR OF ENGLISH, aiming it at a forty-five degree angle facing the hallway. She straightened the In box and the Out box, making sure they were in line with the brushed chrome edging of her desk. She looked at the beige walls surrounding her and knew she was where she belonged. Minutes passed as she tidied papers, re-alphabetizing the pesky books on the bookshelves, which somehow always got out of order. From a bottom drawer, she took out a feather duster and dusted the mahogany framed banner quoting Elaine Showalter:
ONLY THE JEREMIAHS OF THE FEMINIST CRITIQUE CAN LEAD US OUT OF THE EGYPT OF FEMALE SERVITUDE TO THE PROMISED LAND OF THE FEMINIST VISION.
She turned to the wall behind her and feathered Sandra Gilbert and Susan Guber’s title: NO MAN’S LAND. She sang as she cleaned:
The feet could not stop . . .
They could not listen.
What they did was the death dance.
What they did would do them in.
And her quick feet quibbled with the floor and her little buns twitched inside her pencil-thin Prada skirt.
She was panting from all her efforts, and finally there was nothing left to do but sit in her captain’s chair and get down to business and read the grievance from that malcontent Mason.
“Okay,” she said, “Calm down, Judy Tu, get centered. You don’t want to, but darn it, you have to. When you’re in charge, you have to be a soldier and charge right in. You’ve got to get the job done. I’m doing the best I can! I know, I know. But no one else really understands how hard you’re working and that’s to be expected from the likes of them. Bunch of prima donnas. It’s killing me! Buck up now, Judy Tu. No complaints, no whining. Yes, you’re right. Go on now, read it, read this moronic criticism of yourself.”
You old pirate, thought Judy Tu. She knew that Howie had had the course ready for months. She smiled at him and he smiled back.
“She calls us conniving and mean spirited, huh?” he said, glancing at the grievance. “And she includes the dean! What a dumb mistake. Oh, I would have liked to have seen Vita’s face when she read that!”
“You know Vita, Howie. She just smiled politely and said she would smooth the way for Martha and be sure she got everything she wanted.”
Howie said, “A one-way ticket out the door.” He glared at the letter and said, “She brought it on herself. You’re not to feel guilty, Judy Tu.”
And Judy Tu said, “Martha has spread it all over the university email.”
“That putrid bitch! What a rotten thing to do.” Howie gave the grievance a kick but couldn’t get it to move. He stepped on it, leaving a shoe smear across one corner.
“Yes, but she’s cooked her goose and we’re still here and people forget things like this,” said Judy Tu. “It’s sour grapes and nastiness, everyone will see that.”
“Vindictiveness. Mean-spirited vindictiveness,” added Howie.
“That’s right. Our colleagues will see it for what it is. No one will stick up for her, no way.” Her absolute triumph over Martha Mason filled Judy Tu’s heart with pity. “The poor thing,” she said. “Her own dumb mouth did her in.”
“That’s right. It was her big mouth and her arrogance.”
“Her arrogance,” Judy Tu echoed. “Yes, she was too good to teach freshman comp. She said she had taught freshman comp for fifteen years and she wasn’t going back to it. Teaching it was a step backward, she said.”
“She blamed it on you.”
“I told her and told her it wasn’t me, it was the dean. The dean wanted more writing classes offered and there was nothing I could do about it. The dean is the dean after all.”
“Martha could never get it through her thick skull that she was only part-time. Did she really think–”
“Well, that’s the trouble right there. You let these part-timers stick around for so many years, they start thinking they’re entitled.” Judy Tu frowned. Then remembered how repulsive her lips looked frowning and she forged a smile. “Believe me,” she continued, “the dean has the right idea on that. The union can’t help them if they don’t go beyond two years.”
“Oh, that’s just so right on,” said Howie. “Don’t let them get entrenched.”
Judy Tu sighed. She felt the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. She wanted to shrug it off. But then again, she didn’t want to. “I never really wanted this job,” she said. “They begged me to take it. Who in her right mind would want all this responsibility?” She shook her head and said, “It’s too much for me sometimes. One is born to negotiate with suffering, my father says. It’s our lot in life.”
“I know, I know,” said Howie. “You’ve been a real trooper. Everybody really appreciates the job you’re doing. We all know how hard you work to keep things going. We know you have our best interests at heart. Everybody thanks their lucky stars that you’re the Chair. We call you the go-to girl.”
“The go-to girl?” Judy Tu’s heart filled with pleasure and optimism.
“The one you go-to when you need things done.”
“I try to be worthy.”
“You are! You bet you are.”
Judy Tu lowered her eyes modestly. Yes, it was a thankless job full of worries, but it had its perks. “Someone has to take the bull by the horns,” she said. Immediately, she regretted the metaphor and wished she had come up with something more original. “One is born to negotiate with suffering,” she repeated. And added, “Not to be happy but to tolerate unhappiness and do some worthwhile work, that’s what my father always says.”
“How is he?”
“Ornery as ever. You’d almost not know he had a stroke.”
“And your mother?”
“Oh, you know, disaster is just around the corner.”
Howie nodded his head. He reached out and straightened the nameplate on the desk, squaring it with the opposite wall. “You know, Ray Poe is back from sabbatical.”
“Who? Oh, him. Is he going to the meeting?”
“I hope not.”
“He’s so damn sarcastic,” said Howie. “He never agrees with anything. He’s . . . he’s so combative. Mister Tough Guy. He wants everything run his way.”
Judy Tu’s eyes narrowed. “We’ll see about that,” she said, angling the nameplate towards the door once more. She leaned back in her chair, feeling the creamy warmth of the walls, her lips smiling warmly at Howie and Howie smiling warmly at her beneath the mantraâ€“
ONLY THE JEREMIAHS OF THE FEMINIST CRITIQUE CAN LEAD US OUT OFâ€“
When Director of English Judy Tu went to the meeting there he was with his long hair and goat beard and smirky mouth. Kicking back in his blue jeans and sloppy shirt with its wrinkled pocket flaps and frayed collar, he had one foot on a vacant chair–an absurd wannabe hippie left over from the sixties. Judy Tu wanted to tell him to sit up straight. She wanted to tell him to at least try to look professional. But instead she said, “So look who’s back! How was the sabbatical, Ray? I heard you got a lot of work done.”
“Hey, Judy Q, yeah, I worked my ass off, baby. The book is finished and my agent is reading it.”
Judy Tu inwardly cringed at him calling her baby and using the letter Q as if they had some sort of special relationship. But she kept smiling. The fact that Ray had written another book made her want to throw something at him. “That’s great,” she said. “Just great!”
“Thanks,” he said. “I really enjoyed myself. Getting out of this sorry-ass place for a year was just what the doctor ordered. I was overdosing on students and administrators. I was choking on bureaucracy and bullshit.”
“Aren’t we all!” said Judy Tu. “Things are much tougher now, you know. We’ve gone from teaching ninety a semester to teaching one twenty-five minimum. It’s exhausting. They’ve cut our budget to the bone and beyond.”
The others around the table nodded. They all looked glum, worn out, their skin gray beneath the fluorescent lights. No one had given her any trouble since she had assigned classes and announced the new numbers. There had been a huge bitch session and she had bitched with the best of them, but in the end, they had all bowed their heads to the inevitable. They were putty. They even looked like putty. Judy Tu would have hated to look like her sunless colleagues, their reddish noses and pale cheeks. Mournful eyes.
“So why did you go along?” asked Ray, his hand making a general sweep of the table. “Just say no.”
Sue Jordan laughed and said, “My hero.” She winked at Ray.
Judy Tu noted the wink. Built like a fireplug, her voice a gruff, no-nonsense drawl, Sue Jordan was another one of those part-timers who had sneaked past the two-year barrier and thought she was entitled.
No one else at the table commented. Judy Tu reminded herself that Ray was the same fool he had always been, the same mouthy, anachronistic hippie out of touch with the times. He reminded her of her ex-husband always putting his foot in his mouth. Cold day in hell before she ever married another American male. She could handle Ray Poe. When she reached into her pocket to turn on the tape recorder, she coughed loudly into her fist.
“I mean, what would happen to you if you didn’t go along?” added Ray. “What if you just said no? What if I don’t make my one twenty-five quota, what will they do to me?”
Jim Stauffer offered mildly, “They got a little room where they take you.”
“Fascists bastards. Let ’em try,” said Ray. His thick shoulders rolled and his fist shot upward and he grinned. He had been a boxer at one time in the Army, a middleweight. Or was it a lightweight? Judy Tu decided on lightweight. But there he was, same old unprofessional fool, a square peg jammed into a round hole, a duck out of water, a man without a country. Well, he had a country, but he didn’t appreciate it. No one was more unpatriotic as far as she was concerned. She wondered if he was really a veteran. She wondered how she might find out if he was telling the truth. So many phonies in the world, tons of them. She looked around the table and saw that all her colleagues were wearing masks. Sue Jordan’s iron jaw gave away the contempt she felt for just about everyone. Jim Stauffer trying to look agreeable, his mouth small and inoffensive, his face saying all I want to do is slide by. And there was mousy Albert Chi-Chi who wouldn’t hurt a fly. And the godawful grinning Andrea Salter, so perpetually bubbly and saccharin sweet, she made Judy want to puke. And finally Howie Planter’s fawning eyes, his nostrils panting like the breast of a nervous bird. Judy Tu wouldn’t trust him any farther than she could throw him. He was maneuvering to be the next Chair. Judy Tu would be under him one day.
But Ray was the one Judy Tu needed to deal with now. Ray was dangerous. He was volatile and he had killed men in combat (or so the rumors said) and he was admired on campus because of the novels he had written about war and because he had an international reputation and he always got respectful reviews. He thought he was above everyone. He thought his reputation would protect him and he could say anything he wanted. He thought he could chastise his colleagues and call them cowards and sneer at them and keep that arrogant smile on his arrogant face and roll his arrogant eyes and– Oh, he was too much! How did such a one ever get on the faculty at all? And tenured too! Ridiculous.
She glanced at Ray Poe, who was still wearing that intolerable grin and doing his best to make everyone feel puny. “What a weenie world we live in,” he was saying. “They would never have gotten away with it when Dan McLeod was director.”
Judy Tu swallowed a gasp. There it was; he was slamming her! She wasn’t as good as Dan McLeod. She couldn’t handle the administrators.
“He took care of his troops,” said Ray.
At that moment, she decided Ray Poe had to go. He was a male Martha Mason, a thorn in the department’s collective side, an embarrassment with his nothing M.A. With him around, the department would never grow, never realize its full potential.
“Well, it’s ten minutes past the hour, everyone,” she said. “I guess we better get busy. Let’s look at the agenda.”
Obediently, her colleagues grabbed the agenda and looked at it carefully. All except Ray Poe, who sat staring at her and stroking his bearded chin. Who did he think he was with that little beard, Robin Hood? But that was all right. The clock was ticking for the Ray Poes of this world.
Judy Tu woke with a sense that her lungs were collapsing. She sat up gasping. What was it he had said? What the fuck you doin’, lady? You’re picking creative writing over Shakespeare?
So close in her face, she could smell his smoky breath and she had almost choked and she was glad again for her ancestors and their ability to switch off their nerves when unpleasant people were hassling them. After a few tense seconds, she had felt Buddha entering her soul. She knew she was smiling. She knew her eyes were inscrutable. She knew she had already won and that it was just a matter of time before her nemesis would be out in the cold.
She reached over to the nightstand and turned on the tape recorder and listened to him almost literally hanging himself:
“That decision,” he said, “is on a par with the hiring committee’s decree to hire a PE instructor over a poet. We need a poet, damn it! An artist! We need some heart in here. We need some humanity, some soul.” But then he had lowered his head in what Judy Tu knew was an unconscious gesture of defeat. She had done the right thing in dropping his Shakespeare course from the spring schedule.
“Actually, we didn’t want a poet, not really,” he told her, his voice smarmy with sarcasm, “we wanted a generalist, but no one would come out and say it. We wanted someone who would slip into any slot the dean wants and not whine about it and keep the conveyor belt going, keep boxing up the products we call students and shipping them into the commercial world, where they can lick the asses of this nation’s rulers waiting to chew them up and spit them out.”
“You think this is a reactionary college?” she heard herself asking.
Ray growled, “Damn right I do. Fascists are running this fucking survival-of-the-fittest goddamn country, and this un-universal university is feeding them more fodder for the corporate world. What’s the difference between us and China? Nothing. We’re both slaves to a system. Call it communism or capitalism, it amounts to the same thing. Step out of line and you’re toast.”
“Freedom, your ass. Talk to the street people or the dying middle class about freedom. Freedom to work yourself into an early grave. Freedom to beg. Freedom to starve.” Ray made a strangling noise and said, “Don’t get me started.”
There was a hissing on the recorder. This was the part where he was waiting for her to comment, so he could yell at her some more. But she hadn’t complied. There had been two people in her office, but only one fool.
“In any case, Judy Q,” he said, his voice softening, “the verbal contract I had with the former dean and director assured me that I would not have to teach two creative writing courses in any one semester. Teaching those courses drains me of every creative spark I might have. When I teach them, I give it my all and I’m drained to the core and can’t write. It’s an absurd phenomenon and an irony of fate that a fiction writer can’t stand to teach fiction. But there it is, Judy Q. It kills me to teach fiction. It’s the ninth rung of Dante’s hell. I’m asking you to be sensitive to that. Give some consideration for my years in the trenches.”
Again he waited. Again she was silent. She had had her legs crossed and was kicking her leg, making a covering noise for the slight slur of the tape recorder in the drawer.
“Okay,” he said, his voice no longer soft, “listen up, lady. The old dean and director in those days used creative writing as a pretext to hire me. The slot opened up and they asked me to fill it and I said I would if I didn’t have to teach more than one creative writing course a semester. They agreed to that, they promised me–”
Judy Tu heard herself saying kindly, “Do you have that in writing, Ray? Because if you have it in writing–”
“You know damn well I don’t have it in writing. Yeah, like I’m going to say to my good friend Dan, ‘I don’t trust you. Put it in writing, Dan.’ C’mon, get real.”
“You calling me a liar, lady? Are you saying I’m lying about it?”
“No, no, Ray. I believe you, but I can’t go to the dean and give her that story. She wants you to teach two creative writing courses and it’s going to take something really solid to change her mind. She’s adamant, Ray.”
“You’re hiding behind the dean,” Judy Tu heard him saying. “You’re pulling the strings. I’m no fool. You can’t fool me. You’re doing to me what you did to Martha Mason.”
“What happened to Martha Mason was done by Martha Mason.”
Judy Tu could hear the barely repressed rage in her voice. She hoped Ray couldn’t hear it. She was thankful when he topped her words with, “Bullshit! You are so full of shit, lady it’s a wonder you can walk. I got your number long ago when you told me you would play the race card if they didn’t give you tenure. Do you remember saying that? I knew who the fuck you were then. Everybody knew. Race card, you fucking phony. You make me sick. If you were a man I’d–”
Again she heard the hiss of her pantyhose as her leg swung harder, her foot bouncing-bouncing. She could hear him standing up, the chair chirruping on the tiles. “You should have fought harder for me, Judy Q,” he said, his voice now surprisingly grieved and docile. “I would have fought my ass off for you had our positions been reversed.”
“The dean–,” she started to say.
Gently, almost whispering he cut her off with, “Fuck the dean and fuck you.”
She heard him leaving the room, the door not slamming like she thought it would, but softly closing, the lock clicking softly into place.
Judy Tu turned the recorder off and called her mother in Scottsdale and the two of them chatted for an hour and she told her mother all about Ray Poe and what a burden the directorship was and how the college was working her half to death. Her mother’s voice soothed Judy Tu. “I wish you lived closer,” her mother kept saying. “You’re still our baby girl, you know.”
“You know your father. We’re born to negotiate our suffering. But not in silence, huh? Some days, honey, I turn off my hearing aid.” Her mother laughed. Then added, “When people lose everything, that’s when you know who they really are. That’s when you know who you really are too.”
“When will you come visit?”
“Soon, Mommy. Very, very soon.”
Judy Tu hung up feeling sad but also secure in the knowledge that there was someone on earth who gave her unqualified love, and understood her and would support her no matter what.
She got into the shower and stayed a long time, using up the last of the bar of Dove soap and all the hot water in the tank. She dried her hair and fixed her face and got dressed and drove to work and tried to listen to the classical station but it was full of static.
“Life is full of static,” she said and she thought of Ray Poe. She had overheard him talking to someone in his office and threatening to resign. He had said that everyone was blithely dismissing the promises made to him and he wasn’t going to stand for it. She heard him touting his Shakespeare course as the most popular course on campus. Which it was, of course, but what did that matter? Experienced as he was, he hadn’t learned what really mattered about life–the ability to go along to get along. Judy Tu had known that little fact since grade school. Why butt your head against a wall? Give power what it wants, make it believe you are a team player, and someday it will give you what you want. It was just that simple. Judy Tu wanted to be dean of the college of arts and sciences. A dean and then vice-president of something. Someday in the not too distant future, she would be one of the few female college presidents in the country, guiding her university and winning respect and the rights of women. OUT OF THE EGYPT OF FEMALE SERVITUDE TO THE PROMISED LAND OF THE FEMINIST VISION. She had every confidence in herself. She knew she was special. She knew she had what it takes.
Judy Tu parked her car in the faculty parking lot and pulled her briefcase from the back seat. When she stood up, she noticed two men staring at her. No, they were looking at the back of her car. One man said something to the other and jerked his thumb her way. She almost said, “May I help you?” But she caught herself in time. She knew what they would do. Men always hit on her. They always said things like she was hot or she was cool or she was a major fox. “I’d like to turn you upside down and eat you like an ice cream cone,” a man had told her once.
Judy Tu shuddered at the memory. She walked to the back of her car and saw what the two men were staring at. Someone had put a bumper sticker there that covered the width of the lid, just above the BMW insignia. In bold letters the caption read: BITCH ON BOARD.
Instantly, she knew who did it. It was just what he would do, the underhanded, vicious backstabbing–.
She clawed at the sticker, clawing at a corner, trying to peel it back, but maddeningly it stuck, maddening little pieces peeling off. It would take her forever. She had a class to go to and a meeting of directors after that. She whirled facing the men.
“What’re you looking at!” she said.
“Whoa, honey,” said one.
“Cool it, baby,” said the other.
“Don’t you dare baby me!”
They walked away, sliding between the cars as they headed toward the commons, their sniggers filling the air.
Judy Tu took a lipstick and ran bright red smears across the caption. It didn’t work. In fact, it made things worse, made the black letters shine as if they had been varnished. She looked at her watch.
“I’m late. I’m never late,” she said. Her throat tightened. Tears started in her eyes. “No, you will not cry, Judy Tu,” she said. “Tears are no fair! No whining!”
She stomped off toward the Arts Building where her critical-thinking class was waiting. The hell with it, she told herself. Bitch on Board, she would show him Bitch on Board!
He came into the dean’s office and sat down, sprawling and untidy as usual. “Judy Q,” he said smiling. He looked at the dean. “What’s this all about?” he asked.
“Someone put a bumper sticker on Dr. Tu’s car.”
“No shit? What does it say?”
“I know you did it,” said Judy Tu.
“It says I KNOW YOU DID IT? What did you do, Judy Q?”
“Quit calling me that!”
Ray’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s going on, girls?”
“Like hell I do.” He looked genuinely puzzled, but he wasn’t fooling her.
“It says BITCH ON BOARD,” said the dean.
Ray pressed his lips together struggling to contain himself. Then he threw his head back and laughed. And said, “Wow, have you been driving around with that? Think of it, every car behind you reading BITCH ON BOARD. Oh man, that kills.”
Judy Tu’s throat was so tight she couldn’t speak. She tried to clear her mind. A disturbing heat seared her face and she wondered if she looked flustered. Don’t frown, don’t frown, she cautioned.
“Okay,” said Ray, clearing his throat. “I get it now. You’re saying I did it. You’re saying I put that sticker on your bumper.”
“It’s on my trunk, actually.”
“Oh?” he said. “You know that could be tough on the paint. But look, I didn’t do it, Judy Q. It’s not the sort of thing I would think of. No, I might disable your car, maybe. Maybe slash your tires or steal your distributor wire.” He sat up, leaning forward, elbows on knees. “Let me tell you a story. When I was a kid, I worked in a bowling alley setting pins. Yeah, that was definitely a long time ago. It was in this old joint that didn’t have automatic pinsetters. But I was so fast I could service two alleys at a time. There was no wage. We made our money on tips.” He paused, his eyes seeming to see something in another dimension. “So anyway, there was this boss man and he didn’t like me. I don’t know why exactly, but you know how it is. Personalities clash. So he fired me one night when I came in. I didn’t ask him why. People do what they do and who gives a fuck why. Lots of sonsabitches in this world.” He arched an eyebrow at the dean and at Judy Tu. “I learned that little truth by the time I was six or seven,” he said. “Sonsabitches and bitches everywhere. So what the hell, I left the bowling alley. And then about a week later, a cop shows up at my house and this cop says I have to go with him to the station. He wouldn’t tell me the reason. When we got there, he led me inside and there sits this oily-haired, fat-lipped bastard from the bowling alley. I ask him what’s up. And he says to me, ‘I know you did it’.” Ray paused. “Sort of just like you, Judy Q. You see, somebody had slashed his tires, all four of them. He had a Cadillac and somebody had put it on its knees. What kind of car do you have, Judy Q?”
“No I don’t.”
“I’m not telling.”
“Okay, whatever. My point is, that fat bastard accused me without any proof. The cops got rough with me, but fuck them, I wasn’t going to confess to something I hadn’t done. They kept me in jail overnight, but the next day they had to let me go. Guess what happened to the new set of tires that bastard bought. And the set after that. Until the game got old, he had to buy an awful lot of tires.”
“He’s threatening me,” said Judy Tu.
The dean leaned forward and looked at Ray Poe over the rim of her glasses. “I better not hear of anymore stickers on Dr. Tu’s car.”
Ray nodded. “Whatever you say, Vita. But you better find the right guy to say it to. Judy Tu here has more enemies than she can imagine. So do you, Vita. You and Judy Tu and Howie, the bug-eyed barracuda. My, my I would be very nervous if I were you, if I had all the enemies you and Howie have made around here.”
The dean’s mouth was open in astonishment. Judy Tu felt herself blinking in disbelief. Had he actually said that? “How dare you, Ray! I’ve sacrificed everything for this department! I’ve–”
“You’ve taken a bad situation and made it worse. You and Vita and the rest of these ass-licking administrators have demoralized an entire college. Open your eyes, take a look. It’s you, Judy and it’s you, Vita.”
Before anyone could reply he was out of his chair and out the door.
Judy Tu looked at the dean. “Now do you see what I’ve had to endure?”
“He’s dangerous,” said the dean.
“He’s the most dangerous person in our department,” added Judy Tu.
A week went by and nothing happened. Then one morning, Judy Tu came in and saw BITCH ON BOARD stuck to Howie Planter’s office door. Her first reaction was relief that Ray hadn’t gone after her again. But relief changed to outrage when she came to her office and there was a BITCH ON BOARD for her too. “Oh, this is . . . this is . . . this is so unfair!” she cried. She marched right down to his office and entered without knocking.
“Come in,” he said.
“How dare you!”
“Oh, you bas–”
“Now, now, Judy Q. Careful.”
“Are you going to keep doing it?”
“Got another bumper sticker on your car?”
“You know damn well where it is.” She looked towards the hall.
“Let me see,” he said.
He hurried to her office and saw the BITCH ON BOARD and saw the one on Howie’s door. “Geez,” he said, “Somebody really don’t like you guys. This is kind of crazy. I mean, only someone half off his rocker would do a thing like this.”
“No, you got that wrong, lady. You don’t need to be afraid of me. No, whoever is doing this is sending you warning signals. I’d call these posters the first shots across your bow. I’d watch my step if I were you. Maybe get a bodyguard, I’m serious. Someone is stalking you. Someone wants revenge, Judy Q. Be careful, okay? I wouldn’t want anything happening to you.”
He went back to his office and Judy Tu stood awhile feeling waves of fear running through her and thinking, He’s stalking me. He wants revenge. What’s he going to do? She didn’t know any bodyguards. She wondered how people hired them. How much did they cost?
His threat preyed on her mind all day. She mumbled through her classes and a committee meeting and couldn’t get her heart to settle down, couldn’t get the dry fear out of her mouth. Everywhere she turned, she saw Ray Poe watching her. He would peek from behind pillars, watch her from a second story window. He was on the roof. In a tree. In the bell tower. At the top of the stairs and then at the bottom of the stairs. By the time the day was over, Judy Tu was sick to her stomach and dizzy. She went into the bathroom and stuck her finger down her throat and threw up.
She wanted to talk to Howie, but he wasn’t in his office, so Judy Tu went home. She called and left a message for Howie, told him to watch out for crazy Ray. Then she called her mother and father and asked if she could come visit for a few days. Of course they were thrilled. Judy Tu told them she would be there in about seven hours. She would stay for four days at least. She didn’t have to be back until Tuesday. She hung up and hurriedly packed some things. When she put the suitcase in her trunk, she could see the slightly faded place where the sticker had been. She had scrubbed it off with water and 409. A long, thin banner shape, like the ghostly shadow of a two by four, was still there. She slammed the trunk and headed for Interstate 8.
Once on the road, she finally relaxed. She called her mother on the cell phone and told her she was on the way. She listened to classical music and when the station faded past Alpine, she switched to CDs, Bach, Mozart, Brahms. The music calmed her and she found that for the first time all day she was hungry.
In Yuma, she stopped at JACK IN THE BOX and had a hamburger and a Coke. She was feeling better and better. So good in fact, that she thought she might just turn around and go back. But then she thought of Ray Poe waiting to strike and she decided to keep going. She would definitely do something about him. Her father would know what to do. Nobody messed with her father. Stroke or no stroke, he would follow her around with a shotgun if he had to. Four days with her father and everything would be fixed.
It was nearly dark when Judy Tu headed up two-lane 95 toward the junction of 10. Forty-five minutes out of Yuma, she was rounding a curve and saw a fat stick in the road and her reflexes took over. She swerved and lost control for a moment and went off the edge of the pavement, hit some rocks and blew out a tire. The car slid to a stop. She sat behind the wheel shivering.
“Boy, that was close,” she whispered. “Boy, oh boy.”
After a minute, she regained her composure and got out of the car, the door clicking softly behind her. She looked at the stick and saw it moving, curling itself into what looked like a . . . like a huge beret? Yes, or a Frisbee, maybe. Or a basket lid. Pleased with the similes, she whispered, “Rattlesnake. Rattler, gross city. Should’ve run over it.” When it didn’t move towards her, she went around to the other side of the car and inspected the damage. The tire had a huge gap in the side as if it had been slashed.
“Ray Poe,” she said. And she saw him working on the tire, slicing it cord by cord, almost through but not quite, leaving it weakened and ready to blow. “God forgive you, Ray Poe,” she said. “What a low-down, mean bastard you are.” She could see him gloating, his smile hovering. She was living in a dangerous world, a world full of monsters–a world full of victims, especially random female victims. Turning round and round, her eyes took in the desert dotted with cacti and brush and dwarfed trees and burnt hills beyond and the odors of desiccation and dusty plants searing her nostrils. She knew bodies were buried out there, off the apron of the road, in shallow graves, bones numberless, dumped by serial killers and scattered by animals. People just disappeared. Vanished. And not one trustworthy man to help a stranded lady change a tire. Ray would have the strength to use the wrench thing and get those chrome nuts off. Yes, and it wouldn’t surprise her one wit if he had been following her and was out there, a watcher waiting to see what she did. Waiting and sniggering, hoping the snake would chase her, hoping to hear her scream or cry or beg for mercy.
She would show him a thing or two.
Judy Tu marched to the trunk and then realized she didn’t have her key, and she wasn’t really sure where the jack went anyway, or how it worked. She decided there was no need to exert herself so much. She would just call a tow truck and wait in the car.
She went to the driver’s side and pulled the latch, but the door wouldn’t open. She blinked and the thought ran through her mind that what was happening couldn’t be real. She pulled and pulled on the door. How could it be locked? It couldn’t be!
“No! No!” she wailed.
Had she locked it when she got out? Very likely she had. It was such a habit from living in the stolen car capital of California that she even locked her car when she parked it in the garage. Yes, she must have absentmindedly hit the button as she was getting out. She stared through the window, at the comfortable, plush leather seats, the lacquered cedar-grained console in the middle. She could see her cell phone in its holder, green eye glowing.
“Oh, you fool, how could you? Oh, this is so stupid.” She stomped around for a second in anger. But the snake, which was twenty or thirty yards away, started rattling its tail. The air around the snake glowed bluish, a bluish halo. An uninspired cricket sang a temperate note in some brush close by. Soft wind scuttled leaves and grains of sand over the highway. The wind dried her mouth, her dusty tongue.
Judy Tu took a calming breath and said, “Get a hold of yourself, go-to girl. Break the window. What does it matter? Insurance will pay for it.”
She struggled with a big rock and managed to get it chest high and slam it against the passenger-side window. The glass cracked into a web-like pattern but didn’t break. She took a smaller rock and hit the glass again. And again. No matter how many times she hit it, the glass wouldn’t give.
“What kind of window is this?” she asked. Then she remembered the salesman saying something about the windows being shatterproof. “It would take a two-hundred pound man with a sledgehammer to get into this car,” he had said.
Judy Tu’s bowels went watery. Her anus puckered and itched. She stared at the Saguaro and prickly pear cacti and other flora she couldn’t name surrounding her like a prison. The snake had stopped rattling. But she could see his stiffened tail six inches high and she knew he was watching her.
“All right, no whining,” she said, “I’m still in charge, the hell with this.” She knew she was closer to Interstate 10 then the 8. She would just walk it, that’s all, and if a car came along, she would see its lights from far off and she would hide. No use taking any chances on perverts. When she got to Quartzsite, she would get a tow truck. Things like this happened to people all the time. She could handle it. She straightened her shoulders and started walking and felt comforted by the warm pavement seeping through the soles of her shoes.
“March, march, march,” she ordered. “He’ll see . . . ha, he’ll see what I can do.”
Cadaverous Howie Planter with his popping eyes, flaring nostrils and triumphant smile came to mind. He winked obscenely from behind her desk and reached over and squared her nameplate. Only it was his nameplate, not hers. And she saw how easily things had changed–as if there had never been a go-to girl.
She looked over her shoulder and saw her car glinting in the night. She could hear its motor idling. There was warmth inside. The rattler had disappeared. She walked faster, her eyes searching. Was he following her? Was that a rattle she just heard?
Six hours later, Judy Tu had walked out of her shoes (they were killing her) and now her feet were blistered and bleeding and cold. She was horribly cold all over and utterly exhausted. Do people die like this? she wondered. And she knew that people did.
What they did would do them in.
“No, I won’t die,” she decided. “I refuse to let him win me.” Or was him a her? For some reason, Martha Mason entered Judy Tu’s thoughts. Mighty director, my ass! You’ve been nothing but a disruptive force since you got the Chair. You and that pirate Planter!
Enemies everywhere. You just try to do your job as best you can and all you do is make enemies. Why? Why? Jealous, that’s why. It wasn’t fair. Nothing was fair.
“I’m so tired of . . . of this . . . this–” She racked her brain for a metaphor, but nothing happened. “To hell with Aristotle.”
A few yards from the road, Judy Tu saw a scraggly tree with a stunted log lying in front of it. The little log had a chair-like depression in its center. She went to it and sat down. She was shivering so hard her teeth rattled and she thought of the rattlesnake. How his blood would be cold now he wouldn’t be able to move. And she would be able to walk right up and drop a rock on his head. And there would be nothing he could do about it! She wished she knew where he was. She would definitely fix him.
Judy Tu crossed her arms and hugged her heart. Six hours of hiking and scurrying off the road to hide from cars going by full of murderers and it felt like she had done it all for nothing, like she was moving inside a surreal box full of cacti and brush that never changed. Where was that town, that Quartzsite, where the tow truck would be? Where was her car? The snake? And, God oh God, the temperature was freezing. Everywhere were the same shadows and vague ribbons of blue-black air and silhouette after silhouette of manly Saguaros on all sides. She imagined herself inside a meat locker full of carcasses. All her world bar to bar, wall to wall. Nowhere to go.
After a while, the shivering stopped.
Stopped also was the churning in her bowels. And she could no longer feel the lacerations in her feet. All she needed to do was close her eyes and sleep through it. This vile dream. “This Egyptian female servitude of a desert hell,” she said aloud. And she paused and repeated it in her mind–Egyptian female servitude of a desert hell. “There’s a metaphor that works! Ha! Take that, you bald bastard.” She stomped her freezing feet, felt them stinging. Take that! And that!
Yes, and the metaphor was a good omen. It meant everything would change tomorrow. The sun would come up and warm her blood and she would walk to the crossroads and get help. Just a short sleep away and then Judy Tu would wake from life and put things in order, lined up precisely at their proper angles again. For a while longer, she would have to negotiate with a private war of suffering that had come upon her unearned. But then her suffering would end and she would be back in her office, safe in her captain’s chair–Director of English Judy Tu finding some worthwhile work to do.
Her feet had slowed to a rhythmic shivering that was out of her control. She wanted to get some sleep, butâ€“
The feet could not stop . . .
They could not listen.