If you've run out of gas on a stretch of road where the telephone poles have turned to pillars of salt and you reach at last the intersection...read more where history meets the future, take off your shoes, wade into the ditch, pull aside the carrion and you'll find M.E. Parker's Hinterland Trilogy. M.E. Parker searches for beauty and love in rust and salt, for meaning and truth in the facades of wind-blasted ruins.
PATTON SNIFFED A PIECE of violet stationery. It didn’t smell Russian--not the least bit exotic. He flattened it out under the lamp. To Patton, man of many dreams, the letter read. Oh, how she adored the cleft in his chin, the way he tumbled onto the stage. The applause, the cheers and shouts made her weak. He eyed a photograph paper-clipped to the note. She was definitely refugee-chic, her hair like blonde thistle raked around her face. He crumpled the page between his hands. In the bottom of the box, he found a pair of panties, a pink polka-dotted thong.
Instead of the expected stack of bills and coupons for laundry detergent, a beat-up package, postmark scrawled in Cyrillic, had arrived in Patton’s mail, but it was addressed again to Patton Lowery, a prop comedian recently starring in two feature-length films, not Patton Lowry, the ‘e’-less bank teller from Riverside.
He finished off a warm beer, something he could never do under normal circumstances, not at ten before noon, but he was off work for a week, and his wife was visiting her parents in Toronto. Even she couldn’t drag a razor across his stubble or color-coordinate his clothes from two thousand miles away. But if she had been there when the Russian packages arrived, she probably would have put a cigarette lighter to the photographs and disposed of the panties with a pair of tongs as though they were a biohazard, and Patton would’ve had to explain that the mistaken identity wasn’t just a ruse for a real affair, and all those compliments to the man in the letter, not him, weren’t just code for “I’m having your baby, you American swine.”
“Katarina Slovenka,” Patton whispered in his best Russian accent. He supposed he might look a bit like Patton Lowery, only he, the e-less Patton, had an acne scar on his chin instead of the trademark cleft the other Patton possessed. Patton Lowery probably had longing women all over the world, Russians, Asians, redheads, blondes. He would never miss this one.
He flipped on the TV and grabbed another beer, preparing to pen his colorful response, staring first at the television then at the blank page, waiting for it to fill itself with clever phrases. First, he needed to get into character. This letter had to come from Patton Lowery, not Patton Lowry. He hopped up on his stage, the coffee table, television volume on high, sitcom laugh track roaring. He stared across the top of his TV into the lamp. He saw spots, heard the laughter. In his best imitation of the man of many dreams, he doubled over and tumbled on to the floor, his hand clenched around the Russian panties.
Meriwether went by Merri. She was named after Lee Meriwether, the 1955 Miss America, which always made it difficult for her to see her own homely reflection unexpectedly, as she did in Patton’s window. Merri pressed her face to the glass. She cupped her hands around her eyes to defray the glare and noticed a mass on the floor. “Oh, you poor silly man,” Merri whispered, wiping her hand across a condensation breath-cloud on the window.
“What a fool.” That man, she imagined, was the worst kind of idiot. He hadn’t been born stupid. He had no excuses. He stupefied himself with television and fatty snacks, always reading those celebrity magazines and watching late-night talk shows. Merri couldn’t figure why anyone would envy a celebrity. They were nothing but tight-buttocked bobble-heads pretending to hate their admirers and anyone with a camera, even as they paraded around like peacocks on amphetamines.
Where Patton coveted the life of a celebrity, Merri’s rightful place in the world would be as a caracal, crouched in the tall grass, sleek and cunning. Though he claimed to be sly, Merri had witnessed Patton’s strategic mind at work during poker night. He bluffed every hand and then folded with an ace showing against a nine of hearts. He wanted to keep them guessing, he had told her, keep everyone honest. Merri figured that the only thing people at poker night needed to guess was how much of Patton’s money they would split between them at the end of the night. But she supposed he was attractive in his own way. He possessed latent charm in the same way a cardigan sweater covered with mustard stains had potential.
Seeing Patton in his underwear, sprawled out on the floor clutching a pair of discount-store skivvies as though they still smelled of some Russian floozy named Katarina, just witnessing his vulnerabilities, reminded Merri of why she married him in the first place, why she loved him. He had dreams, pathetic though they were. And she liked having control. This was contrary to her mother’s claim that Merri had jumped to soon, saying yes to the first man who had asked.
At five before noon the next day, Merri arrived at the apartment again with a package tucked under her arm. It was a narrow cardboard box that once carried bootleg software from Russia. She checked her watch and duck-walked underneath the dinning room windows thankful it was a ground-floor apartment. She was supposed to be in Toronto after all. She had to be careful, because in the three days since he had received the first package, Merri noticed that Patton checked his mail three or four times a day, usually within minutes of delivery. She peeked around the corner in time to see the mail truck pull away from the curb and trotted to the building entrance, concealing the box under her sweater.
Once inside, Merri checked the hallways. She glanced over her shoulder before working the combination knob on the third mailbox from the top. When the door popped open, she checked up the corridor again and slid the package into the mailbox.
Patton paced from the refrigerator to the sofa, grabbing a handful of pretzels on each trip, eyeing the latest Russian package on his coffee table until he finally ripped open the box: a letter, more undergarments, and another photograph, this time of a snowy porch featuring Katarina in a bikini and a fur hat. To my funny man of many dreams, the letter began. She went on to say that she was languishing in Russia, “full of loneliness and grief and unrecognized potential,” and now she had trusted the wrong men. She desperately needed to leave Russia soon and needed three thousand dollars to do so. It originally said two thousand but the two had been scratched out and replaced with a three. She hoped by then he had come to know her from her photographs and letters and any help he could extend her would be immensely appreciated. Things being what they are in the world, funds traceable, people asking questions, her suggestion was to send her help in the form of an easily redeemable gift, instead of money, something like a pair of diamond earrings. Her twin sister, Ivana, was already in the United States, and a huge fan of his as well, and could meet him at the spot of his choosing (though Ivana was partial to Newport Beach). He only had to respond to the email address mentioned in the letter.
“Twins, oh man” Patton blurted out between sips of beer. Katarina was striking, but three thousand dollars, that would wipe out half of what he had in savings. He tried to think clearly as the bikini-clad Katarina continued to plead for help from her photograph. Patton lumbered to his living room window to lower the shades and caught sight of a heap of brown hair sliding down the wall. He watched as the familiar bottom-heavy, triangular physique trotted away. “Merri,” he scoffed through a sigh as his relaxing week alone as a bachelor evaporated. His wife was at it again, always playing games.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thought, smacking himself on the forehead. After eleven years with Merri, he still hadn’t learned. Anything out of the ordinary, he should first suspect Merri. Of course, she never could just let things go, always getting him back, throwing the past in his face years after the fact still mad that there had been a hooker at his bachelor party, something she still brought up, after it had festered and stewed into some bitter soup. Patton had tried to deny it, but Merri had thought of everything. She’d set up a hidden video camera in the hotel room where the party took place, a video she now liked to pull out and watch from time to time just to make Patton uncomfortable.
Merri had definitely pulled some wacky stunts over the years, including the time she emptied out his cologne and replaced it with bourbon. Something she did on the morning of an important job interview. It did smell funny, sure, and familiar, but he rarely wore cologne or drank bourbon. She would rather get him back than have him make more money, and now she had faked a trip to her mother’s house. Why? Then he remembered that he had forgotten, not yet, would have forgotten (had she not pulled this stunt), their anniversary.
The latest cardboard box allegedly from a Russian fan of Patton Lowery teetered on the edge of the coffee table. Patton got a running start and kicked it into the wall. He eyed the three boxes with Russian writing on them. He had to at least try to match her wit, had to think of something diabolical; he still hadn’t gotten her back for last year when she impersonated a physician’s assistant from County Hospital, phoning him that his test results were negative for Kidney stones, positive for gonorrhea. She let him twist and turn, watching him try to figure out how to break the news to her and convince her that he had no idea how he could’ve picked up the clap. Then Merri finally told him the truth. She called him a dumbass for not knowing that hospitals never reveal information like that over the phone, and if he had half a brain and not always watching some mind-numbing sit-com, he would have known that.
Merri was like one of those sidewinder missiles that thwart evasive maneuvers, following the target around corners. And she assumed he was stupid. That really burned him up. Patton took another peek out the window and shuffled over to his computer to type out an email to this mythical Katarina Slovenka, still trying to figure out how to really get Merri this time.
Merri marched away from the apartment window, back to her hotel. After eleven years of marriage, the only way to pry Patton’s wallet open wide enough for a decent anniversary present was to concoct a scheme. Patton thought she was in Toronto, probably forgot their anniversary altogether, since she hadn’t been around to remind him, probably hadn’t even tried to call her, not once. What chapped her the most was that Patton would even let her schedule an out of town trip during their anniversary. He always forgot. Though he had actually remembered their first anniversary. The envelope had read, to Merri my love. Inside were tickets to the Clippers. Basketball. And not even the Lakers. The next year, he gave her a gift certificate to a spa, even though he forgot the date (three days early), a thoughtful present she had thought, at first: massages, a pedicure, a cucumber peel. The Organic Acre turned out to be a fat spa. The third and fourth anniversaries “slipped his mind,” but she reminded him before the date passed to spare her own feelings. That fool would show up at the beach expecting Ivana to promise him delivery of an additional Russian waif, twins no less, to play with on the sly, never once thinking through his plan to the point of explaining some Russian ménage à trois to his wife.
On her way to the beach, to bring to fruition her glorious plan, Merri glanced into the driver’s side window, superimposing a pair of three thousand dollar diamond earrings to her lobes in the reflection. Merri would be the first to admit that she was short and a little chubby, though somewhat attractive, maybe more so if she would get a nose job, but she was a successful career woman, a real catch in her mind. She could’ve married Kurt, the lawyer, a partner with Gluck and Forman by now. Her high school sweetheart, Mike, would have probably asked her to marry him by now, but no, she had her eye on a pre-paunch, Patton Lowry, the loveable klutz--a big teddy bear with the stuffing coming out of the seams. It took eleven years until Merri finally came to the realization that Patton wasn’t going to get any smarter, and he would obviously never learn not to push her buttons.
As she made her way to the beach, her excitement grew, imagining those diamond earrings she so deserved for all she had put up with. Merri parted the branches of a bush and observed her idiot husband waiting for Ivana. She noticed a box in his hand. A smile grew on her face. At least that was three thousand dollars he wouldn’t be able to blow on himself.
“Merri? What are you doing here? You came back early. You’re supposed to be visiting your mom in Toronto?”
He wasn’t nearly as surprised to see her as Merri had imagined. She’d so hoped to watch him wiggle around inside his skin, muttering and stammering some-odd excuse for being ninety miles from home with a box of diamonds in his hand while his wife was out of town.
“What? Just taking in the sights? That’s so civilized of you, Patton. So, what’s in the box?” Merri cocked her head at the box, raising her eyebrows. “You look nervous. Are you waiting for someone, Pat?”
“Don’t call me that. You know not to call me that?” He wagged his finger in her face. “I hate that.”
“You didn’t think I forgot our anniversary did you? That was the old Patton.”
“Right.” Merri rolled her eyes.
“It’s eleven short years, I believe.” Patton shrugged. “Let’s see. First is paper. Fifth is wood. Tenth is tin. “He tapped the side of his head. “Eleventh is steel, I believe, depending on which list you look at.” He handed Merri the box.
She tore it open to see a pair of stainless steel earrings in the shape of crescent moons. “Patton,” she said shaking her head.
“List I saw has diamonds at 60 sixty years. Got another 49 to go.”
“Oh, you won’t live that long, Deary,” Merri said with a smirk. “I promise you that.” She pointed at him, resting her fingertip right on the end of his nose. “Well, this is probably the best anniversary present you ever got me. Don’t smile. That’s not saying much. I still don’t like basketball. And don’t tell me you didn’t fall for those Russian photos. I saw you acting like a complete fool.”
Patton slid his arm around her. Merri shrugged it off. They both stood up and ambled down the sidewalk, Patton reaching for Merri’s hand. Merri slapping it back.