Welcome to Kansas, Land of Ah's!
Though Geena Pangborn was just sixty-two miles from Barry and his family, crossing this invisible line felt like shutting and locking a door behind her. As she sensed her anxiety ebbing, Geena released a deep breath and finally popped open the forgotten can of Diet Cherry Coke that had been warming between her thighs for the last hour.
She scanned the flat landscape. Western Kansas really looked just like eastern Colorado, less hilly but still brown and crispy, field upon field of the freeze-dried remnants of last summer's corn and wheat crops. When there was a light dusting of snow on the ground, as there was now, it reminded her of breakfast cereal awash in milk.
There was not a tree to be found, save the occasional grayed, sun-bleached exoskeleton of an elm near a dry creek bed that had surrendered long ago to the bitter winds and drought of the High Plains. Born and raised in the anonymity of an apartment complex in one of Denver's older, leafy neighborhoods, Geena had really never grown accustomed to this feeling of being exposed and vulnerable. It was unnatural to not have trees and water on the surface. There was no place to hide. Why were humans the only large mammals dense enough to call this terrain home?
In her years with Barry, Geena had tried to quell this vastness; she'd planted a birch, two maples, three blue spruce, a line of poplars along the fence. All but two of them died. From her favorite vantage point of the kitchen sink, looking into the backyard, it had been hard not to run an ongoing tally of mortality.
Geena now looked over at the Rand McNally road atlas spread open on the passenger seat of her Ford Excursion. It was a map of North America's freeway system, a network of blue lines that spread across the white continent like varicose veins on a pale leg. She would have ventured west, to the safety of the mountains, but a storm had been brewing along the Front Range, and she most likely would have been forced back home. The winters of eastern Colorado were formidable, with the winds of the prairie and the snowfall of the mountains, and several times each year the highway patrol had to shut down the interstate and set up cattle gates at the entrance ramps so people wouldn't wander out, get lost, and perish in the blizzards. Geena had lost count of the times in the past eighteen years she'd been called upon to make a pan of beef enchiladas or seven-layer salad to help feed the stranded tourists spending a night on cots in the Armory downtown or in the high school gymnasium.
Eastward, she now drove. Behind her was Goodland (AMERICA'S FIRST HELICOPTER!) and Colby. On the horizon, Oakley and Hays (BIRTHPLACE OF U.S. ASTRONAUT BRAD FELDHOUSEN) . . . and then Salina (HOME OF TONY'S PIZZA). Sometime after that, Geena knew she would have to get off of I-70 and find some lesser-traveled two-lane road. Nine hours would have passed, and by then Barry surely would have canvassed every street of Sublette. Yellow Roof IGA Grocery . . . Rhonda's house . . . the Gibson's Discount Center out by the interstate . . . Mode O' Day and Renee's Wearhouse and Daylight Donuts on Leonard Street . . . there were only so many places to hide in a town of two thousand three hundred inhabitants.
She passed two Kansas State Patrol cars, parked side by side, the troopers in dark glasses chatting from their front seats like teenagers who had flagged each other down on a Friday night. In her rearview mirror, Geena watched for reaction as she passed by, and she wondered: How long would a man search for a woman he no longer loved?
Geena pulled into the parking lot of a Wendy's outside Junction City and stopped in to buy some coffee and stretch her legs. She opened the back of her Excursion to search for a Yanni CD that had been sliding around the floor for the past week and was thrilled to rediscover a dark green lawn-and-leaf bag stuffed with a schizophrenic collection of clothes she'd meant to drop off at the Goodwill Dumpster behind Pizza Hut.
Geena smiled--"I came prepared after all," she said to herself--as she opened the bag.
It was mainly Barry's clothes. Like most men his age, he'd been gaining two pounds a year, most all of it in his stomach. Geena pondered now the unfairness of how women always had to hide their stomachs with loose clothing or a forearm self-consciously draped across the fleshy rise, yet men displayed them with pride, perched atop their belts like some trophy on a mantel.
Geena pulled out dress shirt after dress shirt before coming to a T-shirt from The Stratosphere in Las Vegas . . . pairs of his athletic tube socks that he wore beneath his boots, the elastic now tired and limp . . . a red Polo shirt, a yellow one, too . . . a man's silk tie with tiny blue Viagra pills on a red background, a pharmaceutical freebie given to him by their friend Dr. Eberhart.
Suddenly Geena stopped. With utmost care, as if it were a piece of formalwear losing sequins, she pulled out the navy blue V-neck sweater that had been Nathan's favorite.
"You bastard," she whispered.
There were spans of days, sometimes up to a week, when Geena would wear this sweater every day, much to Barry's dismay. She would come into the kitchen, and he would look up from his Rocky Mountain News and give her a look of feigned concern tinged with judgment, the same look he employed when she ordered dessert in a restaurant.
And then suddenly the sweater vanished. And here it was. Geena shook it out and pulled it over her green blouse. She began again to rummage through the sack.
"There you are," she said.
It was still in the box, and it was a stroke of luck--fate?--that after all these years she had waited so long to get rid of it. Geena had received Safe-T-Man as a gag gift eight years ago at a surprise birthday party given to her by her girlfriends. ("Just in case Barry can't satisfy you," Deanna Wisehart had joked.)
She read the box: Safe-T-Man--Your escort for security on today's dangerous roads. Life-Size. Realistic beard stubble!
With a rubber head, Safe-T-Man was a handsome fellow by Euro-American standards, with blue eyes and brown beard shadow painted on and the parted acrylic hair of a conservative soap opera actor. Beneath this head dangled the body, limp like a long, expired balloon. He reminded Geena of the Resuscie Annie from the CPR class she had taken at Mile High Red Cross as a teenager.
Geena looked for and found the nipple on the upper back. And then, facing the dining room of Wendy's, she sat on the backseat, door open, and proceeded to blow. In the next five minutes a six-foot-two stranger with painted-on white Jockey briefs and a T-shirt materialized before her. His skin was bronze. He appeared to be about a size-eleven shoe.
A married couple emerged from the restaurant and approached their car, next to Geena's.
"I wish my husband looked that good without his clothes on," the woman said.
"Better watch it, baby," he said, smiling.
"Does he talk?" she asked Geena.
Cocking her head, she put her hands on her hips and drank him in. "Then he just might be about the most perfect man I've ever seen."
They laughed, got into their car, and drove away. Geena looked at the tag (Tennessee) to help her place their accent. She then held Safe-T-Man at arm's length and looked him over. He did have a nice build, broad shoulders that tapered down to a cute little butt. They'd even given him nicely rounded biceps, and for this reason Geena chose for him a clinging white T-shirt from the Muscular Dystrophy 5K run.
Geena set Safe-T-Man into the passenger seat and buckled him up. She then stood back, trying to gauge what was wrong, the way she did when she rearranged the furniture at home. It was the posture--that's what bothered her. No one sat up that straight. It was unnatural.
Geena let out some air, then reclined the seat forty-five degrees. In the backseat she found a Pioneer Seeds baseball cap, which she slipped over his hair, then tipped it forward, over his eyes, as if he were using it to shield his face from the sun.
Sleeping, Safe-T-Man accompanied Geena as she drove south on U.S. 77, out of Junction City, to someplace warmer and farther away.
A special meeting of the museum docents had been called for 7:00 a.m., and Ellis, who was usually plugged into the buzzing undercurrent of administrative happenings, had no idea why.
Hoping to find out something if he arrived early, Ellis decided to take shortcuts in his morning work-preparation ritual. Usually Ellis fried one lamb chop for breakfast each day, which he ate with a piece of rye toast with butter and one cup of black coffee. This morning, he decided to forgo the meat.
The arthritis in Ellis's right shoulder was flaring up, so he was slower than normal as he put on his clothes: khaki Bermuda shorts with elastic waist, black support hose, and white tennis shoes, his official, city-issued baby blue Polo shirt with EDISON WINTER ESTATE embroidered on the breast in navy blue thread. Everything but the shoes had been washed the night before and laid out on the empty side of his queen-size bed.
On the way out the door, he grabbed his broad-brimmed, white straw hat, the very same style worn by the famous inventor himself. For years Ellis had searched for such a hat, and then, on one fortuitous morning during his walk to work, down McGregor Boulevard, he found precisely the hat he'd been looking for. Clean and new-looking, it sat atop a pile of rubbish set out on the curb for trash pickup. Thinking it too good to be true, like a piece of fresh cheese on a mousetrap, Ellis looked over his shoulder . . . right . . . left. Surely this handsome hat belonged to somebody.
Right . . . left.
Surely they did not mean to throw it away.
Right . . . left.
Perhaps it had flown out of a passing car, and a pedestrian set it on top of the heap so the rightful owner could spot it later on.
Reluctantly, Ellis left it alone, but three hours later, during his coffee break, he returned and was thrilled to find it untouched, now warmed from a morning in the Fort Myers sun. Yes, he was certain this hat did belong to someone, but as he heard the whine and banging of the approaching sanitation truck farther down the boulevard, Ellis realized it was he and only he who could save this hat from an early, undeserved demise in the Lee County incinerator. He plucked it from the top of the trash pile, put it under his arm, and walked briskly back to work. With the help of some duct tape and a smashed, empty toilet paper roll, it fit him perfectly.
As he anticipated, Ellis arrived at the historic Edison home before anyone. The chairs had been set up in the break room in a manner he had never seen . . . in straight rows and at an angle, facing, of all things, a podium in the corner.
A podium! Where did such a thing come from?
It was oak and appeared to be new, with the seal of the City of Fort Myers on the front, which featured a shield in the shape of a U.S. interstate sign, segmented into three pictures: a thrashing silver tarpon hooked on a fishing line, a beach scene with palm tree, two oranges hanging from a branch.
The bulletin board was bare. Gone were the work schedule, and the take-out menus for Sub and Pub and Wings 'n' Ribs, and the list of local young men and women who'd been nominated that year for king and queen of Edisonia at the Pageant of Light. Gone was the photograph of Mary Ellen's new granddaughter in Dayton. Gone was Ellis's new handwritten suggestion that docents carry in their pockets a bag of tissues for runny-nosed guests unaccustomed to the prodigious amount of pollen from the subtropical flora on the grounds.
As Ellis absorbed the blankness, the door swung open and in walked a moderately plump woman dressed in a tailored black suit and very loud heels. She looked to be about thirty, and she wore the strangest glasses Ellis had ever seen . . . lemon yellow plastic frames in the shape of perfect ovals. She'd pulled her dark brown hair into a tight bun on the back of her head. Ellis thought this unbecoming; it accentuated her somewhat fleshy chin.
"Good morning," said the woman.
"Good morning," Ellis answered warily.
"You must work here."
"Yes, madame, I most certainly do."
She nodded her head, saying nothing.
"I am the senior docent," Ellis continued. "I have worked here longer than anybody. Except Larry."
"Mr. Livengood?" she asked.
"Yes. Larry Livengood. The director of the museum."
She leaned toward him to read the white plastic, lightbulb-shaped ID pin on his chest.
"It says your name is Edison. Can that be right?"
"Well, that is not exactly my name. Not my real name."
"You will notice Edison is in quotation marks. That is so people realize it is only a nickname."
"And how did you get to be called Edison?" she asked.
Ellis suddenly was distracted by a sound outside, the clatter of the rakes and hoes and other gardening tools jostling about on the back of Mike Rathbun's golf cart, which was passing outside the window.
"May I be of some assistance?" Ellis asked. "Are you looking for somebody?"
"Actually, no," she answered. "I'm new here. I start today. I'm running the meeting at seven." She offered her hand. "I'm Judith Ziegler."
"Does Larry know you are here?"
She paused, looked at the floor, then finally met Ellis's stare. "Mr. Livengood is no longer with the Edison estate."
"I beg your pardon?"
"It was in The News-Press today. Did you not see it?"
He had not. Ellis had let his mother's subscription expire after she died nearly twenty years ago. The only thing he missed was Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise; both columns were still featured in the newspaper, though they were now being written by the women's daughters. If there was anything important about the museum in the paper, Ellis read it during lunch break from the copy in the museum's employee lounge.