Department of First Stories

I Believe In You

by Jeremiah K. Balko

 

“It would require someone else believing in my stuff, and that just hasn’t happened yet,” I said, only semi woe-is-me. She had asked me why I hadn’t “hit it big yet,” and I gave an honest answer to the playful question, like I do, just to spiral a bit.

“I believe in you,” she said. She stirred the sauce or whatever it was steaming in the smaller pot.

“I appreciate that.” I gave her hand a squeeze and stepped out of the kitchen to officially, literally be moving on. I meant that I appreciated her saying it, because I knew she didn’t really believe in me.

Lana had only read a couple of my things in the going on three years we’d been living in sin, and I knew they weren’t her thing. She’d happily read everything I’d ever written, if I let her. All seven million words, and perhaps seventy-five thousand of them good, and praise every one of them. That’s a wonderful thing about her, but you can’t take what she says seriously as a result, especially when it’s positive. And especially when you’re talking about writing, which is something she knows nothing about. Not to knock her—how many do? And I was glad to let her think she believed in me, even if she didn’t know what that would really mean, even if she wouldn’t know Raymond Carver from Raymond Chandler.

“What are you writing now?” she said, following me around the corner with her wooden spoon. This is what she means when she says she believes in you.

“Huh? Oh. I don’t know. Nothing.”

“Bullshit,” she said, then giggled, because she’s not one to curse.

“Surprised yourself, huh?”

She hit me with the spoon. “You write every day. You write all day on your days off. You write after work. You’re always saying things into your phone and filling up little sticky—”

“It’s just a thing about a man who sits in his car.”

“Like ‘Walter Mitty’?”

“See? It’s already taken.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s nothing yet. I leave the house every day at four twenty-five.”

“I’m aware.”

“I’m speaking to you as though—never mind.”

“No, go. I’m sorry—I didn’t get it. You leave the house every day at four twenty-five. Why do you do that, by the way? Your work isn’t till six, is it? Are you cheating on me with an insomniac? Sorry.”

“I like to take an hour and write on my laptop.”

“Go on. Sorry.”

“I have a normal job that I leave for every morning at four twenty-five a.m.”

“Is that how you’re going to leave it? Won’t editors complain? What’s normal anymore? Sorry. Go on.”

“Leaving my little condo and my excellent, though rather obsessive, gal pal, I round the corner of my cul-de-sac onto Fifty-Sixth, a little residential street which immediately runs into the main boulevard of our part of town. The light’s always red, because the lights are timed for all the boulevard traffic, but usually, if I flash my lights, it will turn green for me fairly quickly, although some say that doesn’t work, that it’s urban myth, but I’ve used the method enough times to know that the light and motion do work, even if the sensor doesn’t actually believe I’m an ambulance.”

She laughed, then said that’s funny, then said sorry, then said go on.

“On the other side of the intersection is a coffee place that usually has a bread truck sitting out in front of it at the time I leave the house, making its delivery. I see, one morning, that the driver has the keys to the place. I fantasize about how I could infiltrate the place, although I’m not sure to what end. It’s just the type of thoughts you have on those mornings when the light is unresponsive.

“This particular morning I’m a few minutes late and the bread truck is gone, but I notice something else. There’s a man sitting in a grey sedan, parked on the other side of the street and facing my direction. I’m flashing my brights and stop to see him. It seems rude to keep flashing when you know it’s hitting someone else in the face. I can still make him out from the ambient light of the intersection. He’s about fifty, keeps a perpetually serious expression, and doesn’t look my way, even when the brights are going. The light changes and I make my left turn onto the boulevard.

“The next morning he’s there again, sitting in that same sedan. This time I keep flashing, just to see if he looks my way or makes an angry gesture. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t move at all. Pure steel.

“I imagine he’s a criminal. I imagine he’s an alien. I imagine he’s a mannequin. I imagine he’s robotic but doesn’t get turned on till noon, perhaps by solar charge. I imagine he’s law enforcement. I imagine he’s on a stakeout. Do they really do those things? Maybe that’s only on TV and in the movies. And in those, he would always have a partner. Maybe it’s a stakeout, but a different sort. Staking out something nefarious. Or maybe he’s got the same idea I do about the bread truck.”

I paused here to let her know that’s what I had so far. It was likely better than what I’d actually written down—which tells you the sort of nothing I had. She applauded. I shook my head but didn’t explain to her why that just made everything she said after that worthless.

“Can I go with you?” she said. That surprised me. I would have bet all seven million words that I could have predicted what she was going to say next. At least in that regard it wasn’t worthless.

“Huh? Go where?”

“With you. When you leave for work. I want to see him.” There was something so adorable in the request, I wanted to pinch her, or pick her up and put her in my pocket.

“You sleep till noon, you lazy bum. Are you solar charged?”

“I’ll get up. I want to see him.”

I shrugged. “I can’t guarantee he goes there every morning. He’s had the whole weekend—might’ve murdered whomsoever he’s been waiting patiently to murder.”

“Oh my goodness! Can you imagine?”

*   *   *

She was in her nightclothes and a long coat and complaining that she couldn’t believe I was really going to leave without her, and I sighed and kept the door open, then locked it behind us and laughed at her scurrying in her slippers across the parking lot of the complex.

My little Mazda’s taillights flashed as I beeped off the alarm and opened the driver’s side door, altogether forgetting to be a gentleman, because it’s rarely called for at 4:25 in the morning, then walked around and opened for her, because I like to do those sorts of little things, because she’s the type of gal who appreciates them and that’s nice. I came back around and took down the sunshade and started things up and gave her a look to ask if she was ready, and she nodded rather greedily.

“You’ve really got a psychological problem,” I said, because I knew it would make her giggle.

I pulled out of our space and headed up Cypress until we hit Fifty-Sixth, and rolled that stop sign left and started flashing, just out of habit, as we headed up the maybe twenty yards to the stoplight. She touched my hand, and I remembered why she was there in the first place and quit my flashing.

She looked around as we got to the light. “Where is he?”

I shrugged. “That’s his car, though, I think.” I’m not a guy who can identify every make and model of automobile, but it looked to be a sedan and fairly grey and sitting in the identical spot.

“Let’s cross.”

“I turn here.”

“I’m not going to work with you.”

“Granted.” I flashed a few times and put the car in reverse, then pulled up again as she eyed me like a lunatic, but the sensor got it and turned things green and I crossed, then kept going as we passed the sedan, she looking past me and then back out the rear window. “Satisfied?”

“No. Why would he just leave his car?”

“He could live here, you know. Some people do. Us, for instance.”

“But why isn’t he out here?”

“He might just warm it up every morning. That’s all it ever was. I’m just pestering a man who likes to treat his engine well. No. It’s been cold. And I never saw steam coming from the car. Brother—now I think I’m on a case too.”

“Turn around.”

“No.”

Then her hand grabbed at the wheel and I gave her a look that said it wasn’t worth doing things like that, and she understood and nodded, back to normal brain again for a moment, and I waited till the next little intersection and made a U.

I pulled up behind the target’s vehicle. “Now what, Marlowe?”

“We just wait a minute. We should have left earlier.”

“Why? He hasn’t left. If he ever does. What sense does that make?”

“Just quiet.” She was squeezing my thigh nervously, the little pixie. You had to love her in these moments. Who else but she would do this?

I killed the lights and the engine. Then I put up the sunshade but left a gap where we could peek out—having panicked her outrageously for that small moment her vision had been blocked.

“We’re really doing this,” she said.

We waited twenty minutes, and I was over it and told her so. She wanted nothing of it, but my hands were on the ignition when she said, “Wait!”

I butted my face up against hers to see our man coming around the block and getting into his car. The engine rumbled and I saw steam pour from the tailpipe and I smiled to myself.

She nodded to me and I understood that she meant I should follow him and I also knew that something had changed in my brain, and very recently, because two minutes ago I would have immediately rejected the suggestion as delusional and dangerous and offering absolutely nothing beneficial long or short term. Instead, I counted to ten, then pulled down the sunshade and made the same turn that my loving partner indicated with her index finger—right, onto the boulevard.

 

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Copyright © 2022. I Believe In You by Jeremiah K. Balko

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