Reruns Rezoomed: a Serial Novelby Jonathan Baumbach
After Jack and Leonora move in with Molly and Donald (Jack’s replacement), Leonora and Donald run off together. And just as Jack and Molly seem to be getting back together, Molly also disappears, apparently the victim of a kidnapping, leaving Jack alone in his former apartment.
Anticipation tends to defeat itself. The house was empty on my return, but there was a letter concerning Molly waiting for me in the vestibule. It was poorly spelled, mostly ungrammatical and eccentrically punctuated, though its intent was undeniable. The gist of it was, that if I wanted to see Molly again alive and unharmed, it would cost me a hundred thousand dollars in small bills. This was their sale price, they said, a bargain considering the value of the hostage. They would contact me again (reported in a postscript) concerning arrangements for the transfer of the money.
One hundred thousand was a lot to ask for a woman who was no longer my wife. When I looked closely, I noticed the letter was actually addressed to Donald. I gave a sigh of relief until it struck me that in Donald’s absence—I had no way of getting in touch with him—the burden of Molly’s safety was in my impoverished hands.
The last I checked I had 812 dollars in the bank and another 200 in one of my socks so if I was going to ransom Molly, I needed to raise 99 thousand more or less however it might be done. I tried to be systematic, which had never been my strong suit. I could either steal the money, gamble for it, or take out a loan. Borrowing seemed the least fraught of my limited options, particularly if I didn’t have to pay the money back any time soon.
Pacing the hallway, wandering the various empty rooms of the house, accruing desperation like moss, I had a brainstorm. 99 thousand would seem like chump change to Molly’s business exec father. So I phoned Buck, who I wasn’t even sure was still alive, from an old number which yielded another and then another. He was in a hospital somewhere in California, a woman with a husky voice told me, and was not expected to return home. He was in the cryogenics ward, though no irrevocable decisions about his future had yet been made.
I took down the hospital number, and knowing it was a longshot, expecting nothing, I got Buck on the phone at first try. “Good to hear from you,” he said, though he had no idea who I was. “How much is this going to cost me?”
I laughed, though I knew he wasn’t joking. “The money is not for me,” I said. “It’s for Molly, your daughter Molly.”
There was a prolonged silence at the other end.
“Are you there, Buck? I’m calling about Molly.”
“Whatever she may have told you about me, it’s all lies,” he said.
“It’s not about what you did. She’s being held for ransom by kidnappers.”
“She’s just a child,” he said. “If you showed yourself in person, old as I am and sick as I am, I’d break you in half. You hear me?”
I explained that I was the one trying to get her released, but he persisted in confusing me with the kidnappers.
“How much would you take to let my little girl go free?” he asked in a bullying voice.
“Buck, I want her free as much as you do,” I said. “The kidnappers are asking a hundred thousand dollars.”
“Would you take 50?” he asked. “50 is a very generous offer.”
“Anything you’d be willing to give would help,” I said, “but to get her released I have to raise 100 thousand.”
“Get a real job, you bum,” he said. “I’m willing to pay 40. Take it or leave it. And I want her back all in one piece. You haven’t removed any parts, have you? I want everything put back in its original place or we have no deal.”
At this point, someone, a nurse perhaps, took the phone and asked me to identify myself. I said I was a former son-in-law calling about his daughter.
“I can’t allow you to upset him,” she said. “If you told me what you wanted, perhaps I could present the news to him in a way that would disturb him less.”
I wasn’t prepared to discuss the issue of Molly’s ransom with someone I’d never met. “It’s a personal matter,” I said. “It’s also urgent.”
“Is it?” she said. “I’ll give you two minutes to tell me what this is about and then I’m hanging up. Is that clear?”
I lost about 40 seconds reviewing my alternatives and then I told her as succinctly as possible the problem I faced. She laughed when I finished my story.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” she said. “I hope that’s the appropriate phrase. I’m here to tell you that Henry no longer has any money in his own name. It was all….”
“Henry?” I said, interrupting her. “I was led to believe the man I was talking to was my former father-in-law, Buck.”
“Oh no,” she said. “Henry has been given Buck’s bed. Of course we changed the linen. Buck was frozen two days ago.”
While waiting for the kidnappers to get in touch, I emptied my bank account into small bills. They may have been watching me. I got a call the next night and a muffled voice asked if I had gotten the money together. “Not all of it,” I said, which was a major understatement.
I could almost hear the grinding of the mental machinery on the other side of the line. “What is that supposed to mean? Maybe you don’t want your wife back in one piece. Maybe you don’t want to see the little woman ever again.”
“When we split up—the truth is, she dumped me—I used to feel exactly that way,” I said.
“We might be able to take a little less,” the muffled voice said, “but then we can’t guarantee the condition you’ll get her back in. How much you got?”
I was embarrassed to tell him. I wasn’t always this broke. It was alimony payments on several fronts that had reduced me to my present circumstances.
“Can you come up with 75?” the voice asked.
When I hesitated, he said, “What about 70. You can put together 70, cowboy, huh?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said.
“We’re not doing a fire sale here? Tell me what you’re willing to spend, cowboy, and I’ll tell you whether we can make a deal.”
I mentioned the money I had taken from the bank and what it combined to when added to the money I had stashed in a sock.
“No way,” the voice said. “Just setting up the operation cost us twice that amount. Do you think we’re in business to lose money?”
“Look, I sympathize with your position,” I said, “but the thousand is all the money I have in the world at the moment.”
“If that’s your story,” the voice said, “—is that your story, cowboy—then all I can tell you is that you’ll never see your former wife again.” He hung up the phone, or we were cut off from another source, before I had opportunity to announce my regrets.
For the next hour or so, I was at loose ends, envisioning Molly’s desperate situation while regretting my inability to save her. I remember her saying years back, right before she asked me to leave, that she couldn’t trust her life to me. I had denied it as if both our lives depended on my denial and she had said, “Time will tell.”
I was almost prepared to acknowledge that Molly had been right when a knock on the door followed by a ringing of the doorbell, followed by the click of a key in the lock, distracted me from my thoughts. It figured that the intruder was one of the kidnappers, who had gotten the key to the house from Molly’s purse. I looked around for a weapon and, finding nothing that answered to the moment, I settled for Donald’s bowling ball which was nestling among his shoes at the back of a closet. It seemed a particularly heavy ball but I lodged my fingers in it and I was swinging it laboriously back and forth to familiarize my muscles with its heft.
I could tell from the sound of running water that the intruder was in the downstairs bathroom, washing hands or peeing or perhaps even taking a shower.
I tiptoed my way down and waited impatiently for whoever it was to emerge, the bowling ball in readiness behind my back. The phone rang and it felt as if the sirens were calling to me, but just when I decided to leave my post it stopped. Momentarily, the ringing resumed.
Molly came out of the bathroom, unaware of my presence behind the door, and headed for the kitchen phone. “You’re alive,” I said unable to control my astonishment, the bowling ball slipping from my fingers with a terrifying bang, turning Molly’s head.
“You scared me,” she said. “Is that Donald’s ball that’s rolling across the floor? He doesn’t even allow me to touch it.”
I ignored her complaint. “How did you get away?” I asked.
“You don’t even have the right to ask,” she said. “Why don’t you just get out of here, okay?”
When I said that I would leave as soon as I could get my stuff together, she seemed almost disappointed. “There’s no rush,” she said. “In any event, I’m going to be away for the next two weeks. The kidnappers are waiting for me in the car. We’re going to this adorable island off the coast of Maine.”
“No,” I said.
“Don’t worry so much, Jack,” she said. “It’s going to be all right.” She came over and gave me a quick hug as if someone who disapproved might be watching.
“I’ll call the police,” I said, which was a concession on my part—I never called the police. “You don’t have to go with them.”
“When they elected not to kill me,” she said, “I felt this sudden surging affection for them. They’re not such bad guys when you get to know them. Sweetheart, I’ll be back before you know it. Promise.”
I stepped out of her way and she was gone.
It would have helped had I found out where Molly was going—what island off the coast of Maine—before I decided to rent a car and go after her. The worst was stopping for the sexy hitchhiker, for which I plead loneliness and boredom and persistent sexual itch. She had a baby face—she was likely older than she looked—and there was something appealingly (even appallingly) shy about her.
Once I had stopped for her and she had eased her way into the seat next to me, tossing her backpack in the back, there was no way of undoing my impulsive decision.
I made small talk, asked her how long she had been waiting and where she was going.
She neither answered nor looked in my direction, seemed to be focused on whatever lay ahead.
There was something odd about her, though I couldn’t say what it was. Stopped for a light, glancing at her, I rephrased my original question.
“Wherever this bus goes,” she said, emphasizing each word, a sly almost eerie smile punctuating the remark and then disappearing almost instantly.
She was wearing dark glasses and carrying a canelike stick which folded up into something not much larger than a pencil. If she was blind, which was my first impression, how did she see to get into the car?
“I’m going to Maine,” I said—we were still in New Hampshire at the time—“and I’ll be driving along the coast. So….”
When you’re riding in a car with a silent person, there is a temptation to fill the void. I told her about the first time I had been in Maine and the story branched off into areas I had not intended to enter.
She said, “Uh huh,” at approximately five minute intervals. At some point, when my story was losing its impetus, she said, seemingly under her breath, “Would you be interested in a little fun?”
I knew what she meant and yet I couldn’t believe that she meant it. I suddenly noticed that we were getting low on gas—the fuel sign was flashing—but from the look of things we were miles away from the nearest station.
A few miles down the road a Mobil station appeared in the distance but it disappeared like a mirage as soon as I approached. And after that, a Gulf and an Arco offered themselves only to disappear before I could reach them. There was even a local brand—Ouija Gas—that was similarly evanescent.
The next time I looked over at my companion, there was a small gun in her lap. “Take the next left,” she said. “Don’t make me ask twice.”
“Look,” I said, “I need to find a gas station in the next few minutes or we’re not going anywhere.” I pointed out the flashing light.
“You should have been more careful,” she said. “What kind of father are you?”
“Who said I was a father? Who have you been talking to?” She lifted the gun and kissed the barrel in a provocative way. Another Ouija station appeared and I headed toward it, quixotically hopeful as always, the car beginning to cough and fart in desperation.
This time the station didn’t fade into smoke as I approached it and I had a moment of elation but then the motor died and I was stranded approximately 7 feet from the nearest pump. I sat in the car with my head in my hands.
“I might have known,” my companion said. “Nothing you do ever comes to anything.”
“I need you to help me push the car,” I said.
“I don’t do pushing,” she said, slipping the gun inside her pants.
Just as I was getting out of the car, three burly men I hadn’t seen before came over and offered to help. They got behind the car while I worked the steering wheel, but their first series of pushes, accompanied by ear-piercing grunts, were to no effect. I realized that I had forgotten to release the emergency break and I waved a hand in apology.
As I released the break, the car shot forward and when it finally skidded to a stop we were as much past the second pump as we had been behind the first one before.
One of my helpers approached the driver-side window and said they had done what they could and now had to get back to their other business. I said that one more push from the other side might do the trick.
“Sorry, cowboy,” he said. “There’s only one person in town who gets off on pushing from the front and he’s gone to his reward.”
I noticed that one of the other burly guys was talking to my passenger and she got out of the car and followed him into the convenience store that adjoined the pumps.
Relieved of her weight, the car rolled backwards a foot or so, barely improving my position. I got out, opened my gas tank (which had an awful smell) and stretched the gas pump hose to its limit. Straining the hose a few inches further, I could just about reach my tank with the point of the nozzle.
As I was filling up in this awkward manner, I was distracted by the unlikely sound of a car backfiring inside the convenience store. How odd, I thought.
When it finally struck me what the series of explosive sounds signified, my passenger had returned and we were on the road again, looking for the left turn I had missed the last time around, a smoking gun lying heedlessly in her lap.
It isn’t that all hotel rooms look alike. Or, come to think of it, maybe it is. In any event, when we entered Unit 13 at the Hope’s End Motel in single file, my last concern was the general demeanor of the room I was entering at gun point.
My companion, who still hadn’t removed her dark glasses, wanted an offspring, or so she said, and had chosen me to be its father.
Why me? I wanted to ask, but I could see the question had no meaningful answer.
I sensed that as soon as the transaction was completed, she would kill me so it was in my best interest—my only interest— to stall for as long as possible.
I suggested we first tell each other something about ourselves to take the edge off our strangeness.
“You no longer seem strange to me,” she said.
“Strange may not be exactly what I mean,” I said. “I need to feel sympathetic to the woman I’m with before I can perform.”
“Really?” she said, sticking a hand in my pants to test my claim.
“We need to tell each other our stories first,” I said. “Tell me something about yourself. For starters, what’s your name?”
She seemed perplexed by my question, her otherwise perfect forehead furrowed. “You can call me Mary. I don’t remember how I got here. I’ve tried to remember but I can’t. Satisfied?”
“Every man wants to fuck me, so why are you different?” she said. “You wouldn’t believe my story if I told it to you.”
It’s hard to explain, given that my life was at risk, but her innocence moved me. “I know you don’t lie,” I said. “I’ll believe what you tell me.”
“I’m not from here,” she said.
It took me a few minutes to take in what she meant by “here” and by the time I figured it out we were already doing the dance.
To be fair, to put the best possible light on it, she fucked like an extra-terrestrial, which was something of a turn-off.
As I later learned, she was a hybrid, part ET, part humanoid, a scientific experiment gone awry. She was interested in others only in so far as they served her basic needs, which were survival and reproduction.
Mary had a particularly long, reptilian tongue and when we kissed open-mouthed it actually did reach down my throat, an odd not quite comfortable sensation.
I resisted climax, which made her impatient, told her I had meds in the glove compartment of the car that enhanced sexual performance.
“How do I know you’ll return?” she asked, riding me with a vengeance.
I measured my words, my life most likely in the balance. “I want you to have my child,” I dissembled. “I sense a sweetness in you, Mary, that you’ve never been fully in touch with.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, seeming to blush under the glare of the overhead light. “You can go to the car for your meds, as you call them, but if you don’t come back, I’ll make you sorry. I’ll follow you to the ends of the cosmos if it comes to that.” A reptilian claw extended from her finger and she left a scratch mark under my eye.
I had no doubt she meant her threat. I put on my coat, leaving my neatly folded clothes on one of the matching dressers as hostage to my return.
Waiting for me at the car were a scientific team composed of three men and two women dressed in green hospital scrubs and armed with flame throwers. The apparent leader of the group showed me a blurred photo of Mary, which I reluctantly identified.
“She’s already killed five men,” he said.
I wasn’t surprised. “She doesn’t seem so bad when you get to know her,” I said.
They asked me to wait around so that I might identify the remains after they completed their “intervention,” as they called it. I couldn’t bear to watch and I got into my car as the scientists made their way with calculated stealth toward our cabin.
Except it wasn’t our cabin they were moving toward but the identical one to the right. I had already started up the car and, though I didn’t want to look, watched them out of the side of my eye.
As they were torching the wrong cabin, burning it to the ground, Mary slipped out the door disguised as a man. I was the only one who noticed her.
Wearing my clothes, looking straight ahead, she headed nonchalantly toward the car.
I had barely a moment to decide, to rush off or wait for her to occupy the space next to me. For whatever reason, perhaps inertia, perhaps misguided sympathy, I didn’t leave her behind.
As we drove off, I noticed through the rear view mirror the owner of the motel emerge, bearing what seemed like an army surplus submachine gun. The scientists, searching through the ashes for Mary’s remains, seemed oblivious to the approaching danger.
“I would say thank you,” she said as we sped off into the moonless night—the sound of fire engines in the distance—“but it’s not in my nature to feel grateful.”
“That you can say that,” I said, “is a hopeful sign. That you are aware of certain positive qualities you lack suggests that these qualities exist in you in embryonic form.”
She laughed or almost laughed. “Don’t bet your life on it,” she said.
As we drove across the Maine border, I told Mary of the purpose of the trip, which was to rescue my former wife, Molly, from her kidnappers or, at the very least, from herself.
“When you rescue her, if you rescue her, what happens then?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t really know.”
She inhaled my answer, seemingly amused by it. Then, after a few minutes of silent calculation, she offered me a deal. She would help me rescue Molly if we stopped at a motel first to complete our business.
“Is it in your nature to keep your word?” I asked.
“I’ve never given my word before,” she said, “so I don’t really know.” When she put her hand on my knee, I remembered that I was naked under my coat.
“Why don’t we rescue Molly first and then go to a motel,” I said, trying to edge away from the demands of her hand. “You can ask anyone. I always honor my agreements.”
“You think you’re trustworthy,” she said in this prescient voice, “but you’re not.”
A silent compromise was reached through no agreement on my part. Mary climbed onto my lap and attached herself. It made driving difficult especially when she bounced up and down obstructing my view and I began to swerve out of my lane.
When I could see the road again a steroidal SUV was coming at me and I had to bail out to avoid a fatal collision.
What I didn’t notice was the tree coming at me from the other side. I heard Mary’s unearthly scream before I blacked out.
I woke in what turned out to be a hospital bed, my head swathed in bandages, my left leg in traction.
The scientists I had met at the motel, four out of the original five, were standing impatiently at the side of the bed waiting to talk to me.
There were none of the bedside amenities one gets from most hospital visitors, no “how are you feeling”, no “what can we get you.” “Did you climax in her?” was what they wanted to know.
The thing is, I couldn’t remember but I saw no point in getting them upset. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Where is she?”
“We thought you might be able to tell us,” their spokesman, the bald Asian said. “There was no sign of the ET when we found you. Did she say anything about where she might be going?”
We went back and forth in this manner for awhile, each of us assuming that the other was holding back information.
“We’ll find her,” they said on leaving, though their insistence was not encouraging. Each of them left me a card with a different phone number.
It was at that point that I realized that the nurse who had been standing to the side during the fruitless interview with the scientists was disconcertingly familiar.
There actually seemed like 2 nurses for awhile—the bang on my head had given me double vision—but as she came closer I could tell there was only one of her.
“Don’t worry, I no longer want your child,” she said, disconnecting my left leg from its traction device.
For an unexamined moment, I suffered feelings of rejection. Mary had cut her hair and dyed it black and somehow changed the shape of her nose. “You told me it was your life purpose to reproduce,” I said.
“That was another me,” she said. “I’ve changed since the accident separated us. I’ve been what you people call reborn. I took refuge in the Church of Laundered Money and I had a spiritual conversion. As my first good deed, maybe my second, I’m going to unite you with your former wife.”
I took pains to explain—most subtleties were beyond her alien comprehension. “I don’t want to unite with Molly,” I said. “I just want to rescue her from her kidnappers.”
“Whatever,” she said.
Before I could make sense of the implications of Mary’s conversion, she had gotten me dressed and was wheeling me down the halls of the hospital and out the back door to an oversized SUV (perhaps the one that almost hit us) waiting for us in the medical personnel parking lot in a space reserved for Hospital Chaplain.
Whatever else you wanted to say about my semi-alien companion, and there was a lot to say I suppose, she had a talent for survival that seemed at the time second to none.
Check in with the Rail every month
for a new installment of Reruns Rezoomed.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.