LAYING LOW IN PENNSYLVANIA: 1988
Even at 3:30 in the morning, with detours and wrong turns it took Heidi Vogel almost an hour to get from Lower Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge. It took her less time to cross the entire state of New Jersey. The heavy black Mercedes insulated her from the sounds of the road and the other cars, also hurtling west. Billboards, gas stations and off ramps whipped by like props in a silent movie. She tried to keep an eye on the speedometer. Her husband, Claus, often accused her of driving too fast. The speedometer registered 90; she swore to herself and slowed to 75.
By the time she reached Pennsylvania, early morning commuters were spewing onto the freeway, jockeying for position at speeds that made Heidi recall the Autobahn. She slowed down as a car on the right and another on the left tried to enter the lane directly in front of her. They veered back into their lanes with a blaring of horns.
“Gottverdammte Idioten!” she shouted, her words bouncing off the car’s interior. And they were ‘Goddamn idiots’ to tempt fate so, as if life was something to throw away. She gave a dry sob. Didn’t they realize their families would never heal if they died? Never.
Numb with fatigue and afraid she was no longer safe to drive, Heidi exited onto a small road heading north and stopped in the first town with an open diner. She turned off the engine and pressed her palms to her face, takingcomfort in the fact that her eyes, her cheekbones and lips still felt familiar. She leaned over and removed a small bundle of ashes from its carved wooden box in the glove compartment. With the bundle in her pocket, she opened the car door into an early morning that was already warming.
It was too early for families and, other than two workmen men sitting at the counter chatting to the waitress, the diner was empty. The waitress called to Heidi to sit anywhere so she slid into a booth by the window and held onto the edge of the table until the world righted itself. When a glance at her reflection in the window showed a shockingly haggard and vulnerable face, she straightened her shoulders, ran a tongue over her lips and looked again. Better.
She politely rebuffed the waitress’s attempt get her to order the breakfast special and refused the menu, insisting she wanted just coffee and toast.
“And where’s that accent from?” asked the waitress, tucking the menu back under her arm.
“I always thought of German women as heavier. Cream with that coffee?”
“We come in all sizes, and yes please, to the cream.”
When her toast arrived, Heidi examined the chrome-plated rack that held stacks of jelly, grape on one side and mixed fruit on the other. They would taste much the same. She could hear Karl Engel, her distant cousin and closest friend, railing against yet another example of convenience over quality. How much more it would it cost to serve strawberry preserves in an individual white china pot? Five cents? Ten?
She watched a small group of men pause on their way into the diner to examine the diesel Mercedes parked close enough to the lights of the entrance that its red leather interior glowed. She and Claus had told his father a car in New York City would be a nuisance, so of course he’d sent something large and ostentatious. For most of the last five years, it had remained parked in an exorbitantly priced, subterranean garage.
When the men entered, they cast their eyes around for the owner of the expensive foreign car and of course it would be her, a young woman with almost platinum blonde hair, sitting alone. She gave a brief nod but didn’t their return smiles. From a young age she had learned to use indifference as a shield against unwanted attention.
A second cup of coffee did little to lift her fatigue. She hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours, she had no idea where she was going. Chicago, Toronto, San Francisco? Big cities with big jobs for an executive chef, or perhaps she would become absorbed into the midden of a small town somewhere and spend her days greeting customers with descriptions of the breakfast special. She felt almost ill with exhaustion.
The word ‘SORRY’ written in neon script flashed from the window of the inn across the road. In Germany, a simple ‘Kein’ would light up in front of ‘Zimmer Frei’, for ‘No Room Free.’ ‘SORRY,’ such an American affectation, but kind. Sorry, no room in the inn, sorry, be on your way, but there were few cars parked next to the cabins over there and she might be in luck. When the waitress came to top off her coffee, Heidi asked when the inn’s office opened.
“Around nine but I can phone over and get Ivan to open up earlier. He’s not full so he won’t object.” The woman gave Heidi an assessing look. “You on the run?”
Heidi shook her head. “There is no one chasing me,”she said, knowing it to be true. Claus, his father and their perfectly groomed business manager, Anke Mueller, would think three days’ cash from the safe and the Mercedes a small price to pay for her leaving.
Her father-in-law, Emmett Vogel, had flown in from Hamburg and since Anke now oversaw several of his businesses in New York, it made sense that she, and not Heidi, would accompany Claus to his suite at The Plaza. Did Emmett hire someone to look for cystic fibrosis in the Mueller family background before introducing Anke to his son?
“Of course he did,” Heidi murmured, closing her eyes and fading into the sounds she knew so well—the swing of a kitchen door, the scrape of fork, the babble.
A gentle hand on her shoulder woke her with a start. Disoriented, she sat up and shook her head, her mouth as dry as cotton.
“I said, Ivan’s waiting for you. You can go on over,” the waitress whispered.
“Ivan? I am sorry . . . ?”
“Ivan, the innkeeper, he’s waiting for you. If you make a fuss over his cat, he’ll give you a cabin with a kitchenette, useful if you have to lay low for a while.”
A bell jangled over the door as Heidi entered the office. A tall, cadaverous-looking man carrying a large white Persian cat materialized behind the reception counter and gave her a thin-lipped smile. The cat’s luxurious tail gave a flutter as it examined Heidi with interest through copper colored eyes.
“What is your name?” she asked the cat.
“Tabitha Mandova Bonnet,” said the man, coming out from behind the counter so she could get a better look at the Persian’s snub-nosed magnificence. “I’m Ivan Sinsky, her companion animal.”
Some kind of cat-related response seemed called for, so although the Siamese had stayed with them for only hours before her father’s allergies got the better of him, Heidi said, “My parents owned a lovely Siamese cat.”
Ivan’s mouth pinched in distaste. “One cannot actually own a sentient being.”
“No, of course not, I speak without thinking.” Heidi vowed to look up ‘sentient’ in her pocket dictionary later. “May I just call her Tabitha?”
Somewhat mollified, the innkeeper said, “Indeed you may, but never Tabby.”
“I can see how Tabby would not suit.” Heidi reachedout to touch the cat’s long, silky hair. “You must have to brush her every day to keep her coat so beautiful.”
“Every day.” Ivan ran his long hand down the length of Tabitha’s back. “We sit on a bench by the river out back and have ourselves a brush. Both Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale lived with Persian cats.”
“I am not surprised.” Heidi, stifled a yawn.
“I assume a cabin for yourself and . . . ?” Ivan looked over her shoulder.
“Myself and no one,” said Heidi, “and I will please pay in cash.”
“Ah.” Ivan gave a slow nod and went back behind the counter. “A cabin with a kitchenette at the end then, where the birches will hide your car. You’ll be perfectly safe. One night? Two? We do have a weekly rate,”
“Today, perhaps tomorrow. I do not . . .” Heidi faltered, so unlike her not to have a plan.
“Never mind, we’re not overly booked. I’ll need to look at your license and if you like, you may to hold Tabitha while I take your down your information. She is partial to a foreign accent.”
When the cat’s languid form was transferred into her arms, Heidi released an audible sigh. She bent her head and whispered, “Your coat makes you appear so much heavier than you are.”
“Twelve pounds,” said Ivan, proudly.
Twelve pounds. Something gave way inside as Heidi placed her lips on that kissable spot between a cat’s ears to inhale Tabitha’s warmth. Peter had weighed just over twelve pounds when she had held him for the very last time. Silent on their crepe-soled shoes, the nurses had come in to check on her every ten minutes until she had been able to let them take her baby from her.
The cabin smelled faintly of mildew, but was otherwise clean. It had a stovetop, a little refrigerator, a cabinet with minimal but sufficient kitchenware, and a surprisingly comfortable bed. Heidi returned to the Mercedes to plumb the depths of its trunk. She found the hiking boots she had bought for the one trip she and Claus took to Maine, with socks still stuffed inside, and a pair of sandals. There was also a sweatshirt and a T-shirt belonging to Claus—much too big, but welcome nonetheless—a rain poncho and a skimpy halter-top she couldn’t recall ever wearing. She brought her meager supplies inside, then went back to retrieve the road atlas and Peter’s carved wooden box. A telephone and radio-alarm clock crowded the nightstand’s surface but there was room for the box if she put it over a laminated sign that read ‘Local Calls Only. Use Office for Long Distance.’
Heidi looked longingly at the bed but she dared not lie down until she had made her overseas call. People couldn’t just take off and disappear into the ether, leaving those dearest to them in the dark. If her cousin phoned on Sunday as usual, she didn’t want him finding out from Claus that she had left New York a week ago. With her parents dead, Karl and his Italian lover, Beppe Biro, were her only family now. Munich was six hours ahead, Karl would be teaching at Kleine Kartoffeln, his culinary academy, which suited her. She didn’t want to actually talk to him, just leave a message. She had no answers to the questions he would ask.
On her way to the office, she practiced what she would say. She needed to sound in reasonably good spirits. Good spirits, she mocked herself; she felt nothing. She entered the office and rang a bell on the counter.
“Coming,” Ivan’s dry voice called from the back.
After listening to Heidi’s request, he lifted a telephone onto the counter and placed a small, black book next to it. “Record the number and the time in here,” he said, tapping the book’s cover with a long bony finger. “We’ll add it to your bill at the end of your stay but I should warn you, if you call overseas now it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. Much cheaper if you wait until evening.”
Heidi cast him a half smile and said, “I think it will cost only the arm. I do not plan a long talk.”
The innkeeper made a hoarse sound that might have been a chuckle and said he’d leave her to her business. Heidi cleared her throat and picked up the receiver. She paused, envisioning Karl’s answering machine in the alcove that overlooked his garden. His Mirabelle plum would be setting its fruit, the purple bearded irises and red valerians would be in full bloom against the garden wall. The gray feral cat he professed to have no feelings for, but lured onto the patio twice a day with fish, might be sleeping in a patch of sunshine. The receiver made a loud protest at her delay and she returned it to its cradle.
“Problem?” Ivan poked his head around the corner.
She shook her head and tapped a finger to her temple. “I gather the wool in the clouds.”
After a moment’s pause, Ivan’s mouth gave a twitch and he disappeared with a waggle of his fingers. Heidi picked up the receiver again, dialed zero and asked for a long-distance operator.
“I have taken the Mercedes and left Claus,” she said in response to Karl’s light, tenor voice on his answering machine. “You and Beppe are not to worry about me. I have money. I am booked into a little cabin somewhere in Pennsylvania and I have no immediate plans. I love you both, I will call again later in the week.”
She hung up, recorded her time in the little black book and closed the office door quietly behind her. On the way back to her cabin, she caught the shimmer of light on water and descended a grassy slope for a closer look at the river Ivan had mentioned. Except for the white tufts of cat hair that hovered at its feet, the green wooden bench that faced a stretch of quiet water would have been at home along any pedestrian path in Central Park.
Leaves danced to a barely perceptible breeze and Heidi sat down to watch the interplay of light and shadow as the sun pierced the canopy of the broad-leafed copse across the water. She tipped her head back and inhaled deeply; the air smelled of cut grass and mud and, she imagined, things that flew or swam or slithered.
When Beppe Biro finally picked up his phone that night, Karl Engel said coolly, “When I can’t reach you for hours, I imagine you collapsed among the vines with only your grandfather’s ghost for company.”
Beppe chuckled and explained he had been in the wine cellar with two young Americans who wanted to apprentice themselves to an Italian winemaker for several weeks.
“Male or female?” Karl asked, not concerned, just wondering.
“Males, Adonises both of them, but I have you, so I am immune. Your message said you heard from Heidi. Tell me.” Beppe listened intently, then demanded, “What does she mean, ‘somewhere in Pennsylvania?’ Doesn’t she know where she is?”
“I repeated her message verbatim, Beppe, do listen,” said Karl, arranging six sardines artfully on a porcelain plate for the gray cat. “I said she sounded exhausted so I’m assuming the name of wherever has escaped her. A cabin makes me think a small town, so she’s not holed up in some great American slum. She has escaped, left Claus and that dreadful woman Emmett insisted they take on, so we must applaud her for that. Now she can explore options worthy of her.”
“I still haven’t found a suitable person to run my tasting room. Imagine how good she’d be,” said Beppe, wistfully.
“I am closing Kleine Kartoffeln next week for the entire summer,” Karl reminded him. “I’m coming to you to bask in the Italian sun of course, but I’ll run your tasting room until we find you someone worthy.”
“Unless Heidi comes back.”
“She won’t, at least not yet. Peter’s death changed everything for her. You know what she’s like now, she’s waiting for a sign, something to tell her what to do, or where to go.”
“A ticket home from us would be a sign, ” Beppe pointed out.
“Too prosaic.” Karl tapped on the window to let the cat know supper was on the way. “I know my cousin, she is looking for something divine.”
Over the next few days, Heidi found herself floating in a netherworld where unassociated memories coalesced and dissipated, plans formed and fragmented. In New York, she had survived the two years following her baby’s death by having too much to do, working twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, returning to the apartment near the Hudson at midnight to fall into an exhausted sleep. Anke Mueller would be comforting Claus there now. Anke was not one to waste time and Claus was not one to protest. They had probably already cleared her clothes from thecloset.
Sunny skies alternated with frequent cloudbursts, which stopped almost as soon as they started, leaving the sultry summer air heavy with moisture. In the afternoons Heidi forced herself outside. She didn’t phone Karl again; what was there to say? She wandered to the river. She walked to the office to hold Tabitha. Twice she crossed the road to the diner for somewhere else to sit. In her cabin, by the river, in the diner, she waited for a sign.