[ This story is based on my experiences as a reporter for The Delaware State News from 1990-93. Some names and dates have been changed. This was part of my unpublished novel, "The Chicken Zoo," that I wrote five years ago. ]
I returned to work, and kept plugging. Absent any new revelations in the case, the murder leads dried up. The cops weren’t saying anything. I started to suspect that he knew as much as they did. Maybe more. He’d call, and ask for new details. “What about this Jim Jones thing?” he’d ask. The replies? “What murder was that?” “No we don’t have any information. Call Wilmington.” “Who’s Jim Jones?”
With little else to do, I got stuck doing cops. The State News had nothing else for me to do, really. So for weeks, I found myself chasing after a daily menu of car accidents and brush fires. Occasionally, it would get a little more exciting, like a trailer park blaze or a tractor-trailor creaming an Amish buggy and splitting it into pieces. Perhaps the climax was when a guy fell into a vat of uncooked chicken, and nearly suffocated in the jelly-like carcasses. But he lived, and even joked about it when I interviewed him at his house in Delmar.
“So how did it happen?” I asked
“Well, I was checking the controls of one of the machines. I stepped on a piece of chicken and slipped.”
“How did you ever manage to get out of there?”
“Well, it was squishy enough so that could actually swim through it. But it wasn’t easy.”
“Did you see your life flash before your eyes?”
“No. It was a little too cloudy to see anything,” he said.
“What I mean is, did you think, you know, this is it, God’s bringing me upstairs, you know, to Heaven?”
“No, but I did see a gizzard swim around like one of them stingrays at the aquarium.”
He actually topped that story. A week later, at the Kent County Wastewater Treatment facility, a guy in his 30s fell into a 400-gallon tank of human waste. I covered that one, too, and later he wondered if these kinds of stories would ever stop coming. But I did well on this one, and ultimately exposed some obvious weaknesses in the plant’s management. The plant’s biggest problem was that the county didn’t establish a safety protocol that could prevent workers from falling into these swimming pools of feces. Over the years, there were a number of near misses, where workers nearly slid from their seemingly safe concrete platforms and nearly landed in the stuff. It was a good story, and certainly, no one – except for the county, of course – was upset about it – people in the neighborhood said the shit smell was everywhere. “Any time my kids come out to play, they say, ‘Daddy, somebody pooped out here.’ ”
I threw myself into this kind of work. I really knew no other way. And I got little reward for it, too. Jenny was the kind of boss who was quick to criticize, but slow to compliment. I just got satisfaction in saving the stories and bringing them home for my father to read. And when my father read the chicken-and-shit stories, he laughed hard.
In those first couple months, he went home twice, both times to do laundry. My towels were so dirty that they were stiff like boards. I used them anyway. I also called home several times a week. But I rarely went beyond the four walls of my office, or my living room. My life revolved around the telephone, the computer and my reporter’s notebook.
Weeks after the Jim incident, I was called into Jenny’s office. Jenny hadn’t really addressed that whole thing. And I could tell that she really didn’t want to. I tried telling her about it as she was walking to the bathroom. But all he got was a shrug, and a “Don’t quit on this story.”
Jenny often buried herself inside her office – she rarely left it, and even more rare was an invitation to enter it. When they could come in, I learned, it was usually on her orders. Reporters joked that those who walked in smiling almost always walked out sad. And whatever happened in there was never good. Actually, I would learn, the only good thing that could happen is if you walked out of her office and still had your job.
So when I saw Jenny waving him toward her door, I wondered: Will she make me try again? Will I have to call him? Will he have to go back down there? Did I so totally fuck things up with this Jim guy that I should start packing? I knew there was no sense speculating. No one ever knew what would happen until they actually walked into that tiny office, and Jenny shut the door behind them.
And it was so small, I thought. I felt tight – even claustrophobic – as I looked around, and saw only a tiny window. There were no decorations, not even any family pictures. Just a stale blue look. And in the center of it all was Jenny, sitting at her desk, smoking a cigarette. To me, the clouds of smoke from it making the room feel smaller.
“Okay, well, I’ve got another source for you,” Jenny said. “And luckily, this one is close by.”
“As close as the copy desk,” she said.
“Her name is Nikki – Nikki Eldridge. She comes in late, usually. But she’s not scheduled to work today, I believe. Here’s her number.”
Jenny handed I a slip of paper with the number on it.
“I should go ahead and call her?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Everybody here shares everything. So give her a call.”
“So, why her?”
“She could probably tell you. In fact, I probably should defer to her,” Jenny said. “But her connection to the Jones thing is strong.”
I got up and walked out, and over to ,my desk. I picked up the telephone and called. Nikki promptly answered after one half of a ring.
“Oh, you’re the new guy,” she said.
“Yup,” I said. “Now, I’m almost embarrassed to ask this…”
“You can’t embarrass me. Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, I was told you may be of some help on this murder story – like, you have some connections or something….”
“Yeah, sure, come on over.”
“Can’t we do this over the telephone.”
“Yeah, but I’ve got some stuff you should look at.”
I got in the car and drove to her apartment, which was at the north end of Dover and right off Route 13. The complex was one of those ugly, homogenized things with no character. There was a big drainage ditch that was filled to the top. And it was hot and buggy – mosquitoes buzzed around my eyes. I swatted at them, but they only got more annoying. They shook around my eyes and landed on my arms, and I swatted at them some more, but they just wouldn’t quit.
I knocked softly, and Nikki answered immediately, smiling broadly and blinking her soft brown eyes.
“Hey, I guess you’re Nikki,” I said.
“And you’re I…” she said. “Yeah, I heard about you. Where ya from?”
“The Jersey Shore.”
“The Jersey Shore? Why would you ever come here?”
“That’s a good question,” I said. “Isn’t there a beach here?”
“Absolutely!” Nikki said. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“To Rehoboth Beach.”
“Sure,” she said. “It’s a great beach…can you drive?”
“I don’t know…I had a bad experience there recently…”
“Bad experience? How could you have a bad experience in Rehoboth?”
“Well, I’d rather not get into it.”
“Was it a gay thing?”
“How did you know?”
“I know a lot,” Nikki said. “Don’t worry. I won’t be looking for trouble. Let’s just get out of here.”
We did, heading south again.
“So, why are we doing this?” I asked.
“This is where I go, when I need to escape,” Nikki said.
“You escape to some place that’s an hour away?”
“There’s no place in Dover…where did you want to go to, Uncle Tom’s? You might as well carry a bullhorn and tell everybody on the street what you’re doing – it’s the same difference.”
“Uncle Tom’s? What’s that?”
“That’s a place in Leipsic…everybody goes there. Even people from work. I’m pretty tired of it really. There are no secrets at that place…everybody knows everybody. And anybody who’s stupid enough goes there, get drunk and then shoots their mouth off about who they killed and why…”
“People actually sit there and confess to murders?”
“Well, I don’t know about murders…but other things, you know, drug offenses, that sort of thing.”
“Why would anybody do anything as stupid as that?”
“Well, first of all, you know what happens when you’re drunk,” she said.
“Plus, I think people get lulled into some false sense of security when they go to that place. But I know cops go there, undercover, waiting for some idiot to just spill his guts like that…especially if they’re tracking these guys.”
“I see,” I said. “Say, how did you know so much about it? Do you go there much?”
“I went there once and I hated it,” she said. “But I know a lot about everybody.”
“How old are you?” I asked.
“I’m 22 and I’m from Newark.”
“That’s far away from here, right?”
“Not far enough,” she said. “So what happened between you and Jim?”
“My God, what does everybody know everybody around here?”
“I’ve known Jim for a while...we have common interests.”
“So you talked to him directly? It’s not like this is a wild rumor that everybody in the State News newsroom is laughing about…”
“Oh, no. In fact, he called me the next day. He’s such a sweetheart…he said, ‘You know, I think I did a bad thing….’ ”
“Yeah, he should just be happy I don’t have his ass locked up in jail…”
“No, no. You don’t want to do that to Jim,” Nikki said. “He’s such a pussy cat. He’s had it tough. You know people like him have it tough around here. He was a little drunk, right? Jim has a hard time controlling himself when he’s lit.”
“Well, that shouldn’t be any excuse.”
“Oh, come on…you never got a little out-of-control when you’ve been drunk?”
“I never tried to rape another guy…”
Nearly an hour later, we were on the Boardwalk. Nikki suggested Arenas, but I balked at that idea.
“Oh, c’mon. You’ve got to be over that by now?”
“Well, I’m not…”
So we went to the north end of town, to Sidney’s Sidestreets. It was another small bar and club with loud bands and little space. Only the music was mostly jazz and rhythm and blues.
Inside, it was crowded, only not as bad as Arenas. Here, everybody was drinking Corona, and talking very loudly. The music was jazz and R&B, and it was loud. Here, the sound of the tunes drowned out the talking.
We ordered drinks and then found a table by the wall. It was about as far away from people as we could get.
"It takes a while to get down here, huh?" I said. "I mean, coming here was a cool idea. But I don't want to put up with that drive."
“I’m from Newark, but I used to come down here all the time,” she said. “I don’t see it as a long drive.”
“Newark, huh?” I said. “That’s up by Wilmington, right? Isn’t that where the University of Delaware is?”
“That’s my alma mater,” she said, sipping on her drink. “I started as a ballet impresario. I ended up as a journalist. I’m glad I got the fuck out of there.”
“What got you into ballet?”
“My father wanted me to do it,” she said. “He works at Dupont – you know, everybody works there, but he’s a big-wig. He goes to all these fancy black-tie events where they do ballet, so he got me into it. I mean, I enjoy it, but I do it out of guilt, because my dad envisioned me joining some big ballet company in D.C. or New York or something.”
Nikki sipped on her drink, and mixed it with a straw.
“He always tried to shelter me. He didn’t like the clothes I wore. He didn’t like my boyfriends. He was a religious man, you see. He once caught me smoking, and tried to keep me in my room for a week. That was his favorite punishment zone, and he’d drag me in there, lay me on the bed and then lock the door behind him, and think he’d keep me in there for hours. But I’d wait for the lock to click, and then I’d open the window and jump out, and then return two hours later, sometimes three.”
“And now you’re a newspaper copy editor,” I observed.
“I know. Go figure,” she said, laughing “Sometimes, I feel like I’m just wasting away, sitting in front of a broken-down computer all day in that stuffy office, editing stories that read like they were written by a second-grader. This is not what I envisioned for myself.”
Nikki laughed at herself. And then she laughed harder, a laugh that came from the gut. She leaned back in her seat, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“It’s really unbelievable,” she said, smiling, and then laughing some more, before she took more sips of her drink.
“Okay, so I guess you know why I’m here,” I said.
“They have you covering the Cramner murder?” she asked.
“Yeah. Right off the bat, they got me covering a murder.”
“Well, yeah, I guess I should be a little more excited. You know, not everyone gets to write about a murder. A murder is like every reporter’s dream, right?”
“Let me guess,” Nikki said. “Jenny once again thinks she’s a cop, not a reporter. It’s like she wants you to solve it, right?”
“Yeah, I guess you know the drill.”
“Honey, let me tell you. I had a previous life,” she said, sipping on her drink some more. “Long before I was a copy editor, I earned my stripes as a reporter. You’re right – I do know the drill.”
“What made you change?”
“Well, because of the drill,” Nikki said. “I couldn’t take it any more. You know, well, uh…”
“See, if the story, any story involves the base, they get very excited,” she said. “I should have known that going in. But I made the mistake of dating an Air Force guy – he actually worked in the mortuary.”
“The mortuary? Say, that’s where Cramner worked.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s a pretty fucked up place. I guess you’ve heard of the Jones Boys?”
“Sure. Cramner was one of them,” I said. “Is that why Jenny wants me to talk to you?”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Nikki said. “Jenny remembers what happened with my boyfriend…”
Nikki sipped on her drink, and sighed again. She looked away for a second, and again wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“He was about 10 years older than me. Sometimes, it was like sleeping with a war veteran,” Nikki said. “He used to have nightmares, and scream things like ‘baby!’ He never told me what he was yelling about. I eventually found out after talking to people – you know, other guys who were Jones Boys, other guys who worked in the military. The Jim Jones thing was fucked up. Nine-hundred people drank Kool-Aid and died, and the base was left to handle the mess.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard.”
Nikki sucked down the rest of her drink, and ordered more. She got a beer for I, and a rum and Coke for herself. She stirred it, studied it, and plunked down a few more bucks on the bar.
“Some guys got out of there, started families and were okay,” she said.
“Other guys bought trailers and escaped into the woods, getting all paranoid and everything. My guy? I wish he was so lucky.”
“What did he do?”
“Well,” she said, pausing slightly, and looking off to the side.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, pausing again.
“It it’s too much for you, let’s not go there,” I said.
“No, really, it’s OK,” she said. “This is what happened: He woke up one morning, pulled a .44 Magnum out of a shoebox, and blew a three-inch hole into his head.”
Nikki took a bigger sip of her drink. “He punched a hole in his head so big, his brains were coming out of his ears. I guess that’s what they call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome…”
Her voice tailed off, and she turned away for a second, and sucked in a deep breath. She patted her eyes with her knuckles.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s been a couple years now, so it’s okay.”
“I think I’ve come to peace with it,” she said. “What I haven’t come to peace with is what this poor excuse of a newspaper did to me.”
“What was that?”
“They wanted me to write about it!” she shouted, slamming her drink on the bar. “Or at the very least, they wanted me to talk about it, like they were getting some sort of exclusive, you know, on the grieving girlfriend.”
“Holy shit,” I said.
“Seems that they thought I would have some inside scoop about the guy, and that I would be derelict in my duty to hide it. They basically gave me a choice – talk about it, or get demoted. Well, guess what? Now I’m a copy editor, and I get paid $5,000 less a year.”
She wiped another tear with her knuckle, and then leaned behind her, where some guy was smoking a cigarette.
“Can I have a hit of that?” she said.
“Sure,” he said. She reached over, puffed and gave it back immediately.
Then she tilted her head back and blew the smoke into the air.
“Thanks,” she said.
Nikki took another big sip of her drink, while I waited.
“You know, I come from the Wilmington area – that’s like a different world,” she said. “You wouldn’t think a state so small would be so divided. It is. Up there, they make fun of down here – they even call it Lower Slower Delaware.”
“Lower Slower Delaware?” I asked. “That’s pretty funny.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “And I never thought I’d end up in the middle of it. I mean, it’s like there’s this culture of doom and despair down here. Everyone’s so fucked up, and it’s largely because of the fucking Air Force.”
I saw her hand sitting there, and patted it. Her eyes had drifted for a split second, but when I touched her hand, she smiled. So did I. Then I rubbed away the last of her tears with my fingertips.
“Do you believe in God?” she blurted out.
“Uh, yeah, I guess so,” I said. “Hmmm…that’s pretty deep. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know,” Nikki said. “Sometimes I wonder, though. If there were a God, then why doesn’t he answer my dreams?”
“Well, I dreamed that I’d be working for The New York Times,” she said.
“And I’m working for The Delaware State News.”
Nikki looked around the room, and drank more. “My parents would drag me to church,” she said, her head facing away from I, and toward the crowded barroom. “I used to really hate it. I made my confirmation, but once I was old enough to stay home on my own, I didn’t go.”
“Hell, I used to cut Sunday School,” I said, chuckling a bit. “My parents would drop me off and I’d walk around the block for a few hours. Sometimes, I’d walk all the way down to the beach.”
“Why would you do that?
“I don’t know – maybe it was the fact that I was shy. But I think I just needed to chill out.”
“Where would you go?” she asked.
“The beach,” I said. “It was only a few blocks away. I’d stay there, for an hour, maybe longer, just watching the waves crash into the sand, one after another.”
“That’s nice,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was such a beautiful sound, and there’d be nobody around, except for the occasional old guy who was feeding the seagulls. But mostly it was just me and the waves. And the sunrays would gleam on the water, and the sand would look especially bright, and I would just lean my head back and close my eyes.”
“I guess I do believe in Heaven,” Nikki said, “because there’s got to be a better world than this. I mean, there’s got to be some explanation for why things are the way they are. I guess bad things happen as a way to teach us the difference between right and wrong. It’s like we’re going through some big learning experience.”
I smiled, and moved my hand away from hers. “Yeah, I guess you could see it that way.
“I’m sorry,” Nikki said. “I don’t mean to dump all this stuff on you. You must be bored.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s all very interesting. You know, I just find myself saying things to you that I wouldn’t say to other people – even my own family. I hope you don’t find that I’m getting too personal.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I like to get personal.”
“Yeah, well, I’m getting way off the beaten track, too,” I said. “I mean, you know why I need to talk to you, right?”
“Right,” Nikki said. “Let’s go for a ride.”
“I know. I know. You want to talk,” she said. “We’ll get to that.”
“Yeah, well, I hate being a pest,” I said. “I just wanted to know if you know anybody who can talk to me about Cramner.”
“We’ll get there,” she said. “In fact, let’s go to Driftwood Beach.”
“Oh, Christ, another house of horrors,” I said.
“Let’s go hang out there. You know, a lot of people go night-swimming in the bar there. Maybe we’ll bump into somebody who knows something. We’re bound to run into somebody who worked at the mortuary…I mean, they seem to breed like flies up there.”
“Uh, well, I guess. I don’t know Nikki,” I said. “You seem to be pretty torched.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Nikki ordered a whole bottle of wine, and some more beer, and asked for some cups from the bartender. Then she dashed for the parking lot and the car, giggling like a little girl.
We sat in the car, with Nikki shoving the wine bottle between her legs and placing the cups on the dash. I drove, she poured; and she took long and large gulps before I finally rolled my car out of the parking lot, and onto Route 1.
About a half-hour into the trip, we drove up to a Lucky 7. Behind it was a cluster of trailers, and a gaggle of tied-up dogs barked when they pulled up. Nikki poured herself her eighth cup of wine and, in seconds, downed it.
“Wine is like candy,” she said. “Only, you can drink a lot of it and feel no pain.”
Then she burst out of the car and ran inside. Almost immediately, she reappeared, carrying a pack of cigarettes, a six-pack of bottled beer and a lighter.
“I didn’t have you pegged as a smoker,” I said.
“I do now,” Nikki said. “You like my lighter?”
It was a little flip Bic with some sort of psychedelic design, with red, yellow, green and red lines interlocked, like some cheap imitation of a Picasso.
“Pretty cool, huh?” she said.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Whatever you say.”
Nikki quickly downed her ninth cup of wine, while I sipped, slowly, on an Amstel light. Nikki then popped open a beer chaser, and chugged half of it; then she lit up a smoke, and with the smoldering cigarette dangling from her fingers, she pointed I toward the roads that ran behind the Lucky 7.
“Head that way,” she said, puffing smoke out of her lips. “That’s a short-cut.”
“Where do these roads go to?”
“Just trust me.”
We went. It was alternately flat and bumpy; either way, it seemed to stretch. There were no lights, cars or houses along the side – just acres and acres of old farms and wet meadows, marshlands and little else. It was so dark that I could barely see five feet in front of me. My forehead was soaking with sweat, and I grew anxious.
“Are you sure this is right?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “Go!”
“But, what if there’s deer or something?”
“Sweetheart, just go!”
“Okay, okay, I’m going.”
The longer it took, the more the road seemed like a blur. I sped up, only to get where we were going faster. But I also fueled Nikki’s excitement and zest for danger. One after another, she downed her beers and threw the empties out the window, giggling as she heard the aluminum make a “clank” against the road. Then she found a few empty wine bottles and tossed them out, too, laughing as the glass smashed on the asphalt.
“Yeeeee—haw!” she yelled.
“Holy Christ!” I yelled back. “What the hell are you doing?”
Then Nikki rolled her window all the way down, titled her head back and just seemed to enjoy the wind moving across her face.
“Drive faster,” Nikki said to I. “Go! Go! Go!”
“Faster? How?” I pleaded. “What if I run over a turtle or something?”
“C’mon, I know these roads. I used go driving through here all the time,” she said.
“Where are we going?”
“Don’t worry about it. Just follow me.”
Nikki turned toward I and smiled.
“What’s up?” I asked, trying to keep my eyes on her and the road at the same time.
Nikki kept smiling. Then she reached over with her leg and stepped on my foot – the one that was on the accelerator – and pushed on it. She wouldn’t take it off. “Holy shit!” I said, watching the needle eclipse 80 mph.
“It’s okay, baby,” Nikki said, running her one hand through my hair, and chain-smoking her pack of cigarettes with the other.
Nikki laughed hard. She laughed harder as she grabbed the steering wheel, and jerked on it, up and down, like she was jerking off the car. I resisted, but my nerves were too frayed for me to be strong. The car swerved on both sides of the rural street and, at times, rode against the ridge of the grassy marshlands.
“Holy shit!” I said. “Get me the fuck out of here!”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Nikki said. “I’ve got it under control!”
Nikki moved her left foot again, to the break. She slammed hard. Both of us bounced up in our seats, and I bumped my head into the roof of the car.
“Ouch,” I said. “That hurt.”
“You’ll get over it,” she said.
Nikki’s head wobbled as she grabbed another cigarette. I rubbed my head.
“We’re here,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”
We got out, and saw the water. The bay was only 10 feet away, and the small waves were splashing on the rocky beach. Down a ways, to my right, there was a campfire with three people sitting around it, smoking. The smell was Mary Jane, and it was heavy.
I spotted them, and got interested. “Uh, excuse me,” I called out.
One blonde-haired guy quit toking, and looked up.
“Yeah, what’s up shithead?”
“Yeah, right….I’m Tom Davis, from The Delaware State News. You guys hear about this murder not too far from here?”
“What, are you from Wilmington?”
“You’re not from here, are you?”
“Does that matter?”
“Depends on what yer askin’.”
“Well, I already asked it.”
The guy took his last toke, and stubbed his joint in the sand.
“Nobody here works at the base…,” the guy said.
“Why did you ask that?” I asked.
“You’re here about the murder, right?” he said. “Don’t fucking look here, dude. Go to the fucking base…”
“How would that help?”
The guy lit up another joint and inhaled, deeply.
“Just go check it out, dude…it’s a fucked up place. I mean, when you go there, it won’t hit you right away. But when you leave there, you’ll see. It’s just this Nazi place, where everybody walks around like they’ve got machine guns up their ass…it’s just like this oppressive Siberia.”
“Did you work there?” I asked.
“Nah, man, but I had friends and we used to sneak in there all the time,” the guy said. “We used to do that all the fucking time…we used to climb on the tops of those big fucking planes and piss onto the tarmac…security is pretty loose there. I mean, it was a few years ago.”
I started scribbling notes in my pad. “What about this mortuary?”
The guy took another toke and blew the smoke up. “Yeah, man. That’s where they bring all the bodies in from the wars, you know. Only they haven’t done that in a while. But this one guy, man, he worked there a long time – I don’t know his name or anything. But he was there back in ’78, you know, when they brought those bodies in from the Jim Jones thing, you know.”
“You mean the Guyana thing?”
“Yeah, man. He got all fucked up when he had to deal with little kids, you know. They drank the punch and all that shit, and they were blue in the face, like they were suffocated. Broke his heart, man. Ever since then, he got worse and worse. He bought a trailer and lived in that, then he went into hiding and dug himself a pit, and put a wooden lid on top of it. Nobody knows where this guy is, you know.”
I nodded, and flopped my pad up and down while I waited for the guy to continue.
“This guy, he’s wacko, you know what I’m saying?,” the guy said.
“Apparently, he didn’t even know Mr. Cramner. He just wacked out one day, and went wilding.”
I then heard a big splash behind me. It was Nikki jumping into the bay water. All her clothes were laying on the shoreline.
“Looks like your girlfriend’s ready to go there, dude,” the guy said.
I looked back and forth between the dude and Nikki. “She’s not my girlfriend!”
Nikki spotted I and yelled. “C’mon!” she said.
“Wait one second, OK?” I replied.
She ran out of the water, her bare breasts flopping. She reached the waterline – where I was – and yanked my arm. The guys watched and laughed, then packed up their shit and left, still chuckling as I got dragged.
“C’mon Nikki,” I said. “I wasn’t done.”
“C’mon!” she said.
“I mean, I don’t think you should go in there, and I certainly don’t want to,” I pleaded. “Can’t you get cancer for swimming in that thing? It looks like a big oily bath…”
“Oh, c’mon,” Nikki said. “I lost my virginity out here.”
“Who are you, anyway?”
“C’mon!” she said.
I looked out at Nikki, who was swimming and naked.
“But it’s cold,” I said.
“It’s not cold!” she said.
I looked around, still sheepish and nervous about the unknown. “Aren’t there a lot of wackos around here?”
“Yeah, but we’re all a little wacko around here.”
Then Nikki jogged up to I again. She looked at me, smiled, reached down with right hand and unzipped my pants. With her left hand, she slipped my shirt over his head and off my body. Within seconds, she was running back toward the water, kicking up piles of sand behind her.
Embarrassed, I stared at my bare legs.
“C’mon,” Nikki yelled. “Don’t be a prude.”
I almost grabbed my belt and pulled my pants back up. But then I gave Nikki a second look. I could feel my blood pressure rising as I watched her splashing, dunking her head in the dirty water.
“Oh, what the hell,” I thought. Quickly, I slipped everything back off, and jumped into the big black pond.
The bay was calm. Occasionally seagulls would pass by and pounce on the surface. But the only thing out there was a smell – a scent of oil or dirt that I easily sensed.
“Holy shit!” I pointed out. “I can’t believe how warm this is! Why is this so warm?”
Nikki laid on her back and kicked up the water behind her. Then she sat up and floated, pointing to the east.
Behind I were two very large, hour-glass-shaped smokestacks, surrounded by much smaller, box-shaped buildings. It looked like that nuclear plant from the Simpsons, I thought.
“What the hell is that?” I said.
“That’s the nuclear plant,” Nikki said.
“I could tell,” I said. “But, what is it? Is that thing going to blow up or what?”
“They discharge their cooling water in here. They use water to cool down the reactor, and discharge it into the bay.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “We’re standing in the middle of radioactive water?”
“No, silly,” she said. “That’s just what cools the reactor down. When it’s discharged, it’s warm. Lots of people go fishing here because the fish like the warm water.”
“So, you’re still saying, I’m not going to die of cancer?” I said. “That’s all I want to know.”
I looked around, and saw nothing but black.
“Nikki, why did you bring me here?” I asked.
“This is crazy,” I said.
“Okay, well, why don’t you just ease up, and relax a little,” she said. “And enjoy it a little.”
I took a deep breath, and nodded. “I guess you’re right,” I said.
My eyes then caught Nikki. Her bare breasts were floating in the water. I stared. She smiled.
We idled in the water for nearly 30 minutes. My eyes that wouldn’t leave Nikki’s chest. It was so pure, I thought. It was like it glowed, even though they were soaked in dirty water.
“C’mhere!” I said.
Nikki floated over, paddling with her hands. Our lips met. We kissed.
“Oooooh,” she moaned, over and over. It got louder as my fingers moved down between her legs, and caressed her baby-smooth skin.
“Ooooh! Please! No!”
I stopped. “No?”
Nikki looked at me, horrified. “What?”
“You said, ‘No,’” I said.
“I didn’t mean no,” she said. “C’mon, don’t be shy….”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling shy. “Let’s go back to the apartment, huh?”
“I don’t think I can do it here.”
“C’mon,” she said. Nikki reached over and pinched my cheeks “I want this moment to be special.”
“Isn’t it special already?” I said.
“I feel so close to you right now,” Nikki said. “I’ve never felt this close to anybody before.”
Nikki reached over and grabbed my right arm. I resisted, but she pulled, and smacked my hand right on top of her chest. She held it, tight.
“Ooookay,” I said.
“Do you believe in fate, or destiny?”
“You have my hand on your chest,” I said.
Nikki didn’t seem to listen. She tilted her head upward, and fixed her eyes on the dark night sky.
“Do you ever look at the stars,” she said, “and wonder if they can somehow tell your future?”
“Yes?” she said. “Just go with the program, huh?”
“Look up there,” she said. “What do you think they’re telling us?”
“You mean, like astrology?”
“Well, not quite. Look up there.”
“You mean the lights.”
“I mean, look at the stars. Did you notice how bright they are? I believe they’re trying to tell us something.”
“They’re trying to tell us that something magic is happening here,” she said.
“I think it’s just a clear night, and it’s easier to see them.”
“No, no, there’s something about them,” she said. “They’re whiter, with a glow like I’ve never seen before. It’s like they’re tiny little suns. It’s like daybreak, when the rain stops. You get this sudden warm feeling, like it’s okay to go outside again. That’s the great thing about the night, the fact that there’s always lights, no matter how bad the weather is.”
I looked up at the sky, squinting, trying hard to capture the same feeling. “I suppose,” I said.
“Oh, c’mon silly. Didn’t you notice it?” she said. “When we got out of the car, they were dull, like a faint glimmer. But since then, they’ve grown so bright. I felt like I was standing under a Christmas tree…I wish I could lie in this position forever.”
“Nikki?” I asked.
“Are you going to help me with my story?”
“I’m doing that already,” she said, “Aren’t I?”
Nikki sighed. “I’m trying to get you to relax,” she said. “You’ll need it working here.”
I then pointed toward the sky. “See that dimly lit one,” I said.
“That’s my life there. That just says it all.”
“That one – right there,” I said. “It looks like it’s ready to fall from the sky…”
“Oh come now,” Nikki said, watching her legs kick under water. “You’ll do fine.”
“I’ve never felt so much pressure in my fucking life,” I said.
“This is more pressure than final exams at college?” she said.
“Hell yeah!” I said. “It’s the expectations – everybody’s always expected big things from me. I don’t know why.”
“You’re a smart guy,” she said. “You don’t have anything to prove.”
“I think it goes back to when I was in kindergarten, and I was reading before everybody else was, and they used to sit me in the corner with a pile of ‘Clifford’ books, and tell me to have fun,” I said. “I’d sit there, bored, while the other kids were sounding out letters.”
“But that’s a good thing, right?”
“Sure it was,” I said. “But by the time I was in fifth grade, everybody was reading faster than I was. They’d breeze through ‘Hardy Boys’ books while I’d struggle with Archie comics. I’d get Cs on my book report and my dad would trash me, call me a ‘born loser’ and shit like that.”
“You’re dad was pretty hard on you, huh?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “It was the same with sports, too. I ran track, and one year I was supposed to be the best long-distance guy, but I blew out my knee. The whole thing fucked me up, probably for life. My grades suffered, but even worse, I had to deal with my dad’s wrath. I remember sitting with him in the family room, listening to him drone on and on about how disappointed he was, in me. It just seems that everywhere I go, I fail to live up to expectations.”
Nikki listened. “How about love?”
“Yeah, love,” she said.
“What about it?”
“Have you ever loved anybody before?
“Did anybody ever break your heart before?”
“You’re still upset about that,” Nikki asked, “aren’t you? I could tell by your tension…”
“Yeah, well I wear everything on my sleeve…”
“When did it happen?” she asked.
“Oh, about two years ago,” I said “I was in college, I thought I met my future wife. You know how you think – that everything’s going to last forever.”
“Whatever happened to her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “She disappeared. It’s really weird. We were once stuck together like glue.”
“Then, one day, she up and left – left the country, in fact,” I said. “She went on one of those junior-year-abroad things, to France or some place like that. She blew me off, which was probably a good idea on her part.”
Nikki stared at me. “What happened?”
“What happened?” I said “I got fucking anorexic or bulimic – I could never figure out which.”
“That doesn’t happen to men.”
“It happened to me,” I said. “I was praising the porcelain god on an almost nightly basis. That’s something I never thought would happen, but in just a month, I lost something like 50 pounds. I think if I kept going, I probably would have died.”
“What turned it around?”
“I didn’t want to die!” I said, hugging her tighter as I drew a big belly laugh. “I just started eating again, forcing things down my throat. Eventually I got used to the routine again, you know, the routine of eating, and I was fine, or as fine as I could be.”
I let out a sigh, and shook my head. “I really hate talking about it,” I said.
Nikki swam over, and wrapped my arms around her stomach. She rested the back of her head against my shoulder, tilted her head up and looked at the stars, again.
“What about you?” I asked.
“What about me?”
“You’ve loved, right?” I asked. “Didn’t you love your boyfriend?”
Nikki looked down at the water, and kicked her feet. She sighed.
“Well,” she said, now looking to the side and toward the pitch-black sky, “I still do.”
Nikki took a deep breath, and blew out. “God,” she said. “I could use a cigarette right now.”
I paused, and then talked. “Can I ask you a question?”
“You can ask.”
“Like I said,” Nikki declared. “You can ask.”
“How did they find him?”
“You mean how did I find him?”
“My God,” I said.
Nikki breathed deeply, again. I could feel the tension in her chest.
“We lived in this housing complex right next to the base,” she said. “We had a trailer, because we couldn’t afford much else. I think I was making more than he was…”
“Is that possible?”
“The only people with lower wages than reporters,” she said, “are the United States military.”
“That’s pathetic,” I said.
“And I think that was part of the problem,” she said. “There was a lot of tension. He brought his work home with him, no doubt. You could tell when he walked through the door every night. It was like he was aging rapidly. Every day there was a new line on his face.”
“I knew,” she said. “It was only a matter of time. And then, when I came home one night, there he was – sprawled out on the floor. He was down so long that the blood in his hair dried up. It was crusty, like he couldn’t comb it out too easily.”
“My God,” I said.
“I hugged him,” she said. “You know, in a way, it was the closest I ever felt to him. He kept things so close to himself, I felt like I could never penetrate that wall.”
Nikki tread water with her hand as she talked. I found myself holding her tighter.
“Again, you know, I…”
“I know,” Nikki said. “Don’t bother saying it again.”
“Well, okay,” I said.
Nikki wiped her eyes, again with the back of her knuckle. I paused, and waited.
“There is one thing I find troubling,” I said.
“Why didn’t anybody from the base help you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, don’t they have family assistance programs that reach out to grieving family members or whatever?”
“Well, I’m not a family member,” she said. “But I did have friends…”
“Yeah, well, they were his friends,” she said. “The thing is, they were all very creepy.”
“There was this guy, Robert Borden. He went blind after he shot himself in the head,” she said.
“Oh, was that the guy?” I said. “I heard about him…”
“Yeah. He was nuts. A real recluse,” she said. “He lived in the same trailer park as us. He was into all sorts of Nazi shit. He used to take a pistol and blow holes into the side of his trailer.”
“That’s pretty fucked up.”
“Then there was this guy Rick Northstream,” Nikki said. “He was even nuttier – only he was popular. He used to go to Uncle Tom’s and hang out with the murderers.”
“Christ,” I said, “was he a killer?”
“No, he was harmless,” she said. “But he was known for bragging about the size of his thing.”
“You’re telling me these people helped you?”
“Well, they didn’t,” she said. “I mean, they tried. But I think they were just trying to get down my pants.”
“I know, she said. “I hate myself.”
“What?” I said.
“I hate myself.”
“Now, why do you say that?”
“Why do I do this to myself?” she said, her eyes tearing up again. She was slurring her speech more and more, and her face grew weary. “Why do I let myself remember all that? I just want to move on!”
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s OK…Did I tell you I was diabetic?”
“No, you didn’t.”
“My doctor told me I shouldn’t drink,” she said. “But I’m plowed.”
“You’re not acting like it.”
“But I feel it.”
“Let’s go back,” I said.
About a half-hour later, we pulled up to Cedar Chase. I jogged to the passenger’s side, opened the door and shook Nikki, who had fallen asleep. She slowly woke up, but I could tell that she was too weak to rise on her own power. I rolled her off the seat, wrapped her left arm around my collar and rescue-carried her to her door.
We got inside, but Nikki was shivering. I wrapped my jacket around her, helped her to her bedroom. I lay her on her bed and walked toward the door.
At that moment, Nikki perked up. “Where do you think you’re going?” she said.
I was amazed. One minute, she was half-dead. Now she was very alive.
“Wow,” I said. “You’re awake.”
“Right. And where do you think you’re going?”
“Oh no you’re not,” she said. “I think we have some unfinished business.”
“Why don’t you go to sleep?” I said. “You’re tired.”
“Come over here.”
I approached her, cautiously. I sat at the edge of the bed, and Nikki squirmed over. She lifted up my shirt, and began to rub my back with her hands.
First, I was resistant, and the feel of her hands gave me a nervous chill.
“It’s OK, baby…”
But I found it soothing, I had to admit. I closed my eyes, and let her do it.
"Mmmmmm," Nikki groaned, and soon, we were kissing again, rolling around the bed and wrapping themselves up in her blanket. We kissed, licked and slapped, locking each other in a tight, though smooth embrace. Then we dangled on the edge of the bed, until Nikki nudged I to the floor.
She tumbled on top of me, and humped my stomach. I reached over and yanked her shirt over her head, and her curly blonde hair flopped in the air, and then over her shoulder. My hands moved to her bra, and my fingers fumbled at the clip.
He fumbled, and fumbled. And fumbled. Nothing.
“Dammit!" I yelled. "I can’t get it open."
"Don’t worry about it," Nikki said. “Worry about this.”
She then grabbed my arm, and shoved it in her pants, while my other hand worked on the bra. Nikki’s belt was a bit tight, however, so I could barely move my hand below her waistline. Nikki could sense I was struggling, so she pushed my hand even lower.
"Oooooh, ooooooh!" Nikki moaned. I could feel her warmth and softness. But I was tired, and as I grew weary as the night wore on. After 15 minutes, I started to sweat.
Nikki felt crotch. "What's wrong?" she said.
“Look,” I said. “Maybe we'd better stop.”
"Yeah…look, I'm not very good at this,” I said. “It doesn’t do much for me."
Nikki was silent. She was so quiet that I got scared.
“OK, wait,” I said. “Hear me out.”
Nikki rose and marched toward the bedroom doorway, clenching her fists. She stopped, and then pointed toward the hallway and the outside door.
“Please leave,” she declared.
I left, and Nikki slammed the door so hard, I could feel it almost hit me in the ass. Then came a sharp, crisp click on the lock of her door. I shrugged, and then left.