I pull into the giant purple gas station called the Proggleland Fill Me Up (no hyphens). You need coffee, food, directions, Patty. The boy cuddles up under his blanket.
I lock the car door behind me.
I walk into the store to find an assortment of snack foods, including three rows of sweets shaped like snowballs. I buy two for my passenger because I think he’ll enjoy the shape (if not the sugar). The gas boy rings up my purchase, then holds a snowball pack in his hands a moment before putting it into a bag, lingering over it with a smile that curves up half his face, as if he’s too shy to smile with both sides. Maybe the snowballs are even better than I think.
I ask him about lodging, but it seems there isn’t much in Santa Vallejo proper. He uses the word “proper,” even as he holds the snowball.
“You have to go just outside, on the other side of the SV River,” he says, pointing over his head and to the left, with a gesture that reminds me of the stretches we used to do in aerobics. I imitate him, partially just to do a little stretching myself after so much driving. I hear something crack.
I start driving toward the river as I realize I forgot to buy a map. It takes me a while to admit to myself I’ve been driving in circles and need to bravely make a new turn.
As I search for the river, I call out popular boys’ names to see if I can get a reaction from my passenger. Doesn’t he need a name, or is it just a social convention? After all, he’s been within arm’s reach, and we’ve been fine. Beyond arm’s reach, though, is what worries me. One of the things that worries me.
“Cody,” I try. He holds a snowball in his left hand while chewing on his right hand. Now and then he’ll stick a finger into the snowball and lick the frosting out. Like any small child.
“Sean,” I say. “Jeremy. Jed.” I get no response. “Jason” makes him scratch his ear, but it might be unrelated. I wonder: When they wanted him, did they just yank the cord? The thought turns my hands cold and sweaty.
“Maybe we’ll let you pick,” I suggest, and he readjusts his body behind the bungee cord holding him to his seat. Then I see a thin almost inconspicuous line of blood flowing down his thumb, onto the snowball in his other hand.
There are several things you need to do, Patty. Stop driving in circles. Get to the river. Find food, shelter. Settle in. To-do lists fill my head. He needs clothes. You need to look at some newspapers, see if you’re the main story or maybe just a blurb. Words appear banner style across my vision, although I recognize this is not a safe way to drive. Still they come: Patty Grant steals child. Graduate student kidnaps small boy from college neighborhood. Then there’s the smaller print. Neighbors found her quiet and studious, although messy when lining up her trash cans for pickup. Department chairpersons call Grant nervous but nice, and an excellent grammarian. Her composition students describe her as exhausted and unsympathetic. School crossing guard says the mousy Patty often crossed against the light.
Turn to page A-3 for Grant’s high school photograph.
Don’t think about it, Patty.
We do get to the Santa Vallejo River, mostly I suspect by making wrong turns. I have to admit it isn’t quite what I expected. It’s more of a wash way than a river, but not like the wash ways of my Southern California youth. A narrow park of small leafy trees and those ever-present pink blossoming bushes line the river. Little benches pop up here and there throughout the park —they’re turquoise, kind of like the water, and I have to admire a river that’s color coordinated.
This may well be the first river he’s ever seen, and even though it’s not what I’ve come to expect, it’s an important milestone. Especially when your previous frame of reference regarding bodies of water is a half-empty, graying, filthy old doggie dish like the one they left out for him.
There is a ridiculous amount to throw up about.
The bridge, plain, utilitarian, with no flowering bushes, leads my aging Toyota over the river. At the bridge’s end, we reach an area that feels familiar, lower, warmer even. I drive slowly, staking out the place. Buildings are older in these parts, but still tiled and stuccoed. Sidewalked streets offer up only the sporadic tree; lawns are turning brown. Plus, there’s a scent of something fertilizerish. Yes, over on this side, it looks a bit more like San Diego, like Orange County, like Los Angeles, like all the places I’ve lived in and left. For the first time since I got here, somebody honks at me to speed up. I’m not sure I’m in Santa Vallejo anymore.
When I get out of the car to stretch my legs, I trip on a crack in the sidewalk, and a sense of deja vu overtakes me.
I look over my shoulder for police cars, as if it matters anymore, then unstrap the boy and let him out his car door. He surrounds himself with the blanket, imitates my stretching, then makes a little hop onto the sidewalk.
“Like a bunny,” I say, but he looks at me oddly. “Hopping, like a bunny.” I hop, bringing my hands forward like paws, and he imitates me under his blanket. I realize a woman hopping with a child might draw extra attention, although perhaps not as much as a woman hopping without a child.
Yes, officer, we saw a woman with the child you describe hopping into that restaurant earlier.
We step into a café. I order avocado sandwiches and take the boy to a booth as far from the door as possible, as if this would help any. We’re still easily seen from the window—every booth is by a window, so this isn’t exactly a place to hide, but it smells so nice here. It doesn’t smell like fried food or impending jail time at all.
A waitress heads our way with a lime green booster seat that coordinates, somehow, with the turquoise booth.
“Hi,” she says, lifting the boy and blanket into the seat without even asking and with a grace and swiftness I don’t expect I’ll ever have.
“There!” she says. “You can’t beat that.” She’s a college-age young woman with wispy almost-white hair, wearing a long black T to her knees, and purple-and-green leggings beneath. She nearly flies back to the counter at the sound of ringing. Tinkerbell comes to mind, and I want to tell the boy, but he strikes me as desperately unfamiliar with storybook icons. The boy looks surprised by his new height and even stops pawing at his neck, which he has done regularly all morning, trading off with chewing on his hand. I have not had the time to figure out which is worse.
He pulls the blanket almost completely over his head. I hear sucking noises. Though this may be perfectly normal for a child.
When our order is ready, our waitress skips back to our table with sandwiches and smiles, neatly folds back the boy’s blanket and ruffles his hair. (It’s sandy blondish, not in the slightest bit red, which makes me suddenly hopeful for him). I look at him as if for the first time. He’s a cute little boy, the kind of child you might long for—curly blonde hair, blue eyes maybe turning a bit hazel, quiet and pleasant (his reddened neck hides just beneath his now cleaner T-shirt). And you can’t see the bad hand he keeps in his lap. At first look, you just wouldn’t know.
I picture him in black and white, too. On the side of a milk carton, say.
I grab two newspapers stacked neatly at a back table, a larger San Jose Mercury News, and a smaller-town Santa Vallejo Tattler. I’m not sure I approve of the name, but I’m hopeful and suddenly ambitious. Avocado has that effect on me. Plus, I love a task.
I look through the big paper’s classifieds first, but there seems to be no listing for Santa Vallejo, as if it doesn’t exist. I grab the Tattler, squinting a little so that I don’t have to see the actual word Tattler.
Our waitress comes over with the shake, which she’s split into a big glass for me and a little one for the boy. Her knowledge appears vast.
“Do you know where these outlying areas are?” I ask her, pointing to the housing ads. The boy peeks out from his blanket, mesmerized by her leggings, I notice.
“We are the outlying areas,” she says, gesturing a little proudly. She shrugs. “I think it’s somebody’s idea of an insult.”
“Is this Santa Vallejo?”
“Sure, technically. Some people,” she says quietly, making clear that I probably want to stay away from these kind of people, “think that once you’re over the river, you’re out of the area. In a faraway city or something. The Valley.” She shrugs again.
“But you like it here?” I ask.
“Sure, well, plus I can afford it here.” She whispers: “We’re allowed to go over the river, too.” With a laugh, she winks at the boy, who winks back with both eyes. More of a blink, but the effort’s there.
Linda Lenhoff’s latest novel, *Your Actual Life May Vary, was a finalist for the SFWP Publication prize, Top 6, and also made the final 6 for the Galileo Prize from Free State Review and the Orison Books prize. The first chapter, “Your Actual Life May Vary,” was published in This Side of the Divide by Baobab Press in 2019. She is looking forward to having her first collection of short stories, You’ve Got a Problem, published by Propertius Press. Linda published two novels with Kensington Books, Life a la Mode and Latte Lessons. Life a la Mode was her thesis for an MFA in Creative Writing and was translated into four languages. She lives in California’s Bay Area.