Conjunctions:41 Two Kingdoms

“Choose this walk,” I hear through the headphones as I read along in the accompanying book. “When you finish you will discard the weight.” I assume the travel writer means the bags we’ve brought with us. But why would we get rid of them, particularly this far from home? We’re standing in line, waiting to get in to eat. I turn the page: a photo of a champagne-colored car with Texas plates, no occupants. The caption reads, “They stepped away.” The voice continues, “Now take this car, for example. It belongs to a rental company. Two people borrowed it for the weekend. When Sunday came, it was agreed they would return it. However, some time before Sunday the car was abandoned …” 

The hostess walks out of the door of the restaurant with a clipboard in her hand. “Gladman, party of two,” she calls. But she doesn’t mean us. I can’t explain how I know. My name is Gladman and there are two of us and we’ve been here nearly an hour, but that call, it’s for a different sort of folk. Indeed, a couple walks out of line and approaches the door. Clearly Gladmans of a different sort. A. looks at me, not quite agreeing. “The book says,” I add urgently, though out of sync with the voice in my ears, “the occupants never think of the car again,” and show her a photo of two women in a parking lot, their backs to the camera. 

Then a young man stands in front of us. He has bright eyes that suggest intelligence: he’s probably asking about the wait. I can’t hear him of course. The headphones are on my ears. He mouths: open, spread, open, close, and his teeth show every so often. I look at A. relying on her to be our ears. I want her to smile and be normal. She opens her mouth, like his, but instead of open, spread, open, close, with teeth periodically, she closes, opens, spreads, opens, with no teeth. I want to pull the phones off to beg her to cooperate, but the guide is saying, “Travel light in New Mexico,” and I’m responsible for this information. 

Being in a place “Colorado” that doesn’t quite look like “Colorado,” and headed to a place “New Mexico” makes you begin to wonder about maps and orientation. I look up. There is nothing in the sky indicating which way is north. And that’s what I mean. Why is mathematics here? When I’m done gazing at what I believe to be up, I say to A., though I can’t hear myself, “You’ve got to be nicer to people. We couldn’t be more alone than we are here.” And she nods and gives a face that reads, “I know. I’m trying.” We’re cooperating because we’re underrepresented in this town, where she’s starving and I’m absorbing this book. I remove my headphones and ask the woman in front of us where we are. She smiles and answers, “pueblo,” which I presume is a joke. 

The hostess opens the door and says, “Brown, party of two.” A. turns to me, “That’s us.” I shake my head. “We’re Gladmans, remember?” “No, I went in while you were reading and scratched out your name. I put mine instead, thinking they’d call a Brown before a Gladman.” She looks at me reasonably, challenging my need-to-be-blurted, “They already called Gladman.” 

“The best direction to enter New Mexico from is the north,” I read without listening to the guide’s voice. More of this relying on signals for comfort. “From the north one is able to see the dramatic change in terrain from forest to desert without having to negotiate boundaries. If time allows, take the family to Cimarron Canyon, where you can get a great close-up.” 

“Hey, they are ready to seat us. Are you coming? She asks as if she might go in without me. For unity, I acquiesce to eat as a Brown, though I am most certifiably a Gladman. “What are you so afraid of?” she wants to know. I ignore the question. “The book says,” I try to explain the women’s disappearance a different way, “officials found traces of cigar tobacco on the floor of the backseat, and that’s the extent of their evidence: the women may have been taken away.” 

A. towers above me as we walk to the ladies’ room. The restaurant is working out fine, but the conversation we need to have can’t take place at the table where we’re sitting. So we agree to continue it in the bathroom. A. worries that her beer will be taken while we’re gone and I’m worried about my wallet, which I left in the middle of the table, under a pile of napkins surrounded by hot-sauce bottles. The bathroom is unoccupied. Once inside, I pull her tank top over her had and seize her left nipple with my mouth. I have to stand on the toilet to do this. Well, I have to kneel on the toilet. I tug on the nipple, and wrap my arms around her waist. She does next what all day I’ve been hoping she would do, and afterward screams, “Renee!” 

Time to go back to our table. 

I recognize the Gladmans sitting in a corner of the smoking section. But I don’t want to talk about them. So I turn back to the book and replace the headphones. A.’s been nearly serene since our return from the ladies’ room, dipping her spoon in a yellowish pudding. I must say, there are other Gladmans here as well—besides me and the smoking couple. Everybody’s white. I’m trying to rewind the book back to that photo of the fleeing couple. “Some time before Sunday the car was abandoned,” I read. “Shut it.” A. signs to me. She mouths something like, “You’re talking too loud.” And I lose my temper, yelling, “Yeah, well whack it.” And I know what to expect. The waiter rushes over and I have to clear my ears. “Is there a problem?” he asks. I’m just going to eat this shrimp, I tell myself. But aloud I say nothing. “Ladies, could you come with me?” 

What makes those smoking Gladmans want to get involved? The man of the pair shuffles toward our table. A. and I have not risen to the waiter’s request. But with her eyes she’s trying to ask me what I want. Mr. Gladman and the waiter stand to our right, obscuring of from the remaining diners. “Young man,” Mr. Gladman begins, “why are you harassing these girls?” His chivalry embarrasses me; I look down. Below my hand, which rests on the book, I make out, “… evidence that the women spent some time in a hostel outside Taos. Sight reportings have been the fuel for this case; there are no other records. No credit cards used.” I’m dying to replace the headphones. What do you think happened to them I ask A. She shrugs, closes her eyes. “Give me some time to sit with the information.” Then she takes her last spoonful of pudding and leans back against her chair. Meanwhile, words between the waiter and old Mr. Gladman are destabilizing. The waiter is tapping Mr. G. on the shoulder saying, “Sir, you have no idea what you are doing.” And Mr. G. is flailing his arms. 

When I realize A. is speaking I’m surprised. The four of us have been talking at intervals, each pair at a time (the waiter and Mr. G., then A. and I), but something has caused A. to overlap with the waiter. Now he is saying, “These women have been negracious since they entered” against A.’s “What’s peculiar about this case is how quickly it became folklore. And nobody was murdered. And no obvious sins were committed. The book doesn’t even suggest they were lovers.” All true, I respond, then grimace because I’m speaking alongside Mr. G. 

Suddenly we four fall silent. 

Then just as suddenly we begin again. Now A. and I cannot harmonize our conversation. But at least we’re trying to say the same thing. She wants us to pay the bill and go, and that is also what I want. How awkward our timing. I say, “Get the check so we can split,” and she says, “Get the check so we can go,” only perhaps a second faster. Old Mr. Gladman startles us when he snatches something out of the waiter’s hand and shouts, “Here you go, girls.” I reach for my wallet, assuming it’s the check, but soon realize it’s a napkin.” 

Outside nothing has changed. The car is still in the parking lot; the sun is still out. I want to go somewhere and vacuum the seats, but A. says not yet. We’re pulling away from the restaurant and I’m thinking about Mr. Gladman, comparing him to my father. “What happened back there?” I ask her. And, against her “Nothing,” replace the headphones.

Renee Gladman's books include The Activist (Krupskaya), Juice (Kelsey Street), Not Right Now (Second Story Books), and Arlem (Idiom). Her contribution to Conjunctions 41 entitled Untitled is from Newcomer Can't Swim.