"Stalkers Anonymous" by Dale T. Stucky
When Colin arrived at the meeting place Tuesday night he found a group of about twenty people clustered around a light pole. They all seemed to know each other; all talking and smoking—glowing pinpoints of cigarettes speckling their silhouettes. He proceeded past them straight to the door, but, twisting the knob, found it locked.
"Running late," someone in the group said.
"Big surprise," someone else added.
Colin walked a ways off, leaned against a wall and eyed them, and he could tell they were eyeing him. The tone of voices indicated men in their thirties or forties, but occasional outbursts of high-pitched laughter suggested a few females. He heard one ask, "Who's the newbie?"
Heads cocked in Colin's direction, then eased away. "Do we care?" came one reply.
"I’m a Hinckley trainee," Colin answered in the cold evening air, aiming the comment at no one in particular.
Most didn't hear him but a few heads swiveled his way and gave him a closer appraisal.
"Does look a little like him," someone said and giggled.
Unsure laughter rose at this then fizzled. They went back to chatting as if he didn't exist, as if he were some anomaly, as if they weren't all anomalies. He watched them with distaste. Do you have to be a card-carrying member here? Tired of the sight he pulled out his smartphone and noted the time. 7:35 p.m. Bad enough to be sent here—they've got to keep you waiting like the perverts they assume you are.
He stuffed the phone, a graduation gift, back into his pocket and took in the setting. Only a trickle of traffic out. No one else on the streets. He had the peculiar feeling they were the only ones in the city, and the rest, wise to some impending doom, were all underground. Below earth was where he might end up himself, if he didn’t take warning, so he’d been told, and if he didn’t attend these sessions to obtain his diversion, his one-time pass, and get back on the right path.
He sighed, leaned his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes. “Visalia, Gateway to the Sierras,” the archway at the edge of town had proclaimed. He had to deal with another gateway, a gateway drug of sorts—addiction to one Julia Spearman.
A jiggled flash of lightning from a storm to the west teased his eyes open. On the eastern horizon, John Muir's hulking Range of Light strobe-lit into view. A particularly dazzling bolt revealed the snow at the highest elevations. There lay his home away from home—the employee cabins at seven-thousand foot plus altitude.
* * *
When he'd first arrived at Sequoia National Park for the summer, he'd been chilled and amazed by the alien world into which the concessionaire's bus transported him from the Fresno airport. The snowbanks still towered twelve feet high along the winding road to the seasonal workers’ cabin area, and he felt trapped in some gigantic luge and felt his Houston past sliding forever behind him.
But the novelty of snow quickly wore off, and only made him shudder with its icy indifference. He'd come in mid-May and most of the other employees hadn’t yet arrived. He felt lonely and terribly homesick. The employee cabins were dark, and along the opposite wall to his sat a matching bunk with a naked mattress. He, as a fresh English major via Texas A&M with no "collegiate-level" job prospects, had been desperate to escape his parents' house. Now, he had every reason to breathe freely—if he hadn’t been choked with regret. He hadn’t said a proper goodbye to his family but skirted away with scarcely a wave. He felt bad about it.
* * *
When the door to the meeting place finally opened, the others, like a school of upright mackerel, moved forward, flicking their waning cigarettes onto the sidewalk as they funneled through. Colin brought up the rear. He wanted his pick of seats—somewhere he was unlikely to be called upon—but little chance of that now.
On entering the large fluorescent-lit room with its yellow no-nonsense cinderblock walls, he found the issue moot—the chairs had been arranged in a circle. Only two vacant spots remained and he took the one farthest from the entrance—where presumably would preside the leader. On the right side of the chosen gap sat a diminutive lady in her early seventies who surprised him by nodding and smiling at him. Did she really belong here? Colin could tell she had been a semi-beauty in her youth. Still slender, still elegantly dressed—though her outfit was sleeveless and dismayingly short—with a face not too adorned with wrinkles. Her hair glowed like freshly polished silver, dropped over her forehead in a sort of bang, and was topped by an undersized purple and off-center beret. But age had loosened her throat into a dewlap, and the distance between her nose and upper lip had extended as if a denture within had slipped and taken the skin with it.
A balding man sat to the left—wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with Winona Ryder's cute but world-weary face. He didn’t smile at Colin. This Ryder-man scooted his chair a few inches to the right as Colin took a seat, and Colin retaliated by scooting his a little to the left, being careful not to slide too close to the lady, who had, herself, shifted in her chair to study a printed sheet in her hands as if absorbed in studying the program for a wedding, maybe, or a church musical. She looked far too old and far too normal for this setting.
The facilitator turned out not a bad looking one—blond and fresh-faced—although at least twenty years Colin's senior. Wouldn't mind stalking her, crept into his mind. She started out by informing everyone the coffee machine had been repaired, and that coffee was now available. At least a dozen got up without further invite and queued up at the back wall where a table had been set with muffins and doughnuts.
The facilitator didn't seem perturbed at this exodus and busied herself shuffling some papers. Colin sighed, leaned back and rubbed his face. "Now, I got to deal with this shit," he moaned under his breath.
The little lady to his left whispered, "You're new here, young man, aren't you?"
Colin looked over and down at her. "Uh huh," he answered. The sight of her non-superior smile struck him with its incongruity, like finding a Hawaiian on an Everest expedition.
"But, I'm not sure I’ve got the right place," he added.
She gleamed at him—her eyes silvery grey like a snowmelt stream. "Why this is the SA group, Stalkers Anonymous. Is that where you need?"
"I’d been told there'd be some kind of meeting here for. . .er, obsessive behavior."
The woman stared at him kindly. "Obsessive? Oh my, are you that?”
"Depends on the definition, I guess.”
"In-teres-ting," she murmured slowly and appeared to consider a response, but then turned away and began fumbling through her purse as if digging for pepper spray.
"What are you in for?" Colin asked, trying to lighten the mood and wanting to draw her back into conversation.
"Well," she looked up and said, a little proudly, "I’ve been told I’m a stalker and I suppose I am. So I’ve been coming here for over a year.”
This piece of shrapnel lodged in Colin's brain—the strangeness of it. His own stint was scheduled for a mere three months. What could it be about this fragile little lady, he wondered, that could possibly require a whole year of correction and treatment. He stared at her for a moment, then, finally accepting the surreal, settled back in his chair.
"This is where I'm supposed to be I suppose," he mumbled and, in a lower voice, added, "oddball city."
The group leader began to clear her throat and the coffee addicts shuffled slowly back to their seats. Colin's new "friend" lowered her purse gently to the floor, apparently having found what she wanted.
"So, team-members," the facilitator began, "how did we do on our assignments this week?" she asked and crossed her legs demurely. Colin admired her knit skirt and her well-kept appearance.
A strip-jerky of a man to the right of her, one tanned as dark as the blood-brown carpet, lifted his hand first, and, after their mentor nodded to him, blurted out, “Well, Miss Rita, I didn’t even think about—“
Miss Rita broke in, “Proper etiquette if you please, Rob.”
"Oh yeah.” He cleared his throat and began again measuredly. “Hello, my name is Rob, and I—am a stalker.”
“Hellooo Mr. Rob,” the group chanted back in a mirthful tone.
Robert paused and looked at the leader for approval. She smiled sweetly and he continued, “Well, Miss Rita, I didn't think about Meg once this week . . . well, couldn't been much more'n twice anyway."
Many in the group erupted in guffaws at this. A gruff-voiced woman threw in, "That counting your wet dreams, Stringer?"
The leader broke through with a surprisingly loud voice, "Now, what have I been saying team?" The mirth died down. "We are all here to support each other. If you think otherwise, you can just walk out that door."
No one spoke up, but Colin heard a whisper off to the side, "Wish my parole officer would say that."
Miss Rita ignored this and turned back to the speaker. "Now, Robert, it certainly sounds like you've made progress. But remember—the assignment was to leaf through your copies of People Magazine—the ones featuring Miss Ryan—at least three times during the week without masturbating once or cutting out any of the pictures."
"Yes ma'am, that I did, and, uh, I didn't do any of that other stuff."
"So he says, Miss Rita," announced a three-hundred-pound black man wearing a Lakers jersey. "How we know he ain't lying?"
Miss Rita answered calmly, "As I mentioned last week, I'll be getting these magazines back at the end of the session, and I will know who has been honest with the group and who hasn't. As for the masturbating, that will have to be—like the Seinfeld episode—on the honor system."
"Course, that don't mean I didn't stop by the gate to her estate a time or two. Just in admiration, you know," Rob Stringer added helpfully.
"I thought we talked about that, Robert," Miss Rita said sternly, shaking her head and scribbling on the margins of her notepad.
"We did," said Stringer. “But, like I say—I didn't do nothing on the magazines. You could put 'em in a doctor's waiting room. You could eat off 'em."
"Yeah. . .if you don't mind a little STD seasoning," someone added, giggling.
Miss Rita looked angrily in the commenter's direction and the laughter that began to swell quickly died away. She presided over seconds of silence, her face welcoming the challenge. At length she straightened up and laid down her pen. She began slowly scanning the circle, a human periscope searching for a torpedo target.
“Miss Rita, I have a confession to make,” piped in a dome-headed man in a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Cindy rules!”
Miss Rita sighed and responded, “Yes, Serge. Please don’t disappoint me.”
“Hello, my name is Serge—but, as you know, folks call me “Eggs”—and I am indeed a bona-fide stalker.” Miss Rita pursed her lips at this and said nothing.
“Hellooo Mr. Eggs,” sang the choir.
Colin squirmed in his seat, not believing he was supposed to learn from this group. “Eggs” McLaughlin, he found out later, was so named because the man, self confessedly, represented the most cracked of all the members. He typically sought cover behind a laurel hedgerow south and east of the Crawford estate, landscaping invisible to the house but plainly visible from the street, where he would lie in wait for hours to snap a digital photo of his prey.
“I slipped up big time this week, Miss Rita, I confess. I got tired of waiting for Cindy—it’d been a good ten days since I laid eyes, or lens, upon her—and I got to feeling her people were intentionally keeping her from me, so I. . .I. . . .”
Miss Rita sighed. “What’d you do Eggs?”
“I egged her house.”
The group broke into a smattering of whistling and laughter.
“Well, it’s what I’m known for, right? I figured what better way to send her a sign, right? That it was me, Eggs. What better way to let her know I was out there. Her number one fan.”
Miss Rita shook her head and said, “We’ll talk after class, Serge. We obviously need a better plan.”
But “Eggs” couldn’t suppress himself and gushed, “You should have seen me though, two security men hot on my tail, and me weaving in and out of traffic like one of those DNA doohickeys.”
“That’ll be enough.”
“I do feel bad about it.”
“I’m sure you do.”
"Miss Rita, I got something to say," called out a clean-cut man in a sports jacket.
"I'll get to you in a minute, Alfred. Be patient," Miss Rita said. Colin could feel her gaze again slowly sweep the circle, hesitate, and then settle on his own coordinates. No, no, no, he thought. He avoided looking at her, but he didn't look down. He gazed up but away. He tried to appear confident, indifferent.
Then it came. "You're Colin, aren't you?” Her voice oozed cheer.
Colin nodded and examined his wrist as if searching for a tick bite.
"Colin here is the newest member of our group," she told the class. "Tell us a little about yourself, Colin, and how you landed here."
"You're damn right—landed," someone said. "This is a different planet."
Colin looked for the source of the comment. No one stood out. They blended like kindred aliens.
Miss Rita ignored the outburst as if it were mere static on her screen and honed in on her target. "Yes, Colin. Take your time. But start properly please."
“Uh, hello—I guess? My name is Colin, and I am, so they tell me, a stalker.”
“That’s kind of a shaky start,” Miss Rita commented, “but do go on,”
"There's not much to tell. I really like this one girl. You know—it’s a girl thing.” He stopped short, not wanting to overextend himself to strangers.”
“C’mon,” Miss Rita encouraged. “Coax it out.”
“I made the mistake of sitting too long outside her cabin—up the hill a ways, you know—watching for her to come in, or go out. Stupid stuff."
Miss Rita smiled. "It all begins so harmlessly, doesn't it?"
Colin stared, uncomprehending.
“And what is this beauty’s name?”
A voice off to the side broke in. "Oh, oh, Zack. You have some competition."
A baritone voice sounded next to it. "Julia? Julia Roberts? Dude, she’s all mine. I called dibs on her two months ago."
“Quiet down group,” Miss Rita interjected. “Remember, we are to remain orderly and respectful. Continue Colin.”
"Not Julia Roberts. . .her name is Julia Spearman,” Colin offered.
Miss Rita’s face grew a quizzical look. “Hmm. I’m not familiar with her. Now, where did you first see this starlet of yours? Was it in a movie, or some show on TV?"
"No,” Colin answered, suppressing a laugh. “She’s not in any magazine or anything." He paused, noting the surprise around him. "She works at the same place I do. Up in the concession area of Sequoia Park. I work at the convenience store and she’s up at the gift shop."
A general shifting of displeasure in the group.
"He isn't even one of us, Miss Rita, your honor," a voice slurred from somewhere among the chairs to Colin's right.
Other voices murmured agreement. Miss Rita looked down and flipped through some pages on a clipboard, frowning at what she saw, as if Colin presented a special problem. Finally, she said, “Oh, they might be right, Colin. The class for, what we call, garden-variety stalkers, or ‘SA Lite’ meets Thursday nights. That one is led by Miss Fleming.”
Sneers erupted from the rest of the group.
“I have no idea why they even sent me your file,” continued Miss Rita, giving the paperwork a questioning look.
Colin surveyed the stares of displeasure around the circle. “So,” he asked slowly, beginning to rise, “should I clear out?”
“It’s up to you, but you might as well stay,” responded Miss Rita. “You may get something out of it. See where your habit may lead, you know, if you don't control it.”
Colin eased back down. He expected further questions, but Miss Rita had apparently lost interest in him, and, having smoothed down the papers on her clipboard, began to visually roam again before stopping short.
“Lauren, we haven’t heard from you tonight.”
The little lady to Colin’s left brightened and straightened. She scanned the room for a moment with chin slightly upraised, as if to enforce quiet or reverence.
“Hello, dears,” she began. “My name, as you know, is Lauren. I’m seventy-four years young and my true love, my destiny, is—drum roll please—Mr. River Phoenix.
“Oh,” she turned and smiled at Colin, “and as I told you, I’m a stalker.”
While the class responded in sing-song unison, “Hello, Miss Lauren,” Colin turned to face her, surprised to hear the target of her adulation. He had imagined her idol would be someone like Anthony Hopkins or Patrick Stewart, someone a little more age-appropriate.
Lauren noticed his reaction and said, speaking to the class, “Before I begin, I think maybe I should give Colin here a little background since he’s new.”
“And an intruder,” someone interjected.
She waved her hand derisively at this and scooted over in her chair to face the young man. This had the effect of making him feel suddenly in a one-on-one conversation. The others dropped away as if nearsightedness had afflicted his peripheral vision, and he had the sensation he was about to be sucked into a rabbit hole of craziness.
“Colin,” she began, “my adventure started after watching The Mosquito Coast back in 1988, and then watching it again and again.” She chuckled. “To the tune of seventeen times, or maybe twenty—I lost count.”
Colin was vaguely aware of background laughter from the group.
“In his eyes, River’s eyes—not Harrison Ford’s—I saw my husband reincarnated. Yes, my own husband. I would rewind and zoom in, over and over, but there was no mistake. Eyes are a window into the soul—don’t you agree?”
Colin pictured Julia’s rich, coffee-hued eyes, remembered being punctured by them, being destroyed by them. “Ohhhkay,” he answered.
“Even though River at that time would have been sixteen and me sixty-four,” she continued, “I became determined to meet him face to face and to have our souls connect. It’s a spiritual thing. You understand? That’s what life is about.” She paused at this point, apparently waiting for Colin to at least nod.
"But don't you know River’s been dead for years?" Colin asked—quite innocently. “Out on a sidewalk, I think. An overdose.”
The class squirmed as one. Shuffling sounded in their seats.
"You don’t know what you’re talking about, rookie,” muttered the Ryder-man from behind.
Colin looked about apprehensively. The group sat grimly silent and Colin sensed he'd violated some sort of code. Some glanced over at Miss Rita, who had a concerned look on her face.
But Lauren maintained a cheerful demeanor and responded, "I don't believe that for a second, sugar. He was reported only last week in Belize, where they filmed the movie. Besides—we don't all leave for Heaven when we're dead."
Colin was struck speechless and could only think, I guess I’m pretty damn normal after all. He knew he shouldn’t say anything more and let things lie, but something strained against his chest like an insistent alien he had to allow out.
“Maybe you’re thinking of his brother, Joaquin,” he offered.
“Oh my, no. I watched that Joaquin Phoenix interview on Letterman. It was awful. I could never fall in love with a man like that,” Lauren said, still smiling.
Miss Rita cleared her throat and spoke up, “Well, be that as it may, Lauren, have you made any progress with some of the other activities we talked about?”
“Oh sure,” Lauren squeaked in reply, still beaming at Colin. “So many. Mahjong has gotten to be quite a thing with me—thanks so much, Miss Rita, for recommending games. Crosswords too. And, of course my cats always perk me up, the dears—they love the new laser pointer I bought. Let’s see, what else?—and the website I set up, River Running, is getting more hits—although, I confess, most are from people who think it has to do with whitewater rafting.
“I don’t obsess so much, not nearly so. I only sent out ten letters last week—to his sister Rain, to Summer, and to Liberty, and to some others who know more than they’re letting on. Oh, and to the honorable Governor Pete Wilson. I’m waiting to hear back.”
“That’s wonderful, Lauren,” said Miss Rita, folding her hands and smiling. “You’ve come a long way and we are all so proud of you.”
A murmur of agreement rose from the others.
“Thank you,” Lauren gushed. “Everyone is so nice, so supportive. And, it’s true,” she gave a mischievous wink to Colin, “I haven’t ‘keyed’ any conspirators’ vehicles lately.”
Spontaneous laughter at this.
In a softer voice Lauren said, “And thank you, Colin, for understanding.”
He turned to her and said, “No problem.” He realized his response was emotionally lacking, but he could think of nothing else. He wanted to get out of there.
Lauren remained facing him and her eyes locked on his in a peculiar way.
“You know—your eyes remind me a lot of his,” she mused, cocking her head to get a better view. “They kind of glitter, so shiny.”
Colin laughed uncomfortably. “They’re just everyday peepers.”
She finally turned away and appeared to be ruminating on something. When Miss Rita posed another question, Lauren circled her index finger around as if to say, move on, move on.
The support meeting did move on. From wackiness to wackiness. Miss Rita elicited testimony from several other specimens in this strange ecosystem. A woman convinced that Brad Pitt was sending coded messages to her Blackberry. A man who tried to pass himself off as an SPCA worker to get near Pamela Anderson, who, so the rumors went, was a committed animal rights activist. (He spent long minutes digging photos from his wallet of animals he’d adopted and passed them around the circle.) A dandified gentleman wearing a red bow tie, who claimed that Haley Joel Osment was his son and had been spirited away by his vengeful wife, who in turn had been told by an astrologer that the boy would be a source of great wealth and fame.
Throughout, Colin kept glancing at the time on his cell phone, concerned that with each passing minute he could become infected by this pernicious zaniness.
Finally, Miss Rita wrapped up by expounding on how the participants’ own lives had intrinsic worth and how they didn’t need to live vicariously through others. Then, she surprised Colin by leading the community of misplaced faith in a prayer.
“Give us the strength to face each day under your glorious power and guidance, and help us not to be entangled in the lives and problems of, so-called, famous men and women. For we ourselves are famous in yo