Lauren Fox plays different roles in each of the three Frank Nagler stories.
In the first, “The Swamps of Jersey,” while she never appears in the book, she plays an important role in exposing the political corruption at the heart of the story.
In “A Game Called Dead,” released in January, (Amazon, B&N, Kobo) she is called back to Ironton, N.J. for a trial and she becomes part of Nagler’s actions to bring to an end another crime spree. And they begin to again explore their feelings for one another.
In the third story, a work in progress called “The Weight of Living.” Lauren and Nagler have resumed their relationship, but are feeling around the edges of that it means.
“Swamps” is structured around Nagler’s efforts to rein in a wide-ranging conspiracy. “Dead” is structured on the rules of a computer/live action game invented by college students, called “The Hunter Lair,” but popularly called, “A Game Called Dead.”
The story in “Weight” is based on a terrible case of child sex abuse that occurred in Maine in the 1980s. Used in “Weight,” the key elements are the sense of power behind the actions and the impact, not the actual abuse.
The story is being structured for Lauren and Nagler around a phrase that stuck in my head from that old case: One of the investigators described a victim has having “her personality reconstructed” through therapy.
What does that mean?
I’m finding out. But for both Lauren and Nagler, it involves some deep examination of who they think they are.
Here’s one scene:
Frank Nagler listened to Lauren’s soft barefoot padding enter the hallway from the kitchen, and then the bedroom.
“Are you sure? Do you need money? What if…” her mother had asked.
Lauren had crossed the living room at her parents’ home and sat on the green couch next to her mother.
“Mom, I’m thirty years old. I know you have the Easton apartment, but its forty miles from Ironton. Beside, you’ve met Frank.
Adrienne Fox smiled briefly. “Yes, I’ve met Frank, but there always seems to be someone trying to harm him. I’m sorry if I am concerned.”
“Hello, Adrienne, I’m right here,” Nagler said as they all laughed.
“Yeah, I know, Mom,” Lauren had said. “The world’s a dangerous place. And I know that since Dad died, you’ve felt vulnerable. Maybe you should move to Easton. Be in a downtown, surrounded by people. Shops nearby. You don’t really need that apartment, or the expense, although you could rent it.” Lauren gently took her mother’s hand. “This neighborhood is almost half empty with homes for sale and feels creepy and remote. I worry more about you than you do about me.”
“I’m still sorting it all out, dear,” Adrienne Fox, as her face closed and she tapped her lips with her fingers, gathered as if praying.
Lauren reached over and kissed her mother’s cheek.
Then she stood up and smiled.
“When you should have worried about me was when I was in high school and you and Dad were working and I would ride home on the school bus with all those horny football players,” Lauren laughed. “Empty house, quiet neighborhood, a running back or two…your innocent daughter and those raging hormones.”
“Oh, Mom,” Lauren said she stood up and pulled Frank from his chair. “Nothing happened. I was your good girl, your smart girl.”
Adrienne Fox smiled sadly, small tears gathering at the corner of her eyes. “I know, dear, but a mother worries.”
Lauren winked at Frank.
“Then you should have really worried when I was at college… beer bashes, toga parties, four boys a week…”
“Lauren! Don’t tease… Don’t think …”
“A joke, Mom. And you know it. Love you. We’ll see you next week.”
Nagler slipped off his slacks and instinctively aimed to toss them on the back of the corner chair, but instead removed the belt, closed the clasp, smoothed the creases and, folded, laid the pants over the back of the chair. He’d wear them in the morning. That’s one habit he had not yet broken. They’re pants, for chrissakes.
In an echo he heard Lauren laugh. In a subtle, gentle way she had brought change and light to the little home Nagler had occupied like a soldier in a barracks for nearly thirty years.
It was little things at first, around the kitchen. New towels, pot holders, a bright yellow table cloth draped over the old wooden table he had used uncovered for years.
Flowers on window sills, hanging pots of mums on the porch. Small sample sized cans of paint.
It was not, Frank understood, surreptitious. They talked, often, about the changes. We can’t see the sameness, can we? Can’t sense the stillness that fills our lives, that we accept like breathing, that we defend.
He sat on the edge of the bed and slipped off his socks and climbed in the bed. T-shirt and boxers. He laughed.
It was a shock to find Lauren standing naked in the bathroom one morning. She had stepped from the steaming shower and was wrapping her hair in a towel when he had kicked open the door.
“Can’t a girl get any privacy?” she laughed and placed her hands her hips.
“Sorry,” he had said and looked at the floor and began to back out.
“Hey,” she said as she grabbed a second towel and began to dry her belly. “Get used to it.”
And so he had.
They both did, he knew.
The room was still and dark, outside the street had settled.
Frank had learned that Lauren slept in the nude.
“My parents’ house was a thousand degrees, she said. Tightly insulated, no leaks, thanks to my father’s obsessive efforts and my mother was still always cold. She won the fight. The temperature was always set at eighty or so. With my room on the second floor, it was an airless oven. I’d crack open windows and pull off the blankets, sleep in thin nighties or just shorts. But it was still too hot. So I stared sleeping naked under a thin sheet. Never changed.”
She leaned over and playfully tapped his face. “And you, mister, better just get used to it.”
And so he had. At first almost uncomfortably.
“I’m not used to having anyone here,” he told her softly one night.
She had reached over to him and rubbed his chest and he replied with a touch of her cheek, then embarrassed, reached back to her and tried to rub her back, then said, “Sorry.”
After a moment’s silence, he said. “After so long, you get used to not being touched.”
She turned to face him and propped her head up with a bent arm. She settled the sheet at her waist.
“I know,” she said softly. “You think that it how it’s supposed to be. Then you think that no one wants to touch you and it must be your fault. You want so much to be touched, to have someone … but it burns, stings. So you don’t.” She looked away and stared at the ceiling. “That is the curse of loneliness, Frank.”
He popped up to sit and pulled her to him, resting her head on his chest.
“I didn’t know…hadn’t thought…”
“What, that I was lonely?” She smiled and kissed his arm. “Always was. I hide it well, the activity, the bright smile, the big hello. Another part of the curse. I thought I was in love after college. Me and the boy ran everywhere, did everything, experimented, played, told the world ‘look at us,’ how cool we are as we fucked in the back row of a movie theater, drooled on one another in public and wagged our fingers back at the scolds. But it was just noise, empty noise. One day I realized it had been all about taking. Taking all that was offered. I realized that I could have taken all that boy had and more and still the emptiness, the loneliness would remain.”
She pulled away and leaned back on a pillow, her fingers laced behind her head. Then she tuned back to face Nagler.
“Because love is not about noise, Frank, but silence. The absolute silence in your eyes that takes away all that worry and doesn’t necessarily replace it with assurance, but replaces it with calm.” She smiled slightly. “That boy and I made noise, we did.” She pulled a finger across his jaw and touched his lips. “Then that first day I met you, the noise ceased, all the rattling stopped. The silence built and every time I looked into your eyes it grew stronger and stronger until I knew. That was what you gave to me, Frank, and I don’t you even knew it, a place I could crawl inside, not so much safe, but I could slip out of the façade like a raincoat, stop the act and just be, whatever that means. I think that was what Martha felt when she was with you. You always said she was the attention-getter, while you followed along. I understand that. She felt secure when she was with you. That she could be all she wanted to be and she’d still have you. And you didn’t even need to say anything, Frank just be there. That’s powerful stuff.”
Nagler brushed her hair from her cheek and grabbed her gaze, both firm, but uncertain with questions. There wasn’t anything for him to say, so he said nothing; he brushed her lips with a fingertip and smiled.
She kissed his finger.
“You don’t stop feeling lonely by taking, Frank. You stop feeling lonely by giving.”
She sat up and pushed the sheet away and straddled his hips. “So here,” she said, “This is yours. Take it.”
She placed both of his hands on her face.
“This is my face. I give it to you. This is my shoulder,” and she slid his right hand to her left shoulder.
“These are my breasts.”
She waited for him to touch her, and when he didn’t, she nodded her head and gently placed his hand on her.
“I want you to have it.”
“This is my belly. These are my knees and my thighs. This is my,” and she hesitated, her mind filtering through the clinical and obscene terms, and then placed his hands between her legs.
“This is me.” She breathed in deeply. “This is us together, sweet Frank. Us.”
Frank found he had no words to offer. Instead, there was the silence between them, the endless falling; falling together.
He rolled her to his side and they began to kiss. He brushed her cheek and ran a finger over her eyes. Silently, he entered her.