|Return to Home Page|
Telephones ring off the hook as harried nurses rush back and forth with wheelchairs and gurneys. Hal watches the green scrubs hurry to operating rooms and patient's rooms, not seeing them as doctors and nurses, but more like a blue-green, untouchable blob. He sits in a navy blue vinyl chair, worn with worry, grief, and pain. How many people had been in that same beat-up chair, facing the same decision he now has to make?
One figure, more defined, emerges from the faceless blue-green blob, and slowly walks towards Hal. He sees him coming, and everything turns to slow motion. It is taking an eternity for the doctor to reach where Hal is sitting. That gives him time to think. He remembers the times at the beach, the vacations to Europe, her passion for gardening. She would never pull weeds, insisting that they had feelings too, and had as much right to be there as the daisies and daffodils. He remembers her smile, radiant and pure. A smile that was able to liven up even the dullest and stuffy dinner party. He is shaken out of his reverie by the doctor's face. His eyes do not look optimistic.
His gaze turns to the soft glow of the light that comes out of the hospital room. He can hear that faint beeping of the heart monitor, and the constant monotone sound of the respirator. He imagines her lying there, suffering so much because he doesn't want to let her go. He knows he is being selfish, but somehow he can't bring himself to sign.
It was all so sudden. Everything that had happened in the past twenty four hours has become a blur. They had been ice skating on the lake; a winter tradition for them since their first year of marriage twenty six years ago. He had always tested it out to make sure the ice could hold their weight. This time she was too eager to wait. She wanted to get out onto the ice and skate away the winter blues. She had had enough days inside when the weather was too cold and gray to venture out of doors.
He remembers tying the last knot in his skate laces when he heard the thunderous crack of the ice. By the time he had looked up, only her hand could be seen above the surface of the water. What could he do? He couldn't even swim! He had run to the nearest house for help, and the paramedics had arrived on the scene within the next few minutes.
He didn't even get the chance to say goodbye.
The doctor is now crouching beside him, holding the dreaded clipboard. Hal averts his eyes from the light coming from inside the room. He tries to forget the lifeless body laying in the bed with the sterile white sheets, the drone of the respirator, and the flat line on the brain activity monitor. He meets the soft gray eyes of the doctor. They are eyes that sympathize, but can not fully understand. No one could fully understand. Only those who sat in this chair could.
He sighs, again focused on the beeping coming from the room. He thinks of her lying there, so helpless, begging to be let go. He takes a deep breath and reaches for the pen
Ring, ring, ring, ring. A tall young woman in blue faded jeans and a tee shirt slides across the linoleum floor in her white Hanes socks, reaching across the counter for the white cordless telephone.
"Hello?" she asks.
"Hey baby. What's up? How's everything going? I wanted to call and tell you how much I miss you," says a deep voice on the other end of the phone.
"So baby, are you ready for tonight?" the deep voice inquires.
"Umm…tonight?" she asks.
"Charlie?" she repeats.
"So the plan for tonight goes as follows. First I planned a romantic dinner for two at the Cottage Inn, on Melbourne Street. Then I promised Dan we would stop by his party. He practically invited the entire senior class, so hopefully we will get there before the cops do. I overheard some of the guys saying that he lives at the end of a very long driveway so it shouldn't be too much of a problem. Dan's fridge is always stocked; so don't worry about sneaking anything out of your house. Remember the problem last time, when you wanted to take the twelve pack to Katrina's, and your parents caught us."
"When we got caught, oh I remember that…" she says.
"So don't worry, I'm sure that whenever we get there you'll be able to find something to drink. I know you've been wanting to booze it up lately, so this is the perfect opportunity."
"Really? Booze it up."
"Yeah, and I completely understand. You've had a completely heinous week. With failing the chemistry test, and receiving a zero for not handing in your English project, and then getting caught for skipping class yesterday, well you just need a break."
"Oh, I see…" she says contemptiously.
"Therefore the best way to solve all your problems is to relax, have a good time, and just plain party!"
"Oh, is that so, just party and everything will be alright," she says in a mocking tone.
"Absolutely! So after you have something to drink, then we'll play a few card games, and maybe you will give me my rematch in strip pool. Last time was completely unfair, since I had much more to drink that night than you did, but tonight I will definitely kick your butt!" the boy exclaims.
"You were drunk Charlie?" she says, "And strip pool, as in removing clothing?"
"Well of course, how else do you play strip pool? After I win in strip pool, I figure we'll go back to your house. Watch a few movies, get cozy on the couch, and well…"
"Well, what Charlie?"
"Maybe take it to the next level. I know that you don't like to make out at your house and stuff, because you are afraid someone might walk in on us, but don't worry, it's all good."
"It's all good!" she exclaims, "Charlie…"
"All I mean is, that you just have to take a risk sometimes. I mean your parents do it too, so what's the big deal?"
"Take a risk! Big deal!" she shouts, "Charlie!"
"I don't think we should see each other anymore!"
"What! Why not?" the boy exclaims.
"Well, basically my mother doesn't like you anymore. She thinks you are a bad influence."
"What, a bad influence how so?"
"Well, because she heard about the drinking, and the strip pool," she says plainly.
"How did she hear about that?" the boy shouts.
"Because you just told her. Charlie, This is Mrs. Daniels!"
The night was cold, too cold to be outside in only a pair of jeans and a Jets jersey. But there he was again, outside pumping gas in the frigid weather, seemingly without a care.
"Serge!" Gary called to him, his arms waving in the air wildly, gesturing to a coat by the cash register. "Your coat?" Serge only shook his head.
Serge had owned this gas station for ten years, and never in all that time, had he seen a winter as cold as this. Ice had formed on the sign above the station house, blocking out one of the "e"s in "Helmway's Garage." The wind ripped at his clothes; his long, black beard began to accumulate ice. Perhaps, he thought, it was about time to close up for the night. According to the radio a storm was making its way through town. He wanted to head home before it got too bad.
With a tap of the nozzle he finished pumping the gas, put the cap back on the tank, and thanked the customer for their $14.53. In response, the patron in the mini-van offered him a timid nod before speeding off. When he returned to the station house he found Gary behind the register, with his eyes glued to a television on the counter.
"Time to start home, Gary."
Serge's voice startled the boy and he nearly fell off of the stool.
"Oh, yeah, okay." Gary responded, his eyes still locked on the television. Serge looked up at the screen and frowned. Gary had been watching the news everyday this week. He said it was for some project at school.
Usually Serge didn't mind him doing work like that around the station. In fact, he liked Gary. The kid didn't steal and he kept the place relatively neat. Besides, business had been slow of late; there wasn't really much of anything to do. But on the TV in front of him a news anchor was detailing a search by local police for an alleged serial killer. It made Serge uneasy. He turned his back to the television, locking his gaze on Gary's brow.
"Roads are gonna get pretty bad." Serge persisted. "We better get closed up."
Gary took his eyes away from the television, and sighed.
"Want me to ring it up?"
"Yeah, just, a, well, count what's there and then put it in the safe. We'll do books tomorrow. Here…" Serge reached into his pocket and retrieved the $14.53. "Add this."
Serge went into the back and turned off all of the lights. He hesitated for a moment, fingering a file that had been on his desk for quite some time, and then decided better of it. When he returned to the main area of the house Gary was just finishing up with the cash.
"All good." Gary said, jumping up from the stool. A chunk of blonde hair fell into his eyes; he pushed it away with his hand.
After locking up the two packed into Serge's pickup and began the long haul to the center of town. The snow had already started to fall. The road in front of him looked like a blanket of white. Serge turned and looked at Gary; he was fidgeting.
"So, Gary tell me about this project your doing for school."
Gary shifted in his seat and fingered the zipper on his jacket.
"It's no big deal." He lamented, "I mean, I have to find a headline in the recent news and research it."
"You choose anything yet?"
"I was thinking about doing that story about the psycho. You know the guy who's been cutting up all of those kids? Now, he's really messed up. There's gotta be a ton of info on that case." Gary shifted again; he was getting excited. He began to bite his lip.
"You know they found some evidence that this really started awhile ago? Not just last month like they thought."
"Is that so?" Serge smiled, amused by the boys' hysteria. "What was it?"
"The evidence? Oh….a BODY!" screamed Gary. Serge swerved a little, startled.
"They found this body out in the woods, all buried and stuff. The police say it's from at least five years ago. They think it's a girl, but they haven't identified her yet; all they have for sure is a stupid necklace." Gary shifted yet again, "They're goin' around askin' local folk if they know anything."
Serge went silent, and Gary took it that conversation was over. He rested his head on the passenger-side window and tried to sleep, while Serge continued to drive. By the time Gary awoke Serge had already pulled in front of Gary's driveway and put the pick-up in park.
"Thanks for all your hard work today, kiddo." Serge stated, half-heartedly. "Good luck on your report." His tone was solemn.
Gary frowned and got out of the truck, perplexed. "Yeah, no problem. See you tomorrow."
Serge nodded as Gary slammed the door. He watched Gary disappear up his driveway and into the storm.
For a long time Serge didn't move. He was angry and afraid. It couldn't be, he thought. His hands gripped the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles had turned white. The silence in the car was beginning to eat away at him. He lifted one hand from the steering wheel to turn on the radio, but stopped mid-air; not sure if his nerves could handle noise either.
Instead he began to drive, hoping that the soft hum of the engine would calm him. The storm was as bad as ever now, his windshield wipers hastily cleared oncoming snow. He drove for hours, in the storm, not really going any place in particular. He felt torn apart, scattered all over the road. His head ached.
It was by chance that he found himself at the stop sign by the garage. He pulled in and thought maybe he should do the books now; that they really shouldn't wait till morning.
But it wasn't the books that ended up capturing Serge's attention. He unlocked the front entrance, turned on all the lights, and immediately saw the television.
"What could it hurt?" he mumbled to himself. His lips began to pout.
He found the remote underneath the counter and turned on the 10 o'clock news. Just as he had expected the recent developments of the killings were being aired. He sat on the stool by the register, slowly taking it all in. The police had, in fact, found a body in the woods. And it was female… and it was found with the necklace.
On the screen a tarnished silver necklace with a heart pendant was being examined by forensic scientists. The air left Serge's lungs and he began to feel dizzy. He bit his lip and it bled, but he didn't seem to notice. A number flashed below the video clip, urging anyone with information to call into the police station.
Serge hit the power button on the remote and then absent-mindedly dropped it to the floor. The plastic made a cracking sound that startled him into motion. He got up from the stool and staggered into the back room. It was dark and his fingers struggled before they found the light switch.
He was shivering, but it wasn't cold; his Jet's jersey was now soaked with sweat. His tongue felt like rubber. He made his way to his desk, plopped down almost unconsciously and stared at the file that had been haunting him. He reached for it timidly, as though it would ignite on its own: burn him. Tears flowed down his cheeks, becoming mangled in his beard.
He ripped open the folder. A photo fell out from the force and floated to the floor. He picked it up an examined it closely: His whole family together, shining. Shining almost as brightly as the silver heart necklace around his daughter's neck. A custom-made gift for his daughter's 18th birthday.
Serge placed the photo on his desk next to the folder full of useless missing persons' reports and case notes. He wiped his eyes dry, took another look at his daughter's smile, and then reached for the portable phone.
Fumbling with comb, tie, and briefcase, he waited to hear the "click slide click" of his wife locking the apartment door, and ran to catch the elevator. Wishing it would go faster down five floors, he put the monogrammed leather briefcase down onto burgundy carpet. He combed his freshly gelled hair back and dropped the comb into his briefcase, tucked his blue pinstriped shirt into his blue gabardine slacks and buttoned the shirt collar, tied his red paisley tie up around his throat. Two more floors. He pulled out a stick of peppermint gum and shoved it into his mouth to get rid of the soured-coffee-taste. He rolled his shoulders back, tilted his head side to side a few times, and straightened his suit jacket. The elevator bounced - down, up - and jolted to a stop. He remembered to check his fly before the brass doors glided open and he grabbed his briefcase and ran to the glass doors to exit, and without pausing his footfalls he wondered, What's the point anymore?
The doorman opened the door at just the right time so Belstin wouldn't run into it the way a bird flies into windows. The doorman greeted the rushing man, "Good morning Mr. Belstin! There's your cab," and pointed to the garish yellow taxi wheezing exhaust into the morning air.
"Thanks Ira. Have a good day. See ya later," Belstin replied, hurrying across the sidewalk to get to the taxi.
Opening the car door, Ira said quickly, "Thanks sir, you do the same."
Belstin stepped into the back part of the car and sat in the seat. He set his briefcase down to his left and took a deep breath full of the smell of vinyl and stale cigarette smoke.
"How ya doin' today, mistah?" The driver glanced in his rearview mirror.
"Oh, fine thanks," Belstin checked the license embedded in the back of the seat in front of him, "Tony. It's the same old thing…Headed to 27 North Park Street, by the way."
"Ah, so you a lawyer or realtor or uhh…" Tony looked in the rearview mirror, "What else is over there?"
"I'm a lawyer."
Silence. Belstin spat his gum out into the gum wrapper and restored it to his pocket, to throw out later. Pulling a worn postcard out of his briefcase, he sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. Turquoise sky, golden silk beaches, vast glittery ocean. And there we'd be, holding hands and running from the beach, laughing, leaving our footprints in the sand. They'd last as long as tide or wind would allow. Run into the little bungalow, up into the bedroom, white gauzy curtains billowing in with tranquil sunlight and spiced sea-breeze. There's the bed with the sheets pouring off and pooling on the floor, and…
Tony, ready for his next fare, ended Belstin's mental journey, "Well
here we are." Belstin read "$7.40" on the meter, pulled out a ten,
and told Tony to keep the change ? he didn
The mid-morning air was warming up and Belstin filled his lungs with it before he reached the entrance to his office building to open the glass doors. He looked at his watch ? one minute to be in his office on time. Why should I be hurrying like this? What have they ever done for me? Be nice to get away. Instead of staying trapped in this concrete, asphalt, architecture, pollution. But running again, this time to the elevator, Belstin's Florsheim wingtips tapped on the floor, muffled by the short mottled brown carpeting.
Reaching the faux wood elevator doors, he pressed the "up" button and, surprisingly, the doors opened immediately. As he stepped in, Belstin pressed the button to go to the third floor and the doors slid shut. He smoothed his now-stiff hair again, and rolled his shoulders back. The doors slid open and he stepped out, turned right and jogged to the end of the corridor, to the beginning of another day. He stopped at the yellow wood door but didn't notice the sign on it ? "Verdoni and Belstin, LLC" ? as he had twenty years ago, when they had first changed it from "Kastalin and Verdoni, LLC." Twenty years ago it was worth it to notice the sign. Twenty years ago, it at least offered him some kind of hope. Twenty years ago.
Belstin laid his knuckly, hairy right hand on the cold dull silvery door handle. I don't have to go in. Just walk away, find a job as a sales clerk, just walk away from the stress, the hellish hours ? find an easy job, less hours less stress, see her more often. Pushing the door handle down and the door forward, he opened the door. Just another day, paperwork, whining clients. On time again. Started the same again, maybe this time it'll end with something worthwhile. Today…
An Amish family of wax figures builds a log cabin in a display at the American Family Museum in Galilee, Pennsylvania: the men with Dutch boy haircuts and mustache-less beards; the women wrapped from head to toe in dark sensible clothing, only their red-cheeked faces and strong hands exposed. In the middle I stand stock-still, holding one end of a log, my pants rolled up and tucked in my socks, my tan shirt untucked, my belt rebuckled outside my shirt in a quick copy of the period dress. I only had a few minutes, but I think I look pretty good, standing over my imaginary task, taking short, shallow breaths so my chest barely moves.
My parents will walk by in a few minutes and I'm sure they won't recognize me; I'm not even certain they know what I look like anymore. During our annual one-week car-ride through some boring American countryside they've barely looked at me, only shouted our next stop over their shoulder as we drove or asked me what I thought of the passing landmarks without waiting for an answer. They are the parents; I am the son; we're really roles more than people. And now that I'm fifteen, I've outgrown my role. But they don't see it. In their minds I'm still six: happily reading a picture book or coloring in the back seat.
Here they come, absently reading the museum descriptions, gazing vacantly at each scene, checking off each stop as another place they've seen. They'd be a perfect display of a married couple 1960's style; unfortunately it's 1998. As they pass their eyes over my frozen form, it feels no different than any other day.
"Where's Tom?" my mother asks, pausing before moving on to the next exhibit. She looks over her shoulder for me down the long line of tourists.
"Probably looking for a gift shop," my father says and smiles.
My mother joins him in a smile. "Or the snack bar," she adds.
"Boys will be boys," he says and they shake their heads and laugh.
I can't decide if I'm angry or exhilarated. I fooled them so thoroughly, but they're so thoroughly fools. I want to move, to scream, to shake them out of their dumb idiocy. But I don't.
Instead I wait patiently as they walk to the next exhibit and the next. I wink at a five year old boy holding his distracted mother's hand and he winks back. When he leaves, I quickly straighten up, and hop over the railing in front of the exhibit. With a few quick excuse me's, I'm through the crowd and across the room to the exhibit of the American Indian family: two Iroquois grandparents, their son and his squaw and three small grandchildren in leather britches prepare a buffalo hide around a teepee. I pull my shirt off as I climb over the railing, tie my belt around my head and take off my shoes and socks. I pick a small stone ax off the floor and pose next to my Iroquois father with the ax in mid-chop over a buffalo hide.
As I wait for my parents to work their way down this side of the museum, I glance up. Across the room my Amish family is frozen still in their display, forever halfway done with their simple log cabin. And I miss them already.
"Ello?" Oh no! It was Granny.
"Hello, Granny." I tried not to let the disappointment show in my voice, but I knew that if she answered that meant that no one else was home.
"Hello, Granny. This is Mike." I imagined her there, holding the phone like a foreign object in her hand. She probably pushed a strand of gray hair out of her eyes, smoothing it toward her bun.
"Mikey's not home."
"Granny," I said quickly before she could hang up, "this is Mikey."
"Mikey's not home," she repeated firmly, then explained, "He went camping."
"Camping?" It was worse than I thought. I don't know where she came up with camping. She must have known someone who went camping once in Colorado. Or maybe she just wasn't listening when I left last fall. "This is me Granny, Mikey. I'm calling from Colorado."
"Mikey went camping." I could picture her looking at the receiver as she shouted into it, yelling louder because it was long distance. Technology made her nervous.
"Is Mom there?" I asked desperately. I knew I should have hung up on the tenth ring. "I need to talk to Mom, Granny. It's important." Instead, I waited, counting the rings, as she worked her way across the house, carefully placing the walker and stepping. Place. Step. Place. Step. Probably wondering as she went how her Mikey was enjoying his camping. She couldn't get the concept of taking a year off from college. Or traveling around the country just to see it.
"Everybody's out to dinner," Granny shouted. "Bye."
"Granny, it's me, Mike." I made one last desperate attempt. I was only allowed one phone call.
"Mikey went camping," I heard faintly. She was already moving the phone away from her face. "Bye."
"No, wait!" I cried.
I could almost see her there as she hung the phone up roughly in it's cradle. She turned. Place. Step. Place. She worked her way back to the family room and the Catholic Digest she'd left on the couch.
"What happened?" Barry asked, waking me out of my daydream.
"Granny thinks I'm camping. She didn't know it was me. She hung up."
Barry started to laugh, a spitting, held-in laugh. "But you've been gone for six months." His laugh grew more desperate as he realized what it meant.
"I don't know. Colorado. Camping." I shook my head. "Don't worry, we each get a phone call," I tried to reassure him. At least I thought we each got a phone call.
"Yeah, but you were calling your parents to send for your money from your savings account." Barry's body sagged as he put his head against the wall. "I'm calling mine to send their money from their precious retirement fund for our bail."
"We'll pay them back." Then I added, "Or we could wait and try Granny again later."
"No." Barry looked at the barred doors in the back of the police barracks, took a deep breath and pulled his shoulders back. "I don't want to do this."
"You don't have to tell your parents everything," I said, following his eyes across the room full of state troopers typing reports at their desks or questioning suspects. Sgt. Matthews saw we were finished and marched over.
"Well?" he asked.
"Well, my grandmother answered and hung up." I tried to explain it to him. "She didn't know it was me. She thinks I'm camping. She's kind of senile."
He started to crack a smile, but caught himself and snapped back to his official, stone-faced persona.
"Barry's calling his parents," I added.
"You've got two minutes." Matthews turned on the heel of one boot and marched off.
"All right Barry, tell them about the speeding- except make it 70 rather than 80, tell them about the broken tail light, but don't mention the dragging muffler or the changing drivers while the car was moving."
"But that's not enough for a $500 bail."
"Sure it is. Out of state car, red neck cops," I tried to convince him. "Mention Smoky and the Bandit." The thing I hated about hanging out with Barry is always having to pretend I wasn't scared. I was terrified. Talking to Granny only reminded me that I was an eastern, suburban, nineteen year old out west for the first time, and in over my head. We needed 500 bucks each or we'd spend a night, maybe more, in jail.
"If they're not buying it," I said, "tell them about the muffler, but just say it had a little hole in it."
I knew we could never mention the changing of the drivers, even though we had perfected the technique. We'd done it dozens of times driving cross-country. If I was driving, I would take my foot off the accelerator and Barry would slide over and put his left foot on it, with hardly a pause in the car's speed. Barry would grab the wheel and I would slide, snake-like, over the headrest and into the rear seat. It was really very easy, safe and it saved us at least five minutes each time.
I guess we were concentrating too much to notice the unmarked police car pull alongside and then keep pace to watch the whole procedure.
It's good Granny couldn't see her Mikey now.
When Barry finally got the nerve up to call, it rang and rang.
"Maybe they went away." Barry shifted the phone to the other ear. "Maybe the phone is broken."
"Maybe they went out to the store," I suggested.
"No, it's six o'clock in Connecticut. My father's always sitting in his chair, sipping a gin and tonic and watching the Channel 2 news. That is, if they aren't away somewhere."
"Maybe you dialed the wrong number." I was trying to get the image of Barry's adults-only living room out of my head. "Barry, I didn't know anyone ever sat on those chairs." Barry hung up and re-dialed.
"I should have my own number down by now," Barry said. "Maybe they're on vacation." Suddenly his face grew pale and his jaw dropped. I turned to see one of the state troopers unlock the barred door and lead a handcuffed prisoner down the aisle of jail cells.
"Are we next?" Barry asked and tried to smile.
"Come on, they're not going to handcuff us."
"Maybe that'll be our cellmate." From the back the prisoner looked strikingly like Charlie Manson.
"I've got it, Barry!" I said, a plan hatching in my head. "I'll use your phone call to call Granny back."
"So she can hang up again?"
"I'll tell her I'm at camp," I said. "I think it'll work."
"Well." Barry tried not to look at Charlie. "It better work."
Rrrring. Rrrring. Rrrring. Maybe Mom came home from dinner. Rrrring. Rrrring. Rrrring. I just had to hope Granny didn't fall down on her way to the phone. Rrrring. Rrrring. Rrrring. I also had to hope that she heard it ring. Rrrring. Rrrring. Rrrring. And I had to hope that this plan worked. Rrrring. Rrrring. Rrrring. I had a lot of things to hope for.
"Hello, Granny? Camping's going great! It's really beautiful. We're sitting around the campfire right now." I racked my brain for some other camping image. "No thanks, guys. I don't want another marshmallow, I'm on the phone. Could you keep the singing down?"
I could see the state troopers all turn toward me. I guess, carried away in my method acting technique, I was yelling too loud. I could see Sgt. Matthews get up and march towards us.
"Yeah, that's right, Granny, it's me Mikey."
"Yeah, but listen, I've got a problem. I need some money for supplies."
"Right! Tents and boots and back packs. You know, camping stuff."
"Right! I need you to write down this number and have Mom call me." I could hear Barry explaining the plan to the Sarge. "Granny this is very important. Can you write it on the chalk board?
"Good! Ready? 719...... Right. 555..... Good 72... yes 44..... Can you read it back to me?"
"Right. That's it! Good. Mom needs to call me as soon
as she gets in. It's ah..." I searched for some image that
would make her remember. Something that would keep Barry and me from
spending the night with Charlie. "It's a... a bear, Granny.
I need this money for a tent to stay away from the bears."
"What do you mean I'm always up to something?" I could hear Sgt. Matthews laughing with Barry and the other state troopers gathered around the phone. All work had stopped in the room. Granny and I were on center stage. And I was afraid I was going to lose her.
"Hold on a minute, Granny." I held my hand over the phone. "Sgt. Matthews, could you talk to her please. She needs to hear the voice of authority to know how serious this is." He smiled and nodded his head.
"Granny, hold on. My camp counselor wants to talk to you."
"Ma'am. It's important you send Mikey the money." Even he was calling me Mikey now.
"Bear?" He hesitated. "Yes."
"Well, sort of his counselor, Ma'am."
"Yes Ma'am, I'll tell him." He handed me the phone. "Send Granny a postcard."
"Yes sir!" I practically saluted as I took the phone.
"Granny, remember to tell Mom the minute she walks in."
It all worked out somehow. Mom called back and gave me a lecture for speeding and trying to fool Granny, but she wired the thousand dollars. Sgt. Matthews said we could pay the fine right away and skip a trial. Barry and I taped together the muffler and drove out of the Police Barracks as fast as the law would allow.
When we stopped later at a rest stop to change drivers, I found a postcard
for Granny and mailed it off. It read:
I should have seen it coming. But I was blinded by my two obsessions: beautiful women and beautiful cars. Beautiful women in beautiful cars. Shiny, sleek, classy, gorgeous machines grind me into pulpy mush. All day long I admired the lines, the curves, the powerful purring as they sat briefly beside me at stop lights or glided toward me as if to embrace, but instead passing quickly by and disappearing in my rear view mirror. Or they traveled with me along the highway as if we were partners, passing and drafting, cruising side by side, hugging the same curves in the same road, rising and falling over the same hills, sliding in and out of the same gaps in traffic, gently in and out like dancers, like lovers.
Of course I was the poor, flawed fling from the wrong side of the tracks putt-putting along in my ‘89 Buick Regal. I knew it couldn't last, that they didn't even know I existed. But as much as I admired, longed for, lusted after those sleek Jaguars, cat-like Lexus', regal Rolls Royces, too-pretty Porsches, I could never bring myself to buy one - to invest the money and the love. For years I couldn't afford one, but for longer than I care to admit I was just afraid. Afraid to take the risk. Afraid to try my fantasy. I come from a family of cops: my father, my uncles, both brothers, even my sister, and they've all done stints in Motor Vehicle Recovery. (I'm the rebel; I sell insurance.) I already knew, and they'd never fail to remind me that these cars are made to be stolen, to be ripped from one's life suddenly, violently and permanently. Or worse, to be crashed, all that beauty crushed in one heart-wrenching second. I couldn't bear to risk either tragedy.
So I was a voyeur.
I peeked through my window at all the beautiful cars and imagined I was in one. And when the cars were driven by beautiful women I melted. I ached. I practically drooled. It was embarrassing. At least I should have been embarrassed, but instead I smiled and nodded my head. I practiced different variations of smiles and nods in the mirror hoping the right mix would overcome my sorry car, my sorry self and life, and earn a return smile, a nod, a notice that I was noticed.
But I was not. Beautiful women of every hair cut and color, in beautiful cars of every make and model looked past, around and through me as if I wasn't even there. Sometimes I wondered if I was.
Women in cars look beautiful to me even when they're not in beautiful cars.. The windows or windshields frame their pretty faces, their perfect hair, their pink lips. They smile to themselves or their companions, their husbands or boyfriends, their children in the back seat - real smiles - smiles they'd never reveal to strangers like me. They are intent, in charge, and I am in love with them. I imagine their lives full of family and fulfillment, and, I sense, in the glint of sunlight in their eyes as they pause at the stoplight next to me, of passion, mysterious and sensual love. Even in vans or up high in their SUV's, I adore them.
But beautiful women in beautiful cars induce more than adoration. It's insane I know, but I worship them, idolize them, I... My thesaurus fails me. Beautiful women in beautiful cars. Even the words are poetry, a song waiting to be written. Beautiful women in beautiful cars. I even had names for those I saw regularly: Gigi of the Jaguar XK8, Maria Mercedes C, Alexis of the Audi 6, Navigator Noelle. Many of them ignored me on a daily basis.
"The beautiful marry the rich," my dad said, meaning save yourself the heartache, Pete. Find yourself a plain Jane and settle down. And cut your hair and get a real job while you're at it. Don't start thinking of yourself as special. It's a long fall to reality. He had a lot of good advice, but I never took it.
Part of the push to finally take the plunge was a mid life crisis. Thirty-five and alone with my insurance sales awards, I'd reached a state where my fear that a beautiful car would not be all I hoped it would be was overcome by my fear that I would never know. My wish to avoid hearing my seen-it-all family telling me I was making a mistake was outweighed by my wish to prove them wrong. What was the point of life anyway if I couldn't try? Wouldn't dare to fail? Was insurance sales to be my only rebellion? I know what you're saying - pitiful - and you're right.
What led me to act rather than just mope was a beautiful girl in a beautiful car, actually a beautiful girl in beautiful cars, a different one almost every time I saw her. And she noticed me. She smiled nervously and nodded back. Betty, I called her, Betty of the Beautiful Cars.
Betty and I met at the light by the Mobil Station on Black Rock. I was turning; she was going straight. For a moment our eyes met. I smiled and nodded; she hesitated, then nodded back with a hint of a smile. She was tan, almost Spanish looking, with black, black hair pulled tight in a short ponytail that bobbed above the gray leather of her black BMW 530i Her deep brown eyes twinkled a laugh above cheekbones carved by a sculptor. Betty seemed petite behind the wheel and I imagined the gentle curves of her breasts and hips and legs. I wondered what shoes she wore and what her feet might look like naked on the plush carpet. The light changed and she was gone.
I watched her accelerate, growing smaller and smaller as she picked up speed, rising up the hill by KFC and disappearing down Tunxis Hill. The beeping horns behind me startled me into a turn. She was physically gone, but her shy smile lingered. I saw the turn of her head in my mind, her tan fingers on the gray leather steering wheel.
I saw her a week later in my rear view mirror at the stop sign by the highway. In a blue Porsche 911, she turned onto the entrance ramp without a smile or a nod. Two weeks later, a few blocks from our first meeting spot I pulled up to turn left at the Brookside Drive light. I turned my head to see her in a silver Lexus, her hair was down just brushing her shoulders. She wore a black shirt with a round neck framing her collar bones. I smiled and nodded. She returned the nod, but her smile seemed to freeze. I winked as the light changed and she rocketed away. Again the impatient drivers behind me returned me to my lonely life.
I began to see her everywhere, every two or three weeks - in front of Stop and Shop in a green BMW X5, at the corner of Round Hill and the Post Road in a red Infinity Q45, by the University in a white Jaguar XJ6. Her nervous smile gradually melted into a broad grin. She even winked at me once, I think, or maybe it was a blink from the sunlight through the trees at the four-way stop at Burr Street and Brookside. She was in a metallic blue Audi TT.
I was dazzled by her, mesmerized, stupefied. I thought she must be incredibly wealthy and I knew she was incredibly beautiful. And something in her smile told me she was kind and fun and funny. I was in love and I thought a beautiful car might snare her. And I was right.
But what car? It took me weeks of flirtations and infatuations, of verbal commitments and embarrassed disengagements. I test drove Jaguars and Mercedes and imagined myself the modern aristocrat. I took Toyota Land Cruisers and Range Rovers off road and pretended Betty and I were taking the kids fishing and hiking. Zipping down the highway in a Porsche Boxter and a BMW Z3, I wondered if Betty would prefer not to have children.
I saw her twice. Once at the light in front of the library; I was in a green Lexus LX and she was in a silver Jag. Her eyes widened and she broke into a big smile. I started to laugh but the light changed and she sped away. The other time I was turning left at the movie theater in a dark blue Alfa Romeo Spider and she was coming toward me in a white Audi 6. She beeped and nodded as she passed; I waved and stalled the car in traffic. Did she like the Lexus better or the Alfa Romeo? Four seats or two? European, Japanese or American? The possibilities were endless, and endlessly confusing, so I started over.
What would Betty like? She seemed to prefer BMW's, sedans mostly in blue or gray metallics or black. That's when it hit me! A black BMW 530i! The car I met her in! It was perfect and cheaper than most of the other choices (My dad would be glad to know he had some influence.) I had the bait; now all I had to do was find a good spot, cast and reel her in.
Of course that's when Betty disappeared. I spent half the day on the road, using any excuse to get out of the office or out of my house to run an errand, to get on the road, to search for her. I drove up and down Black Rock and the Post Road, up Burr Street and even cruised the highways, but no Betty. At stop lights and stop signs, on two lane highways and at fourway stops, I peered into every beautiful car I saw. Some of the women even nodded and smiled but they were too late; I knew they were smiling at my car not at me. Only Betty smiled at me. And now she was gone.
I became depressed. My sales suffered. Even my family noticed. "It's the car!" my father said. "I told you a fancy car would be nothing but trouble!" "Don't worry about it," my mother said. "If it gets a scratch, so what?" "I know a nice girl in Arson," my sister said. "She drives a Saturn, but she's very nice."
The car was only the half it. I mean, of course the car was only half of it! The other half was out there somewhere and I didn't know where. I wondered if I ever would. You can't buy love, I knew that. But I didn't think I was buying love, I thought I had love. I was just buying the vehicle that would deliver it. I didn't know what I was thinking. I was an idiot in more ways than I could imagine.
My mind became fevered with possibilities. Maybe she was on vacation on some beautiful island in the Caribbean. Maybe she had married and moved to a beautiful mansion in the country. Maybe she'd found a new job in Chicago. Maybe I'd waited too long. The days turned into weeks. I started to blame the car. I'd take it out in the morning to search the roads for Betty, but soon I'd pull over and abandon it to sit in the park by Brookside and Burr or in a restaurant downtown with an outdoor cafe so I could scan the roads without being reminded how empty the car was. There's nothing more lonely than a beautiful car without the beautiful woman who inspired it.
It was when I'd hit bottom, when I was secretly praying that someone would steal the damn car and put me out of my misery, that Betty came back. I was at Brookside Park absently throwing pebbles into the water when I heard a car alarm go off behind me. I turned to see Betty opening the door of my car! I ran to her.
"Betty! Betty!" I called. That's how delusional I was. I ran to her calling the name I'd invented, never questioning what was going on. She was quickly sliding key after key into the ignition and turning until she found the right one and quieted the squealing alarm. She looked up and smiled when I reached her door.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
She looked around to make sure no one else was looking at us. "I'm stealing this car," she said. My knees buckled. Everything went dark except for the small circle of her face in the middle of my vision. I know what you're saying. What an idiot! How could I not have figured it out long ago? You knew it already, didn't you? Well I was drunk. I was blind. I was .... in love.
"You're a car thief?" I asked.
"I thought you knew."
"I-" I felt like such a moron. And I was. "This is my car," I said.
"Get in. We'll split it," she said unlocking the passenger door. "But hurry."
I raced my wobbly legs around the car and hopped in. She sprayed
a few pebbles onto the grass making a quick exit and we were on the road,
together, at last, in our new black BMW 530i, going God knew where.
The nightmare of worshipping from afar is getting up close to find warts and pock marks, putrid perfumes and body odors, nasally voices or cigar and spittoon habits, the flaws and disfigurements of reality no longer hidden by distance, make up and infatuation. What if below the enticing face beautifully framed by the window lies the body of a midget with humongous thighs and hairy feet or a reed thin giant with scaly peeling skin? What if she shaves? Would the smile, the nod, the beautiful face be enough? Would the dream evaporate? Would I reveal myself to be a superficial and heartless louse?
But Betty was more beautiful the closer I came. She nestled into the seat like a princess on a throne as if the whole car was built around her, for her, as a tribute to her black-jeaned hips and thighs, her tan, downy arms and her slender hands, the bump of her breasts under her white sleeveless shirt. Her sandaled feet danced on the clutch and gas and brake pedals. I studied her sultry silhouette, her flaring nostril and her eye sharpened in focus until her cheek sharpened and her mouth curled into a smile.
"It's nice to see your whole body at last," she said as if she'd expected me to show up some day. "I've been layin' low. They've been beefing up Motor Vehicle Recovery lately."
"I know," I said. Since my brother had been transferred back, all he talked about was how successful they'd been; he took personal credit.
"Dad says you've got to make ‘em feel successful every so often," she said. "You know, throw ‘em a bone." She reached over and tapped me on the knee as she spoke as if she did it every day. I could feel the pressure of her fingertips, the afterglow of warmth. "I knew when I first saw you that you knew, that you were boosting cars, too. You scared me, but then I had to laugh. I could tell from your nod and your smile."
I nodded my head and tried to smile that same knowing smile.
"That's it!" She laughed. It was like a song - short and simple and sweet. A haiku of laughs. "No reports in the papers," she said, "you been layin' low, too?"
"What?" I crossed my legs and tried to look like I knew what I was doing.
"Have you been stealing any cars lately?"
"No, this is my first," I said, "in a long while."
We were on the highway headed toward Bridgeport. I was along for the ride, hoping we'd end up somewhere I wanted to be. Not once did I think about turning her in. I decided not to tell her I owned the car or that I bought it for her. There'd be time for that I hoped. I decided to try to be this person she thought I was, that she apparently liked and cared enough for to invite into the car and into her life. She trusted me and I wanted to be trustworthy, whatever that meant.
Off Main Street, we turned into a body shop, J & R Collision. With a toot of the horn, the door opened and Betty pulled us into one of the dimly-lit bays.
"I'm Pete," I said and awkwardly reached out my hand.
She laid her slender fingers on mine. "Beatrice," she said with a smile.
Beatrice! That's almost like Betty! It had to mean something. Beatrice. Betty. They were so close! As if I were tuned into some cosmic wavelength and just had a little static interference. I sat stupidly in the car as she got out. I was once again stunned. Stupefied. Astounded. Beatrice! The sounds rolled off my tongue like honey.
The dark garage was piled high with car parts and tools. Cars
sat on lifts and tires rose in high towers against the wall. Can-covered
mechanic's benches sat beneath calendars with tanned beauties holding wrenches.
Everything seemed out of focus, covered with a thin blanket of dusty grease
and pebbled paint spray.
"This is my brother, Carlos," she said. "This is Pete."
I rushed over and gratefully shook his hand.
"You're the guy in the Regal," Carlos said. "Beatrice's been tellin' me about you. Our competition."
"Our partner," Betty said.
"She tells me this is your car."
"It is," I choked than cleared my throat. "It is."
"You workin' with a good chop shop?" he asked.
I shrugged. "Nothing permanent."
"You want to see somethin'?"
"Sure," I said, hoping briefly that the something did not involve torturing a suspected undercover cop, but somehow I knew that they trusted me. Betty trusted me so Carlos trusted me and so, as I soon learned, the whole family trusted me.
Carlos put his right thumb and forefinger in his mouth and whistled and they appeared from the office and the showroom, from out and under cars at the other end of the garage, from the storeroom and the scrap yard in back with tools in boxes or on wheels or singly in their hands. And after the introductions - to little Vincent; cousin Antonio; Big John; the Diaz twins, Harold and Georgio; and handsome Sergio - Carlos asked me if I had a watch and to give them a ready, set, go.
Before I realized what I'd done, they were on the car like crows on a dead squirrel. Betty turned on a radio as the hood and doors and trunk flew open and the wrenches started squeaking to the Latin beat. My car! I took a step toward them, urged forward by some primordial impulse to protect what was mine, but Betty moved quickly in front of me and put a hand on my chest.
"No," she said and I felt her palm heat through my shirt and her warm breath in my face. "They want to do it themselves, to show how fast they are." She stepped back to the bench, and began taking the smaller parts and putting them into boxes, marking each box with a black pen and stacking them on the bench. She looked up occasionally to smile and raise her eyebrows or nod proudly at her family as if she were the daughter of a family of circus performers or surgeons or sculptors or fishermen. They were making something beautiful and I'd been invited as an audience of one to see their secret talent. It was a gift she shared with me alone.
The men worked like locusts, like a pit crew on speed spinning out of control, removing the doors, rugs and seats, the stereo and speakers, the steering wheel and dash, the fenders and headlights, stripping down everything until even the wheels were off and the brakes and the axles, breaking everything down to the smallest components, until nothing remained of my beautiful car but a bare frame.
"Stop!" Carlos yelled. "How long?"
"What?" I asked, still staring at the thin metal cage.
"How long did it take?"
I pulled my shirt sleeve off my watch face and subtracted fifteen seconds. "Fourteen minutes and seven seconds."
"Damn!" Carlos said and slumped his shoulders. The others muttered and shook their heads. "I thought we'd get under fourteen."
"I should have started on the wheels," little Vincent said, "as soon as you pulled the engine."
"But then I can't get underneath," Georgio argued.
"Please!" Carlos raised his hand to quiet them. "We will discuss it later." He turned his head toward me and they all followed suit, waiting.
"That was awesome," I said. Betty laughed and Carlos smiled broadly. "I don't know what to say; I've never seen anything like it in my life." They all bowed their heads and went to hemming and hawing modestly except for Betty who walked over and took my hand in hers.
"I knew it," she said. "From the first moment I saw you I knew you would appreciate this."
"You guys are artists," I said and they muttered thanks. I thought of stopping; they looked almost uncomfortable with my praise. "Like sculptors in reverse," I added. The room grew too quite as they pondered that. "Thanks." I said.
"Let me give you a ride," Betty said and as we began to back out of room, I waved and said I was pleased to meet them and thanks for the show.
"Hold it!" Carlos yelled when we reached the door. He disappeared into the office and returned with an envelope. "Your half," he said, putting it in my hand. "Seventy-five thousand dollars."
"Thanks," I said. It was twenty thousand more than I'd paid for the car.
"Don't you want to count it?" Carlos asked.
"I don't think I need to," I said. With another round of goodbyes, we walked out the door. The soft sound of our synchronized steps rose from the pavement. Betty led me through the dark night to her car. Betty. Beautiful, beautiful Betty.
I know, I know: my car, my family, my new life of crime.
But stepping into the night with Betty's hand in mine, I wasn't walking
into the darkness; I was cruising into the light.
|Return to Home Page|