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Exercise in Terror
By Stuart M. Kaminsky
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Stuart M. Kaminsky
All rights reserved.
August 1, 1975, 7:35 P.M., Chicago
There were two plates of glass between Maureen and David. First there was the windshield of their Chevy, sprayed with dozens of circles of dirt that were outlined by the lights from Bittie's hot dog stand. Beyond the windshield was the window of Bittie's, almost covered by painted announcements of specials: $1.15 for a Bittie's Burger and Fries, $1.25 for a Bittie's Special Hot Dog. A painted cartoon figure looking something like Elmer Fudd stood in the middle of the window clutching an oversize and not particularly appetizing hot dog sandwich with drops of mustard and ketchup spraying out.
Over the shoulder of the cartoon figure she could see David in line, partly obscured by a big man in a blue denim shirt. The big, youngish man was wearing a purple baseball cap with something written on it that Maureen couldn't read at this distance. The big man was standing next to a smaller, slightly older man, who was talking to the girl behind the counter. Both men were smiling, and the girl looked as if she were wearily humoring them. They were the same two men Maureen had seen that afternoon at the A & P, the ones who had followed her. It was probably a coincidence that the two men had come to Bittie's. It was far from the A & P, far from their neighborhood, but Bittie's was well known.
David glanced toward her and their eyes met. It was a clothes-sticking, hot, wet night. He tossed his head back, nodded at the two men in front of him, and shrugged a what-can-I-do shrug. She knew he wanted to be home by eight to watch "The Rockford Files." She wanted to get the baby in bed and the air conditioner on. She shrugged back. Something caught the eye of the big man in the purple baseball cap, who looked past the cartoon of Elmer Fudd directly at Maureen, something that made it clear that coincidence wasn't involved in his being there. The man's face was round and pink. He touched the shoulder of his smaller companion, said something, and both looked toward Maureen.
"Mom," Miles whined at her side.
She turned away from the stares of the two men.
Maureen, Miles, and the baby, strapped firmly into her Baby-Tight seat, were in the back seat of the car waiting for their hot dogs. Bittie's was a favorite for all of them, with its white tile exterior, its miniature castle facade; it had probably gone through a dozen owners. Until last year, when Miles turned eight, they had fooled him by telling him that they were going to Bittie's McDonald. Now, Miles, a skinny, bespectacled version of David, accepted Bittie's. The real McDonald's didn't have hot dogs.
"Mom," Miles repeated, adjusting his glasses by twitching his nose. "I want a big fries for myself. Daddy doesn't know it. I want to go tell him."
Maureen looked up again to see David, still stalled in line by the two men, talking to an old couple waiting behind him. The old man, his white hair combed straight back, was looking angrily at the big man with the baseball cap, who was holding up the line. The girl behind the counter had her hands on her hips and was saying something to the smaller of the two men in front of her. The girl looked dry and pale, young but not pretty.
"Mom," Miles whined again. "I got to tell him."
"You mean you have to tell him," she said. "And you don't have to tell him, Daddy will remember. You can take your seat belt off till he gets back."
"Why is it taking so long?" Miles said, angrily folding his hands in his lap and pushing back against the seat. "And Nancy can't have any of my fries."
Miles looked at his little sister, who blinked back at him sleepily as she clutched the black imitation leather of her baby seat.
"She can have my fries," Maureen said, wishing that David would forget the order and come out, so she could tell him about the two men. It was too hot to sit here waiting for a beautifully greasy Bittie Dog and Fries. She looked up, pushed her long, straight blond hair back over her shoulders, licked the line of sweat on her upper lip, and glanced over at Dave, hoping to catch his eye so she could signal for him to give it up. She didn't think he would, but with the two oafs holding up the line, he might. She considered getting out, waving to him, but she didn't want to leave the children.
The bigger man was taking off his cap and wiping his sweaty forehead. His mouth was open in a smile showing large teeth. At this distance and with two windows in the way, Maureen couldn't tell if the teeth were straight or not She bet they were not. She could feel the moisture under her arms and barely controlled herself when Miles grunted in a near-cry. "Daddy will be right out," she said.
Beyond the Elmer Fudd, she could see David shifting his feet and trying to ignore the line of chatter between the big man and the old man, who was obviously angry and shouting. The old man's wife was trying to pull her husband away, and the big man with the baseball cap was grinning at the old man's anger. In the line beyond, Maureen could now see a young couple, maybe in their twenties, also attempting to ignore the argument in front of them.
"David, come out of there," she said softly.
"He can't hear you," Miles said.
"I know he can't hear me," she said. "I'm trying magic."
"You don't know magic," Miles said.
"Sure I do," Maureen said, wiping the moisture from her upper lip. "Just ask Nancy."
"Nancy can't talk," Miles said "Mom."
"I'm just making a joke, Miles," Maureen said irritably, out of patience. This was supposed to be a pleasant end to the weekly night out. First, they had gone to Indian Boundary Park, where Miles had waded in the pool and Nancy had crawled on the blanket, watching people wander by. David had talked about the possibility of applying for a job he knew was open at Roosevelt University. At thirty-five, he was at the point where he had to make a move or settle for what he had. What he had was a job teaching history at Oakton Community College. He wasn't unhappy, but he didn't want to stop there. He knew he could do better. Money was no problem. With Maureen bringing in more than a hundred a week from her twenty hours as a substitute in the Chicago suburban schools, they were doing all right. If Maureen's mother, Darla, ever got tired of baby-sitting, things might change, but they were getting by.
David was talking to the big man in the baseball cap and his companion. He had stepped between them and the red-faced old man. She couldn't see much of David, who was blotted out by the big man, but she could see his right arm, palm out and up in a peacemaking gesture. David was not a big man, but he was well constructed. He liked playing Sunday Softball and ran two or three miles every other day.
"Oh, Dave," she sighed.
She wasn't sure if it was something that David said next or something one of the two men in front of him said, but both of the men holding up the line looked out of the window toward her again. She now saw the smaller man's face clearly for the first time. He was dark with a look of dirty amusement on his face. He started to say something as she looked past him for David.
"What's wrong, Mom?" Miles asked. Nancy stirred at her side and seemed about to cry.
"Nothing, guys," she said, reaching over to touch Miles's cheek. "I'm just a little tired and I want to get home, take a bath, and take it easy. It's been a long day."
"All days are the same in longness," Miles corrected. "All the days are twenty-four hours. Mrs. Laynie said."
"Right again, Miles," she agreed.
Nancy had found her thumb and was sucking away with a dreamy look on her face.
When Maureen looked up this time, a tough-looking man in his fifties was standing next to the girl behind the counter. He was wearing a chef's apron and demanding the attention of the two men.
Maureen recognized him. His name was Paretti or Parenti—Lou Parenti. They had exchanged hellos a few times and had told him how much they liked Bittie's. Bittie, he had told her, had been his father's nickname. He didn't know why. Everyone called him Bittie, too, and he had accepted his father's nickname just as his son, who also worked in the place on weekends, would one day probably adopt it.
The two men were leaning threateningly in Bittie's direction, but it wasn't working. Bittie said something between his teeth. The smaller of the two men cocked his head and looked as if he was going to say something, but he couldn't hold Bittie's stare. He broke away, slapped the big man with the baseball cap on the arm, and headed for the door.
"Mom," Miles cried.
"In a minute," Maureen said, holding her hand up to quiet him.
The big man was standing in the door, and the smaller man had turned to shout something back at Bittie, David, the old man and woman, the young couple, and maybe at Maureen. He shouted so loud that Maureen could hear his croaking voice but not make out the words. Then the man went out the door, followed by his hulking shadow. Maureen was suddenly afraid that the two men would come in her direction; surely they would if they had a car and had parked it in the small lot. She reached over and pushed down the lock buttons of the Chevy. Then she closed the open windows.
"Mom, what are you doing?" Miles cried. "It's hot in here. What are you doing? I'm going to tell Dad. He doesn't like the windows closed."
The two men appeared around the corner of the building.
"Quiet, Miles," she said in a loud whisper. "Quiet or I'll ... if you're quiet, I'll let you stay up late tonight."
She leaned back into what she hoped was the darkness of the rear seat and looked over at the two men. The smaller man, who she could now see was not small at all but only smaller than the hulk at his side, stopped and rapped on Bittie's window. The window raided as his knuckles landed firmly on the hot dog in Elmer Fudd's hand.
"I'll see you with one of your fuckin' hot dogs up your ass," the man shouted at Bittie. Inside the shop, Bittie just glared and reached for his telephone.
"We'd better get out of here, Cal," the big man said, tugging at his baseball cap.
"He's not callin' no cops, that chicken shit," the smaller man said, moving toward a gray pickup truck parked a few spaces from Maureen. There were no cars between. She prayed that they wouldn't look in her direction.
"Mom." Miles wept.
Maureen's hand went out to cover his mouth but he shook her off. Nancy began to cry.
The smaller man looked at her and then both men piled into their peeling gray truck, with the smaller man behind the wheel. He raced the engine, hit his horn, and backed up with a screech. Maureen could see something bulky in the rear of the small truck, pieces of machinery or something covered with a cloth.
She held her breath as the truck leapt out onto Diversey, barely missing a red Volkswagen Beetle. Only when she heard the truck screeching in the distance did Maureen let her breath out.
Both children were crying.
"I'm sorry, Miles," she said. "I'll make it up to you."
She soothed him with her hand, pulling his reluctant head to her breast and kissing his straight, dark hair. He smelled of park sand and sweat and, she told herself, he needed a shampoo. Nancy was told "Everything's fine, baby," as Maureen leaned forward to open the windows again. Settling back to the smell of wet, sweet air, she looked into Bittie's and saw that David was getting his order: two white bags, one with sandwiches and fries, the other with the drinks. He was looking over at her with a reassuring smile.
"Daddy's coming with the sandwiches," she said in relief.
"And fries," Miles added.
"And fries," she said, reminding herself to clean Miles's glasses tonight after he was tucked into bed.
"Did you see that?" Dave shrugged as he approached the car and nodded toward Bittie's.
Maureen leaned forward to take one of the bags. David's blue short-sleeved pullover was dotted with sweat and his glasses were slightly fogged.
"Maybe we should take it home?" she said.
"It'll be cold by the time we get back," he said.
"David, those two men in there. I saw them this afternoon at the A and P. I think they followed me—us—here," she said.
"I don't want to wait till we get home," Miles whimpered.
David handed Miles a plastic cup of Coke, smiled, and said, "Come on, Mo, the heat's getting to you. It was just two hamheads with a few beers in them. They're gone."
"Get in and eat," Maureen said. She found the fries and handed one to Nancy, who reached out eagerly over the protective top of her baby seat and took it.
"She must be sticky in that thing," David said, leaning through the window for a hot dog. Maureen handed him one.
"That was one of my fries," Miles said.
"I'll give you three of mine if you finish yours," David countered.
"Get in and eat," Maureen repeated, still feeling the tension created by the two men. She looked through the window past David to assure herself that they were gone. The patches of sweat under her arms stung slightly and she decided to stop shaving there till fall or winter.
"I'll eat one out here," David said. "It was hot in there. That fan doesn't do much." He unwrapped the hot dog, put some french fries on his sandwich as he always did. Miles did the same.
"What was that all about?" Maureen said, finding a hot dog for herself and carefully checking to be sure Bittie hadn't accidentally put hot peppers on it.
"Your fugitives from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were putting on a comedy act," David said.
"I'm glad they didn't have a punch line," Maureen said. "David, I wish you'd get in. I'm telling you, I saw those two at—"
"Maybe they're the ones who got Jimmy Hoffa this morning and they're taking a break before they dump the body." David cut her off, talking around a bit of sandwich. Inside Bittie's the old couple were getting their order and an older black man had joined the line behind the young couple.
A car pulled into the parking lot behind them, but Maureen didn't look back. Nancy had cried for another fry, and Maureen had juggled her sandwich to plunk one into the outstretched hand.
Maureen felt something wrong before she actually saw anything. The sensation made her look up at David, who had adjusted his glasses and was looking beyond the car. Maureen turned, rubbing her moist lip, and glanced through the rear window. The pickup truck was a few feet away. It had not pulled into a space.
There was no time to react. The two men were out of the pickup. She could see that they had left the doors open. Both men, the big and the smaller, were coming toward the car.
"Roll the windows up," David said quickly to Maureen, and then he turned to the men, saying, "Look you two ..."
"David," she screamed, dropping her hot dog; but as she screamed she leaned forward to do what he had said, to roll the windows closed again.
"Mommy, Mommy," cried the terrified Miles. He looked like a frightened baby. Maureen turned toward the window of Bittie's. The girl behind the counter was looking out at the parking lot scene with the other customers. Bittie wasn't there, probably back in the kitchen. Maureen shouted "Help" through the closed windows as she turned her eyes toward David. Hand out, like a traffic cop, he tried to halt the two men.
Something came out from the smaller man's side. It was in his hand and swept toward Dave, hitting his outstretched hand. The remnant of David's hot dog plopped against the side window of the car. Ketchup, relish, mustard, and soggy fries dripped down. A small piece of hot dog clung to the bottom of the window.
"Hold it," David shouted, throwing a hand toward the face of the advancing man. His fist struck, and the smaller man, who was about the same size as Maureen, stepped back. The dark man's free hand went up to his face and blood came down.
David looked at her, and she could see that his left hand was limp from where he had been hit. He seemed to hesitate for a second, undecided about whether he should run or protect his family. The hesitation gave the big man with the baseball cap enough time to lurch forward and swing a flat piece of metal at him.
Maureen clutched Miles and pushed his head down as the metal struck with a plumping sound against her husband's head. David's hand went up to protect himself, but it was too late. He fell backward, below the line of her vision. Both men stepped forward and the smaller man lifted the object in his two hands. She could see now that it was a black baseball bat.
"No, no, no!" she screamed.
He brought the bat down twice and then looked at her with a dark wild grin. He swung the bat once more, but this time it was at the car. The bat thudded against the window and crashed through it, inches away from where Miles's head had been an instant before.
Excerpted from Exercise in Terror by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1985 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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