Read an Excerpt
from Now: Sandy
Curt Wilcox's boy came around the barracks a lot the year after his father died, I mean a lot, but nobody ever told him get out the way or asked him what in hail he was doing there again. We understood what he was doing: trying to hold onto the memory of his father. Cops know a lot about the psychology of grief; most of us know more about it than we want to.
That was Ned Wilcox's senior year at Statler High. He must have quit off the football team; when it came time for choosing, he picked D Troop instead. Hard to imagine a kid doing that, choosing unpaid choring over all those Friday night games and Saturday night parties, but that's what he did. I don't think any of us talked to him about that choice, but we respected him for it. He had decided the time had come to put the games away, that's all. Grown men are frequently incapable of making such decisions; Ned made his at an age when he still couldn't buy a legal drink. Or a legal pack of smokes, for that matter. I think his Dad would have been proud. Know it, actually.
Given how much the boy was around, I suppose it was inevitable he'd see what was out in Shed B, and ask someone what it was and what it was doing there. I was the one he was most likely to ask, because I'd been his father's closest friend. Closest one that was still a Trooper, at least. I think maybe I wanted it to happen. Kill or cure, the oldtimers used to say. Give that curious cat a serious dose of satisfaction.
What happened to Curtis Wilcox was simple. A veteran county drunk, one Curt himself knew well and had arrested six or eight times, took his life. The drunk, Bradley Roach, didn't mean to hurt anyone; drunks so rarely do. That doesn't keep you from wanting to kick their numb asses all the way to Rocksburg, of course.
Toward the end of a hot July afternoon in the year oh-one, Curtis pulled over one of those big sixteen-wheelers, an interstate landcruiser that had left the fourlane because its driver was hoping for a home-cooked meal instead of just another dose of I-87 Burger King or Taco Bell. Curt was parked on the tarmac of the abandoned Jenny station at the intersection of Pennsylvania State Road 32 and the Humboldt Road -- the very place, in other words, where that damned old Buick Roadmaster showed up in our part of the known universe all those years ago. You can call that a coincidence if you want to, but I'm a cop and don't believe in coincidences, only chains of event which grow longer and ever more fragile until either bad luck or plain old human mean-heartedness breaks them.
Ned's father took out after that semi because it had a flapper. When it went by he saw rubber spinning out from one of the rear tires like a big black pinwheel. A lot of independents run on recaps, with the price of diesel so high they just about have to, and sometimes the tread peels loose. You see curls and hunks of it on the interstate all the time, lying on the highway or pushed off into the breakdown lane like the shed skins of giant blacksnakes. It's dangerous to be behind a flapper, especially on a twolane like SR 32, a pretty but neglected stretch of state highway running between Rocksburg and Statler. A big enough chunk might break some unlucky follow-driver's windshield. Even if it didn't, it could startle the operator into the ditch, or a tree, or over the embankment and into Redfern Stream, which matches 32 twist for twist over a distance of nearly six miles.
Curt lit his bar lights, and the trucker pulled over like a good boy. Curt pulled over right behind him, first calling in his 20 and the nature of his stop and waiting for Shirley to acknowledge. With that done, he got out and walked toward the truck.
If he'd gone directly to where the driver was leaning out and looking back at him, he might still be on Planet Earth today. But he stopped to examine the flapper on the rear outside tire, even gave it a good yank to see if he could pull it off. The trucker saw all of it, and testified to it in court. Curt stopping to do that was the last link save one in the chain that brought his boy to Troop D and eventually made him a part of what we are. The very last link, I'd say, was Bradley Roach leaning over to get another brewski out of the six-pack sitting on the floor in the passenger footwell of his old Buick Regal (not the Buick, but another Buick, yes -- it's funny how, when you look back on disasters and love affairs, things seem to line up like planets on an astrologer's chart). Less than a minute later, Ned Wilcox and his sisters were short a daddy and Michelle Wilcox was short a husband.
Not very long after the funeral, Curt's boy started showing up at the Troop D House. I'd come in for the three-to-eleven that fall (or maybe just to check on things; when you're the wheeldog, it's hard to stay away) and see the boy before I saw anyone else, like as not. While his friends were over at Floyd B. Clouse Field behind the high school, running plays and hitting the tackling dummies and giving each other high-fives, Ned would be out on the front lawn of the barracks by himself, bundled up in his green and gold high school jacket, making big piles of fallen leaves. He'd give me a wave and I'd return it: right back atcha, kid. Sometimes after I parked, I'd come out front and shoot the shit with him. He'd tell me about the foolishness his sisters were up to just lately, maybe, and laugh, but you could see his love for them even when he was laughing at them. Sometimes I'd just go in the back way and ask Shirley what was up. Law enforcement in western Pennsylvania would fall apart without Shirley Pasternak, and you can take that to the bank.
Come winter, Ned was apt to be around back in the parking lot, where the Troopers keep their personal vehicles, running the snowblower. The Dadier brothers, two local wide boys, are responsible for our lot, but Troop D sits in the Amish country on the edge of the Short Hills, and when there's a big storm the wind blows drifts across the lot again almost as soon as the plow leaves. Those drifts look to me like an enormous white ribcage. Ned was a match for them, though. There he'd be, even if it was only eight degrees and the wind still blowing a gale across the hills, dressed in a snowmobile suit with his green and gold jacket pulled over the top of it, leather-lined police-issue gloves on his hands and a ski-mask pulled down over his face. I'd wave. He'd give me a little right-back-atcha, then go on gobbling up the drifts with the snowblower. Later he might come in for coffee, or maybe a cup of hot chocolate. Folks would drift over and talk to him, ask him about school, ask him if he was keeping the twins in line (the girls were ten in the winter of oh-one, I think). They'd ask if his Mom needed anything. Sometimes that would include me, if no one was hollering too loud or if the paperwork wasn't too heavy. None of the talk was about his father; all of the talk was about his father. You understand.
Raking leaves and making sure the drifts didn't take hold out there in the parking lot was really Arky Arkanian's responsibility. Arky was the custodian. He was one of us as well, though, and he never got shirty or went territorial about his job. Hell, when it came to snowblowing the drifts, I'll bet Arky just about got down on his knees and thanked God for the kid. Arky was sixty by then, had to have been, and his own football-playing days were long behind him. So were the ones when he could spend an hour and a half outside in ten-degree temperatures (twenty-five below, if you factored in the wind chill) and hardly feel it.
And then the kid started in with Shirley, technically Police Communications Officer Pasternak. By the time spring rolled around, Ned was spending more and more time with her in her little dispatch cubicle with the phones, the TDD (telephonic device for the deaf), the Trooper Location Board (also known as the D-map), and the computer console that's the hot center of that high-pressure little world. She showed him the bank of phones (the most important is the red one, which is our end of 911). She explained about how the traceback equipment had to be tested once a week, and how it was done, and how you had to confirm the duty-roster daily, so you'd know who was out patrolling the roads of Statler, Lassburg, and Pogus City, and who was due in court or off-duty.
"My nightmare is losing an officer without knowing he's lost," I overheard her telling Ned one day.
"Has that ever happened?" Ned asked. "Just...losing a guy?"
"Once," she said. "Before my time. Look here, Ned, I made you a copy of the call-codes. We don't have to use them anymore, but all the Troopers still do. If you want to run dispatch, you have to know these."
Then she went back to the four basics of the job, running them past him yet again: know the location, know the nature of the incident, know what the injuries are, if any, and know the closest available unit. Location, incident, injuries, CAU, that was her mantra.
I thought: He'll be running it next. She means to have him running it. Never mind that if Colonel Teague or someone from Scranton comes in and sees him doing it she'd lose her job, she means to have him running it.
And by the good goddam, there he was a week later, sitting at PCO Pasternak's desk in the dispatch cubicle, at first only while she ran to the bathroom but then for longer and longer periods while she went across the room for coffee or even out back for a smoke.
The first time the boy saw me seeing him in there all alone, he jumped and then gave a great big guilty smile, like a kid who is surprised in the rumpus room by his mother while he's still got his hand on his girlfriend's tit. I gave him a nod and went right on about my beeswax. Never thought twice about it, either. Shirley had turned over the dispatch operation of Statler Troop D to a kid who still only needed to shave three times a week, almost a dozen Troopers were out there at the other end of the gear in that cubicle, but I didn't even slow my stride. We were still talking about his father, you see. Shirley and Arky as well as me and the other uniforms Curtis Wilcox had served with for over twenty years. You don't always talk with your mouth. Sometimes what you say with your mouth hardly matters at all. You have to signify.
When I was out of his sightline, though, I stopped. Stood there. Listened. Across the room, in front of the highway-side windows, Shirley Pasternak stood looking back at me with a Styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand. Next to her was Phil Candleton, who had just clocked off and was once more dressed in his civvies; he was also staring in my direction.
In the dispatch cubicle, the radio crackled. "Statler, this is 12," a voice said. Radio distorts, but I still knew all of my men. That was Eddie Jacubois.
"This is Statler, go ahead," Ned replied. Perfectly calm. If he was afraid of fucking up, he was keeping it out of his voice.
"Statler, I have a Volkswagen Jetta, tag is 14-0-7-3-9 Foxtrot, that's P-A, stopped County Road 99. I need a 10-28, come back?"
Shirley started across the floor, moving fast. A little coffee sloshed over the rim of the Styrofoam cup in her hand. I took her by the elbow, stopping her. Eddie Jacubois was out there on a county road, he'd just stopped a Jetta for some violation -- speeding was the logical assumption -- and he wanted to know if there were any red flags on the plate or the plateholder. He wanted to know because he was going to get out of his cruiser and approach the Jetta. He wanted to know because he was going to put his ass out on the line, same today as every day. Was the Jetta maybe stolen? Had it been involved in an accident at any time during the last six months? Had its owner been in court on charges of spousal abuse? Had he shot anyone? Robbed or raped anyone? Were there even outstanding parking tickets?
Eddie had a right to know these things, if they were in the database. But Eddie also had a right to know why it was a high school kid who had just told him This is Statler, go ahead. I thought it was Eddie's call. If he came back with Where the hell is Shirley, I'd let go of her arm. And if Eddie rolled with it, I wanted to see what the kid would do. How the kid would do.
"Unit 12, hold for reply." If Ned was popping a sweat, it still didn't show in his voice. He turned to the computer monitor and keyed in Uniscope, the search engine used by the Pennsylvania State Police. He hit the keys rapidly but cleanly, then punched ENTER.
There followed a moment of silence in which Shirley and I stood side by side, saying nothing and hoping in perfect unison. Hoping that the kid wouldn't freeze, hoping that he wouldn't suddenly push back the chair and bolt for the door, hoping most of all that he had sent the right code to the right place. It seemed like a long moment. I remember I heard a bird calling outside and, very distant, the drone of a plane. There was time to think about those chains of event some people insist on calling coincidence. One of those chains had broken when Ned's father died on Route 32; here was another, just beginning to form. Eddie Jacubois -- never the sharpest knife in the drawer, I'm afraid -- was now joined to Ned Wilcox. Beyond him, one link further down the new chain, was a Volkswagen Jetta. And whoever was driving it.
Then: "12, this is Statler."
"Jetta is registered to William Kirk Frady of Pittsburgh. He is previous...uh...wait..."
It was his only pause, and I could hear the hurried riffle of paper as he looked for the card Shirley had given him, the one with the call-codes on it. He found it, looked at it, tossed it aside with an impatient little grunt. Through all this, Eddie waited patiently in his cruiser twelve miles west. He would be looking at Amish buggies, maybe, or a farmhouse with the curtain in one of the front windows pulled aslant, indicating that the Amish family living inside included a daughter of marriageable age, or over the hazy hills to Ohio. Only he wouldn't really be seeing any of those things. The only thing Eddie was seeing at that moment -- seeing clearly -- was the Jetta parked on the shoulder in front of him, the driver nothing but a silhouette behind the wheel. And what was he, that driver? Rich man? Poor man? Beggarman? Thief?
Finally Ned just said it, which was exactly the right choice. "12, Frady is DUI times three, do you copy?"
Drunk man, that's what the Jetta's driver was. Maybe not right now, but if he had been speeding, the likelihood was high.
"Copy, Statler." Perfectly laconic. "Got a current laminate?" Wanting to know if Frady's license to drive was currently valid.
"Ah..." Ned peered frantically at the white letters on the blue screen. Right in front of you, kiddo, don't you see it? I held my breath.
Then: "Affirmative, 12, he got it back three months ago."
I let go of my breath. Beside me, Shirley let go of hers. This was good news for Eddie, too. Frady was legal, and thus less likely to be crazy. That was the rule of thumb, anyway.
"12 on approach," Eddie sent. "Copy that?"
"Copy, 12 on approach, standing by," Ned replied. I heard a click and then a large, unsteady sigh. I nodded to Shirley, who got moving again. Then I reached up and wiped my brow, not exactly surprised to find it was wet with sweat.
"How's everything going?" Shirley asked. Voice even and normal, saying that, as far as she was concerned, all was quiet on the western front.
"Eddie Jacubois called in," Ned told her. "He's 10-27." That's an operator check, in plain English. If you're a Trooper, you know that it also means citing the operator for some sort of violation, in nine cases out of ten. Now Ned's voice wasn't quite steady, but so what? Now it was all right for it to jig and and jag a little. "He's got a guy in a Jetta out on Highway 99. I handled it."
"Tell me how," Shirley said. "Go through your procedure. Every step, Ned. Quick's you can."
I went on my way. Phil Candleton intercepted me at the door to my office. He nodded toward the dispatch cubicle. "How'd the kid do?"
"Did all right," I said, and stepped past him into my own cubicle. I didn't realize my legs had gone rubbery until I sat down and felt them trembling.
His sisters, Joan and Janet, were identicals. They had each other, and their mother had a little bit of her gone man in them: Curtis's blue, slightly uptilted eyes, his blonde hair, his full lips (the nickname in Curt's yearbook, under his name, had been "Elvis"). Michelle had her man in her son, as well, where the resemblance was even more striking. Add a few crow's-feet around the eyes and Ned could have been his own father when Curtis first came on the cops.
That's what they had. What Ned had was us.
One day in April he came into the barracks with a great big sunny smile on his face. It made him look younger and sweeter. But, I remember thinking, we all of us look younger and sweeter when we smile our real smiles -- the ones that come when we are genuinely happy and not just trying to play some dumb social game. It struck me fresh that day because Ned didn't smile much. Certainly not big. I don't think I realized it until that day because he was polite and responsive and quick-witted. A pleasure to have around, in other words. You didn't notice how grave he was until that rare day when you saw him brighten up and shine.
He came to the center of the room, and all the little conversations stopped. He had a paper in his hand. There was a complicated-looking gold seal at the top. "Pitt!" he said, holding the paper up in both hands like an Olympic judge's scorecard. "I got into Pitt, you guys! And they gave me a scholarship! Almost a full boat!"
Everyone applauded. Shirley kissed him smack on the mouth, and the kid blushed all the way down to his collar. Huddie Royer, who was off-duty that day and just hanging around, stewing about some case in which he had to testify, went out and came back with a bag of L'il Debbie cakes. Arky used his key to open the soda machine, and we had a party. Half an hour or so, no more, but it was good while it lasted. Everyone shook Ned's hand, the acceptance letter from Pitt made its way around the room (twice, I think), and a couple of cops who'd been at home dropped by just to talk to him and pass along their congrats.
Then, of course, the real world got back into the act. It's quiet over here in western Pennsylvania, but not dead. There was a farmhouse fire in Pogus City (which is a city about as much as I'm the Archduke Ferdinand), and an overturned Amish buggy on Highway 20. The Amish keep to themselves, but they'll gladly take a little outside help in a case like that. The horse was okay, which was the big thing. The worst buggy fuckups happen on Friday and Saturday nights, when the younger bucks in black have a tendency to get drunk out behind the barn. Sometimes they get a "worldly person" to buy them a bottle or a case of Iron City beer, and sometimes they drink their own stuff, a really murderous corn shine you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. It's just part of the scene; it's our world, and mostly we like it, including the Amish with their big neat farms and the orange triangles on the backs of their small neat buggies.
And there's always paperwork, the usual stacks of duplicate and triplicate in my office. It gets worse every year. Why I ever wanted to be the guy in charge is beyond me now. I took the test that qualified me for Sergeant Commanding when Tony Schoondist suggested it, so I must have had a reason back then, but these days it seems to elude me.
Around six o'clock I went out back to have a smoke. We have a bench there facing the parking lot. Beyond it is a very pretty western view. Ned Wilcox was sitting on the bench with his acceptance letter from Pitt in one hand and tears rolling down his face. He glanced at me, then looked away, scrubbing his eyes with the palm of his hand.
I sat down beside him, thought about putting my arm around his shoulder, didn't do it. If you have to think about a thing like that, doing it usually feels phony. I guess, anyway. I have never married, and what I know about fathering you could write on the head of a pin with room left over for the Lord's Prayer. I lit a cigarette and smoked it awhile. "It's all right, Ned," I said eventually. It was the only thing I could think of, and I had no idea what it meant.
"I know," he replied at once in a muffled, trying-not-to-cry voice, and then, almost as if it was part of the same sentence, a continuation of the same thought: "No it ain't."
Hearing him use that word, that ain't, made me realize how bad he was hurt. Something had gored him in the stomach. It was the sort of word he would have trained himself out of long ago, just so he wouldn't be lumped with the rest of the Statler County hicks, the pickup-truck-n-snowmobile gomers from towns like Patchin and Pogus City. Even his sisters, eight years younger than he was, had probably given up ain't by then, and for much the same reasons. Don't say ain't or your mother will faint and your father will fall in a bucket of paint. Yeah, what father?
I smoked and said nothing. On the far side of the parking lot by one of the county roadsalt piles was a cluster of wooden buildings that needed either sprucing up or tearing down. They were the old Motor Pool buildings. Statler County had moved its plows, graders, 'dozers, and asphalt rollers a mile or so down the road ten years before, into a new brick facility that looked like a prison lockdown unit. All that remained here was the one big pile of salt (which we were using ourselves, little by little -- once upon a time, that pile had been a mountain) and a few ramshackle wooden buildings. One of them was Shed B. The black-paint letters over the door -- one of those wide garage doors that run up on rails -- were faded but still legible. Was I thinking about the Buick Roadmaster inside as I sat there next to the crying boy, wanting to put my arm around him and not knowing how? I don't know. I guess I might have been, but I don't think we know all the things we're thinking. Freud might have been full of shit about a lot of things, but not that one. I don't know about a subconscious, but there's a pulse in our heads, all right, same as there's one in our chests, and it carries unformed, no-language thoughts that most times we can't even read, and they are usually the important ones.
Ned rattled the letter. "He's the one I really want to show this to. He's the one who wanted to go to Pitt when he was a kid but couldn't afford it. He's the reason I applied, for God's sake." A pause; then, almost too low to hear: "This is fucked up, Sandy."
"What did your mother say when you showed her?"
That got a laugh, watery but genuine. "She didn't say. She screamed like a lady who just won a trip to Bermuda on a gameshow. Then she cried." Ned turned to me. His own tears had stopped, but his eyes were red and swollen. He looked a hell of a lot younger than eighteen just then. The sweet smile resurfaced for a moment. "Basically, she was great about it. Even the Little J's were great about it. Like you guys. Shirley kissing me...man, I got goosebumps."
I laughed, thinking that Shirley might have raised a few goosebumps of her own. She liked him, he was a handsome kid, and the idea of playing Mrs. Robinson might have crossed her mind. Probably not, but it wasn't impossible. Her husband had been out of the picture almost twenty years by then.
Ned's smile faded. He rattled the acceptance letter again. "I knew this was yes as soon as I took it out of the mailbox. I could just tell, somehow. And I started missing him all over again. I mean fierce."
"I know," I said, but of course I didn't. My own father was still alive, a hale and genially profane man of seventy-four. At seventy, my mother was all that and a bag of chips.
Ned sighed, looking off at the hills. "How he went out is just so dumb," he said. "I can't even tell my kids, if I ever have any, that Grampy went down in a hail of bullets while foiling the bank robbers or the militia guys who were trying to put a bomb in the county courthouse. Nothing like that."
"No," I agreed, "nothing like that."
"I can't even say it was because he was careless. He was just...a drunk just came along and just..."
He bent over, wheezing like an old man with a cramp in his belly, and this time I at least put my hand on his back. He was trying so hard not to cry, that's what got to me. Trying so hard to be a man, whatever that means to an eighteen-year-old boy.
"Ned. It's all right."
He shook his head violently. "If there was a God, there'd be a reason," he said. He was looking down at the ground. My hand was still on his back, and I could feel it heaving up and down, like he'd just run a race. "If there was a God, there'd be some kind of thread running through it. But there isn't. Not that I can see."
"If you have kids, Ned, tell them their grandfather died in the line of duty. Then take them here and show them his name on the plaque, with all the others."
He didn't seem to hear me. "I have this dream. It's a bad one." He paused, thinking how to say it, then just plunged ahead. "I dream it was all a dream. Do you know what I'm saying?"
"I wake up crying, and I look around my room, and it's sunny. Birds are singing. It's morning. I can smell coffee downstairs and I think, 'He's okay. Jesus and thank you God, the old man's okay.' I don't hear him talking or anything, but I just know. And I think what a stupid idea it was, that he could be walking up the side of some guy's rig to give him a warning about a flapper and just get creamed by a drunk, the sort of idea you could only have in a stupid dream where everything seems so real...and I start to swing my legs out of bed...sometimes I see my ankles go into a patch of sun...it even feels warm...and then I wake up for real, and it's dark, and I've got the blankets pulled up around me but I'm still cold, shivering and cold, and I know that the dream was a dream."
"That's awful," I said, remembering that as a boy I'd had my own version of the same dream. It was about my dog. I thought to tell him that, then didn't. Grief is grief, but a dog is not a father.
"It wouldn't be so bad if I had it every night. Then I think I'd know, even while I was asleep, that there's no smell of coffee, that it's not even morning. But it doesn't come...doesn't come...and then when it finally does, I get fooled again. I'm so happy and relieved, I even think of something nice I'll do for him, like buy him that five-iron he wanted for his birthday...and then I wake up. I get fooled all over again." Maybe it was the thought of his father's birthday, not celebrated this year and never to be celebrated again, that started fresh tears running down his cheeks. "I just hate getting fooled. It's like when Mr. Jones came down and got me out of World History class to tell me, but even worse. Because I'm alone when I wake up in the dark. Mr. Grenville -- he's the guidance counselor at school -- says time heals all wounds, but it's been almost a year and I'm still having that dream."
I nodded. I was remembering Ten-Pound, shot by a hunter one November, growing stiff in his own blood under a white sky when I found him. A white sky promising a winter's worth of snow. In my dream it was always another dog when I got close enough to see, not Ten-Pound at all, and I felt that same relief. Until I woke up, at least. And thinking of Ten-Pound made me think, for a moment, of our barracks mascot back in the old days. Mister Dillon, his name had been, after the TV sheriff played by James Arness. A good dog.
"I know that feeling, Ned."
"Do you?" He looked at me hopefully.
"Yes. And it gets better. Believe me, it does. But he was your Dad, not a schoolmate or a neighbor from down the road. You may still be having that dream next year at this time. You may even be having it ten years on, every once in awhile."
"No," I said. "That's memory."
"If there was a reason." He was looking at me earnestly. "A damn reason. Do you get that?"
"Of course I do."
"Is there one, do you think?"
I thought of telling him I didn't know about reasons, only about chains -- how they form themselves, link by link, out of nothing; how they knit themselves into the world. Sometimes you can grab a chain and use it to pull yourself out of a dark place. Mostly, though, I think you get wrapped up in them. Just caught, if you're lucky. Fucking strangled, if you're not.
I found myself gazing across the parking lot at Shed B again. Looking at it, I thought that if I could get used to what was stored in its dark interior, Ned Wilcox could get used to living a fatherless life. People can get used to just about anything. That's the best of our lives, I guess. Of course, it's the horror of them, too.
"Sandy? What do you think?"
"I think that you're asking the wrong guy. I know about work, and hope, and putting a nut away for the GDR."
He grinned. In Troop D, everyone talked very seriously about the GDR, as though it were some complicated subdivision of law enforcement. It actually stood for "golden days of retirement." I think it might have been Huddie Royer who first started talking about the GDR.
"I also know about preserving the chain of evidence so no smart defense attorney can kick your legs out from under you in court and make you look like a fool. Beyond that, I'm just another confused American male."
"At least you're honest," he said.
But was I? Or was I begging the goddam question? I didn't feel particularly honest right then; I felt like a man who can't swim looking at a boy who is floundering in deep water. And once again Shed B caught my eye. Is it cold in here? this boy's father had asked, back in the once-upon-a-time, back in the day. Is it cold in here, or is it just me?
No, it hadn't been just him.
"What are you thinking about, Sandy?"
"Nothing worth repeating," I said. "What are you doing this summer?"
"What are you doing this summer?" It wouldn't be golfing in Maine or boating on Lake Tahoe, that was for sure; scholarship or no scholarship, Ned was going to need all of the old folding green he could get.
"County Parks and Rec again, I suppose," he said with a marked lack of enthusiasm. "I worked there last summer until...you know."
Until his Dad. I nodded.
"I got a letter from Tom McClannahan last week, saying he was holding a place open for me. He mentioned coaching Little League, but that's just the carrot on the end of the stick. Mostly it'll be swinging a spade and setting out sprinklers, just like last year. I can swing a spade, and I'm not afraid of getting my hands dirty. But Tom..." He shrugged instead of finishing.
I knew what Ned was too discreet to say. There are two kinds of work-functional alcoholics, those who are just too fucking mean to fall down and those so sweet that other people go on covering for them way past the point of insanity. Tom was one of the mean ones, the last sprig on a family tree full of plump county hacks going back to the nineteenth century. The McClannahans had fielded a Senator, two members of the House of Representatives, half a dozen Pennsylvania Representatives, and Statler County trough-hogs beyond counting. Tom was, by all accounts, a mean boss with no ambition to climb the political totem pole. What he liked was telling kids like Ned, the ones who had been raised to be quiet and respectful, where to squat and push. And of course for Tom, they never squatted deep enough or pushed hard enough.
"Don't answer that letter yet," I said. "I want to make a call before you do."
I thought he'd be curious, but he only nodded his head. I looked at him sitting there, holding the letter on his lap, and thought that he looked like a boy who has been denied a place in the college of his choice instead of being offered a fat scholarship incentive to go there.
Then I thought again. Not just denied a place in college, maybe, but in life itself. That wasn't true -- the letter he'd gotten from Pitt was only one of the things that proved it -- but I've no doubt he felt that way just then. I don't know why success often leaves us feeling lower-spirited than failure, but I know it's true. And remember that he was just eighteen, a Hamlet age if there ever was one.
I looked across the parking lot again at Shed B, thinking about what was inside. Not that any of us really knew.
Copyright © 2002 by Stephen King