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from Part I
Perhaps John Felton had got married too young, but he really did love Joanie and, besides, she was pregnant and came from a family which, though believing abortion was wrong, would have been disgraced by an illegitimate birth, with several of its members active in local church affairs and one in the politics of the county. So he became a father the first time almost simultaneously with becoming a husband.
Then before Melanie was quite three years of age she was joined by a newborn brother they prudently named for her mother's uncle Philip, a small businessman who had retired on the tidy sum paid for his prime-location premises (where he had sold floor coverings) by the firm that intended to demolish them along with neighboring structures and build a medium-sized mall on the property. But Uncle Phil was conspicuously healthy and still not nearly old enough to be considered a prompt source of financial relief for his presumed heirs. They were paying too much for a house though John was himself a real-estate salesman — at the moment in a buyer's market.
John worked weekends, showing houses to potential buyers when there were such, and took Mondays off, which permitted Joanie to catch up on her sleep in the morning, and in the afternoon shop or visit the hairdresser. Even so — and whenever he was home he shared in the chores, including wee-hour calls from baby Phil — having to care for two small children was leaving its mark on his young wife, who, he had to admit to himself, already looked as if she had been married twice as long as was actually the case.
It was on such a late Monday morning when, with the two-tone sound of the front-doorchimes, the worst day of John's life began, though he had already been up for hours, feeding the children and running the first of two loads of laundry through the washer/dryer and folding the garments while they were still warm. Joanie, in rumpled pajamas, was breakfasting on sugar-coated cereal at the kitchen table. She wore no makeup, in which state her eyes looked very small, and her hair was tousled. There had been a time, not long before, when in a similar condition she would still have looked like a schoolgirl.
"Why don't you try one of those blueberry muffins?" John asked her now.
"Aren't they stale?"
"I just bought them yesterday, at Liebman's."
"I don't know," Joan said, pushing away at least half a bowlful of sodden cereal. "I'm just not that hungry." She drank some black coffee from her favorite mug of brown ceramic, with the yellow chipped place at the rim to avoid which she held the vessel in her left hand. "I always thought you were supposed to acquire a tremendous appetite when you quit smoking. It's just the opposite with me. I always looked forward to eating when I knew I had a cigarette coming."
John had never smoked his life long, the odor of burning tobacco having always been nauseating to him. It was not because of him, however, that Joanie had lately given up the habit: she had at last been scared off by a series of antismoking exhortations on television. She really did take seriously her responsibilities as a mother.
"Spaghetti okay for dinner?" He made it every Monday evening. It was one of his specialties. He boiled it up and added the canned white clam sauce.
"Why not?" rhetorically asked his wife, supporting her head with her right hand, between sips of coffee from the mug in her left.
Melanie wandered in and said something her father did not hear distinctly, for it was at this point that the door chimes sounded.
"Be right back," he told his daughter, touching her button nose ever so lightly with his index finger, but she was not mollified by the gesture and began to complain.
John had inherited his mother's anxiety with respect to electric summonses: the sound of bell or buzzer was perforce an emergency to which one must give precedence over hemorrhages, flash fires, and all human importunities. Being way back in the kitchen, he now headed for the front entrance at the run, lest the unseen applicant have to undergo the horror of ringing again.
Owing to the same anxiety, he never took time to peer through the little gauze curtain that covered the rectangle of glass set high in the door for that purpose, but, as now, hurled open the portal without regard for the cautions about strangers that one heard so frequently these days. His father-in-law, for example, made all comers state their business to the tiny microphone installed above the bell-push, while they stood for inspection through a closed-circuit TV camera mounted near the ceiling of the porch.
The present caller was a man of about John's own age, a tall fellow somewhere between thin and sinewy. On the back of his head was the kind of billed cap worn nowadays by more people than just ballplayers. John himself had two: one purchased for the golf course, the other a promotional gift on the opening of the local branch of a hardware chain.
"My car stalled out, right in front of your house." A clump of dingy fair curls filled the space between the forehead and the bill of the cap.
"You want me to call the auto club?"
The man's smile displayed only his upper teeth, so that it took an instant to identify it as a smile. "You could just give me a push." He gestured with his shoulder. "Just to where it starts down."
The descent so signified began in front of the third house from John's. Once over the crest of the hill, you could probably coast without power for more than a quarter mile.
John accompanied the stranger to the curb, where he asked him, "You think that will do it?"
The man seemed not to understand the question. "Hey," he said, "in this baby I can smoke anything on the road."
John had never been fascinated with cars, but he recognized this one as being powerful, with its air scoop on the hood and its long red snout. "Yeah," he said. "It's hot-looking. Where do you want me to go, side or back?"
The man opened the door and got into the driver's seat. "Right here by the window." He slammed the door, and John braced himself against the frame and pushed.
The car rolled more easily than he had anticipated. He had the natural strength associated with a stocky build. But he had done little in the way of recreational exercise (playing golf maybe three times a season) since leaving high school, and he noticed nowadays that physical effort caused him to breathe harder than he had once had to.
Just as John was feeling a certain satisfaction with his current effort, the man behind the wheel complained. "Can't you give it a little more steam? We're hardly moving."
John was chastened. Could that be true? Maybe he should look at the ground. He lowered his head, staring at the asphalt under them, and put all his strength against the doorjamb. The vehicle certainly moved: there could be no doubt of that. But the driver was apparently one of those people who go public only with negative observations.
Now he shouted, "Hey! Will you stop!"
John looked up. It was quite true that they had gained the crest and there was no further need for exterior force. But the implication of emergency was unwarranted. This was the man who had lately chided him for doing too little.
"Just step on the brake."
The man snarled, "I don't have any brakes, jerk."
There was no call for nastiness, and though usually an amiable sort, John would have stepped back and replied in kind — had he not now discovered that the tail of his old work shirt, which, casually, as befitted his day off, he was wearing outside his old paint-stained chinos, had been caught in the door of the car when the other man slammed it shut at the outset.
Luckily the car was moving slowly as yet. Trotting, John seized the door handle. It was locked. He reached inside to pull up the button, but there was only an empty hole. He shouted through the open window, right into the driver's ear, but the man was preoccupied. John reached farther inside and tried to find and work the mechanism by touch, but he was unfamiliar with it, and now the car had begun to roll faster. He had to pick up the pace. Near panic, tethered to the mass of steel as it gathered momentum for the long downward slope, he gave up on the lock and struck the driver on the shoulder cap, and then, when the man made no response whatever — John was running now — he put both hands around the driver's skinny neck and would have throttled him had the car not quickly come to a shuddering stop.
Relieved of fear but even angrier than before, John took the hand from the man's throat but kept in place the one at the nape.
"Open the goddamn door!"
The driver obeyed the order, twisting away from the grasp.
John should simply have turned and walked away at this point, but he stayed, incredulous. "This was a joke? You had brakes all the while? What's wrong with you?"
The driver frowned. "I don't have any brakes. I stopped by putting it in gear."
"You didn't know my shirt was caught in the door?"
"I was busy! Wasn't that your business?"
Now that he had calmed down somewhat, John could see a certain justice in the other's argument, but he had invested too much of himself to admit it.
"Look," the other man said, "I can coast down from here. But where's the nearest gas station?"
"Turn at Randolph," John said. "That'll be at the bottom of the hill. Take a right on Walton, to Church. There's a station on the northeast corner. But how are you going to stop if you have to? Keep putting it in gear? That can't be good for your car. For that matter, it's level ground down there. Once you're stopped, you won't be able to get going again."
"Well, it's my problem, isn't it," the man said genially. "Thanks for this. Sorry about your shirt."
John reflected that only a moment earlier he had been trying to choke this fellow. The memory was embarrassing to him, though his victim seemed not to bear a grudge. On a guilty impulse, he said, "I better come along, just in case."
"If you want." The man worked the gear selector, and the car began to move. "Hop in. I can't stop again."
This seemed rude, in view of the charitable offer. By the time John got around to the other side, the vehicle was rolling at such speed that it was all he could do to reach the passenger door, open it, and hurl himself within, painfully bruising his knee on some projection.
Despite the speed, however, the driver was in no hurry to engage the gears. Which failure, by the time they were half-way down the slope, was inexplicable to John.
"Why don't you kick it in?"
The young man in the cap was steering now with one hand on a loose wrist — the left one, at that. He did not seem at all concerned about the state of the car. At last he lazily turned his head.
"You want some juice, is that it?" Still looking at John, he worked the shifter with his free fist. The car came to life with a thunderous noise. They had already reached a fast roll; with the new thrust the car plunged downhill like a rocket. Inertia held John against the back of the seat, though there was not much he could have done anyway but what he did: shout in indignation.
He fell silent when he saw, not half a block beyond them, the rear end of a commercial van, backing into the street from a private driveway. He was not wearing a seat belt, and his fantasies of instinctively knowing the right thing to do in an emergency proved useless. He was sure only that the imminent collision would be lethal for himself, and that certainty was paralyzing.
In fact, no crash occurred. Still steering only with a casual left hand and disdaining the use of the horn, the driver effortlessly swung wide, so wide his wheels must have been in the far gutter, and continued to blast downhill at an ever greater velocity.
John recovered his anger. "Are you crazy? If there had been any oncoming traffic —"
"But there wasn't any," the man crowed, slapping the wheel and hee-hawing.
John intended to get out when they gained level ground, where the car could be brought to a stop by using the gears. If the fool ignored the order, the use of physical force would again be justified.
But on reaching the bottom of the hill, the other man performed a conservative turn, at a speed that had somehow subtly been brought to a moderate rate, and drove the block to the gas station before there was a reasonable opportunity to demand that the vehicle be stopped en route.
On stepping from the car, faced with a substantial walk back home, most of which was uphill, John discovered that his knee still ached from the blow it had sustained in his leap into the rolling vehicle.
"Wait a minute," said the driver, hopping out. "I'll give you a lift soon as I get the tank filled."
John turned his back on the man. He had limped to the edge of the concrete apron before he was struck by the implication of what the guy had said. He stopped and turned around.
The driver, who had been watching his departure, smiled and said, "Can't you take a joke?"
"You mean the brakes?" John asked angrily. "Your brakes are okay. You just used them now to stop, didn't you?" The car, furthermore, was at the pumps, not positioned for entrance to the garage, where it would have had to go for work on the supposedly ailing engine and the allegedly missing brakes. "And nothing's wrong with the motor."
"You're wrong there," said the man, tugging at the bill of his cap. "It really needs a tune-up, and the brakes tend to fade." The attendant had arrived. She was a gaunt young woman, hair tucked up in her cap, no makeup. "Premium. Fill it." He walked toward John, a bony hand extended. "Come on, I haven't killed anybody, have I?"
John had always found it difficult to maintain a negative attitude toward any human being in the flesh. It was a kind of fear. He was anything but a coward in the routine sense of the word. He had once plunged into a flood-swollen stream to rescue a child, though never having been an outstanding swimmer. But he had no reason to think kindly of this idiot, and he ignored the outstretched hand. "Tell me this: why did you ring my doorbell?"
The man lowered his arm at last and said reproachfully, "I was just about out of gas. The needle was on Empty."
"Why couldn't you just say so?"
"I was afraid you'd think I'd want to siphon some out of your car." The man put his thin jaw forward, but in a display of earnestness, not aggression. "Nobody trusts anybody nowadays."
True enough, and in another situation John might very well have been the first to agree, but in the present case the sentiment was being voiced by the wrong man. "You're still lying!" he said, with a sense of outrage. "You had enough gas to speed downhill."
The other shook his head. "If you decide to think the worst of somebody, then there's absolutely nothing that will change your mind. But there's always some gas left in an empty tank, and going downhill at an angle, it sloshes forward and can be burned. But don't believe me — just ask that guy." He pointed over his shoulder at the attendant. "Look, I didn't handle the whole thing right, I guess. I might not know how to deal with people, but I'm not a bad person. I'm willing to apologize." He raised his hand again. "How about it?"
This was the sort of appeal that John could not have rejected without being an altogether different kind of person from what he was. "All right," he said, and even added the lie (for his knee was sore), "No harm done, I guess." He did not like the feel of the other's fingers, which, though appearing bony, were somewhat soft and yielding to the touch, as if the bones were gelatinous. "She's female."
The man looked back. Then he smirked and said, loudly enough for the woman to hear, "She's a dog."
A needlessly nasty thing to say, but at least the attendant did not show that she had heard it, and it was quickly followed by what seemed a sincere concern for John's welfare. "Let me run you back up the hill after I take care of this." He went toward the attendant, who was hanging up the hose. After exchanging a word or two, they both walked to the station office and went inside.
John had a moment in which to debate with himself as to whether he should accept the lift. He still did not like this stranger and did not really trust him. There were people, Joanie's brother among them, whose routine technique was to act badly and then beg for forgiveness. After a series of such episodes, the victim grew wiser, unless of course his judgment was corrupted by blood ties.
Later on, looking back, John would identify this moment as being one of the many early opportunities he had to avert the catastrophe toward which he was unwittingly headed, but he failed to take it and instead waited for the man to return. He did not yet enter the car. He stood with his back to the office. He did not buy his gas here, a full-service station facility, but saved money by pumping his own at a station a mile east. Nor were there properties in this neighborhood of small shops with apartments over them (so near and yet so far from his own) of the kind likely to be listed with his agency, which specialized in the nicer kind of homes, on up to those priced at a million and beyond, which naturally were handled by one or another of the two fortyish partners who owned the agency, Miriam and Tess, and not by himself, whose specialty was considered to be, appropriately enough, houses within the reach of young couples, or rather what they could be convinced were within their reach, for a reasonably priced property was a thing of the past even during the periods called slumps. How often had John been told by prospects that they grew up in the finest house on the block, four lavatories, in-ground pool, gym-sized garage, for all of which their parents had paid fifty, and now there was nothing cheaper than this, two bedrooms, one and a half baths, roof that needed reshingling, for two twenty-five?
The man in the cap appeared at the hood of the red car. He wore a pair of expensive-looking running shoes, so large and dazzlingly white, with lightning stripes of royal blue, that John did not understand why he had not previously taken note of them.
The other angrily asked whether John remembered his telling "that ugly bitch" to check the oil.
"I didn't hear you say that. Anyway, why are you so mad at her? She's just somebody who pumps gas."
"She didn't want to take my credit card!" He jerked his head in annoyance and gestured. "Come on, let's get out of here before I really lose my temper." He went around to the driver's side and got into the car. When John reluctantly took his own place (his knee was throbbing; he needed the ride), the young man said, without trying again to shake hands, "My name's Richie." He started the engine.
"Okay, Johnnie, here goes nothing." Richie slowly pulled out of the station.
"No," John said, "not Johnnie or John Boy or Jack."
Richie grinned. "You want things your own way, don't you? I respect that. I know I let people push me around too much, and then I get mad. I wish I could be more like you, lay it on the line right away, it's a free country. Instead I do a lot of weaseling, I admit. I got to get over that. Who am I trying to impress?"
John found these remarks so meaningless that in an effort to disregard them he also briefly ignored the fact that Richie had turned in the wrong direction on leaving the gas station. When he came to, however, he spoke sharply.
"Take this next right and then another right at the next block, and get back to Maple. I want to go straight home."
"Isn't that what I said I would do?" Richie asked in exaggerated dismay. "Jesus, what a touchy guy you can be, John. I don't care. I like you, John. You're my kind of person. What I'd really like to do is buy you a nice breakfast someplace, to pay back the favor you did me."
"I've had breakfast," John said decisively. "And you owe me nothing, because it wasn't much of a favor."
Richie pulled the cap lower on his forehead, concealing the dirty curls in front but revealing more in back. "You're not gonna deny me a cup of coffee, I hope. I haven't eaten anything since I got up." He pointed a long, skinny, gnarled finger at something out John's window, which proved to be a doughnut shop, and steering with the free hand, swooped the car up to the curb just in front of the establishment, though the space was posted with prominent loading-area signs and gaudily striped in no-parking yellow.
John had had enough. As soon as the car stopped, he threw the door open. But when he put his weight onto his feet, he found he could hardly use the leg with the bad knee, which had stiffened since being at rest. What a damnable predicament to find yourself in as the result of giving someone a hand: it was not fair.
Though he had been exclusively self-regarding up to this point, Richie now noticed him, asking, "What's with the limp?"
"Forget about it."
"Bumped my knee. It's nothing, it'll go away."
Richie frowned. "Gonna sue me?"
"You're always taking a chance when you pick somebody up." Richie showed his teeth. "He might just be looking for an excuse to claim injury and hit you with a lawsuit."
"You didn't pick me up. But don't worry, I'm not going to sue you, for God's sake. It didn't have anything to do with you." Of course it did, but John spoke so from motives of pride.
The other stared at him for a moment, through pale-blue, watery eyes that gave an impression of moral triviality and perhaps a touch of physical ill health. Though John was aware that judgments of this sort were notoriously unreliable, he could not refrain from making them. When he first met his father-in-law, he assumed from the round, fleshy face that the man was of another sort than he in fact proved to be. For that matter, when John had first seen Joan herself, as a fellow college student, he had found her not his type, with her rather awkward gait and his least favorite hairstyle, but in her case it was the eyes that grew on him, as well as her lively personality, which had become somewhat subdued by motherhood.
Richie terminated the stare with what he obviously considered to be his trademark grin. He did not, however, have the requisite freckles to make it assertively cute, for which John was grateful.
"Ought to have it looked at," Richie said. "I'll run you to the nearest clinic. Just let me pour some coffee down me."
"Sure," John replied, impatient now to escape. "Go on in. I don't want anything." He was prepared to resist some argument, but Richie nodded docilely and went toward the decal-laden glass doors of the doughnut shop.
John had decided to walk from here on, but the pain of the first few steps caused him to look away in distress, and in so doing he by chance noticed, just across the street, the narrow office of a local taxi service. Suddenly the traffic was too heavy to permit him to cross in the middle of the block. It was while he limped uncomfortably to the intersection that he heard the ominous screech of skidding tires and turned his head to see the little white compact car strike Richie's automobile at an angle, carom away, and spin through the intersection, miraculously evading all the other vehicles at hand, including one big truck against the brutal-looking steel grille of which it might well have crushed itself had fate not determined otherwise.
John went first to inspect the damage to Richie's car because he was closer to it than to the other, which anyway had come to rest without further collision and the driver of which seemed okay as she hopped out, with amazing energy for someone in such a situation. She was small but had a great head of orange curls. She was wearing a miniskirt and high heels. Even at that distance he could see her heavy makeup.
On the driver's side of Richie's car was a long smear of damage. The young woman was heading John's way.
When she reached him she asked, with apparently genuine concern, "Anybody hurt?"
"No. How about you?"
"I don't think my car even got damaged much," she said, making her eyes, with their artificial lashes, even larger. She brought her purse up and began to rummage in it. "I'll cover everything." She produced and waved some little documents that could be a driver's license and a registration.
"I think," said John, "what you also need is the insurance card. It's probably in the glove compartment." That was the law. "But I don't own this car."
"Hey," she shouted, scowling, "if it's not your car, what's your stake in it?" She had a strong voice though being small of body and reminded him of one of those talented children who sometimes turn up and belt out a song in public performance, with the volume and delivery of a Broadway veteran.
But he was irked. "I'm a witness."
Obviously she had not thought of that. She did so now and sulked, her plumped lower lip oozing forward. "If you've already decided it was my fault, what can I do?"
"I haven't decided anything at all," said John. "But it's not the kind of thing anybody would do on purpose, I'm sure of that." He smiled. "I'm just a passerby. The guy who owns this car is in there." He indicated the doughnut shop.
"Oh-oh," said the young woman, staring across at her car, "the cops are here." She came close to John and seized his arm. "Do me this favor, say you were with me." He recoiled, but she hung desperately on. "You don't have to say you were driving. I'll take the heat for that. But I've got a learner's permit, the kind you have to be accompanied by a regular driver with, you know." She was shaking his arm with both hands. The crowd that had formed because of the accident would soon notice them. She had been identified by someone near her car, and a policeman was strolling their way. "Please," said the woman. "We can have a date if you want."
The fact was that John did find her sexually attractive, in the abstract fashion of women seen from a distance, or in show-biz illustrations, not by personal experience. She was not someone with whom he would ordinarily have, or want, contact. He looked forward to making a joke of it with Joanie: how he had had his chance with this bimbo, with her flaming head and too-bright eyes. But, more seriously, he could not approve of someone's driving without being fully and properly licensed: no joke in this day and age, especially if you were the parent of children who might be run down by such a delinquent citizen. Yet it went against his grain to reject the appeal of anybody, let alone a female. It was just unfair that he found himself in this situation.
But it was not his business. By rights, he should not have been here at all. It was that goddamned Richie's fault — and where was he, anyway?
"Look," he said to the red-haired woman, disregarding her sluttish proposal, "I'll find the guy who owns this car. That's the best I can do."
He marched to the doughnut shop and pushed the door in against a cluster of people who had come there to stare at the street scene. Richie was not among them, nor could he be seen amid those gawking out the windows. John was exasperated, but then he wondered why he was bothering about this matter. He returned outside.
The policeman was in conversation with the young woman. John assumed that if the latter were in serious trouble, she would have no hesitation in offering herself to the cop. He turned his back on them and started in a homeward direction. In the excitement of the accident he had momentarily forgotten his sore knee, but remembered it unpleasantly now. He had taken only two painful steps, however, when he was halted by a command at his back.
"Hey, you!" It was the policeman, ruder than they were supposed to be nowadays.
John limped back at the summons of a crooked finger. "I had nothing to do with this," he said coldly.
"Nobody said you did," the cop replied, making it a slightly threatening rebuke. "Let's have your license, please, sir." This was more polite, to be sure, but John had never heard of such a demand to passersby.
He reached for his wallet before remembering it was at home. He had left the house intending to go no farther than the curb in front of his house.
"I don't have it with me. I wasn't driving a car."
"You were a passenger in a vehicle being driven by a person with a learner's permit only." The officer was if anything younger than John, with the rosy cheeks of a boy, but his stubborn policeman's sense of representing the exclusive truth had been fixed in place with his shield.
"No, he wasn't," Richie said from behind John, appearing from thin air. "This man was not in that car. I was."
"You were a passenger in the car?" The young cop's voice was professionally noncommittal.
Richie stepped around John. He was no longer wearing the billed cap, and his hair was wet, the curls combed flat and looking almost black. Just that little alteration changed his appearance considerably, so that John might not have recognized him for a moment had he not heard the voice.
"Passenger?" Richie asked incredulously. "I was driving. The young lady was the passenger."
"Not according to this young lady," the cop said stubbornly, his chin stiffening.
Richie had produced a wallet from his back pocket, and now he plucked from it what looked like a driver's license. "Officer, my fiancée is one in a million, but I'm not going to let her take the rap for me." He handed the license over. "Truth is, I dropped a lighted cigarette on the floor. When I reached down to get it, I lost control of the car."
"Lady says," the solemn policeman insisted, "something happened to the steering and she —"
"Sir," said Richie, "excuse me for interrupting, but just ask her again." He turned to the woman. "Honey, you just tell him the truth."
The redhead shrugged and said, "Okay. Yeah, it's like he says."
"He was driving?"
The policeman nodded heavily, reluctantly, annoyed at having first been lied to. He took a slight revenge on Richie by asking him to come to the patrol car and wait while a radio check was run on the driver's license. And added, peering at the document, "You oughta complain to the DMV: they took a lousy picture."
When they were out of earshot, the young woman discreetly asked John, "What's he up to?"
"Richie?" John asked disdainfully. "How do I know?"
"He's your friend."
"Not on your life! He was only giving me a ride — it's a long story."
"I realize he's doing me a favor..."
"Don't ask me," said John. "All I can say is you better go over there with them. You ought to know what he's saying."
"Okay," she said with fervor. "Only, listen: will you come along?"
"Me? I really am just a bystander." He looked down on her for having offered in effect to go to bed with him, not to mention that none of this affair was even remotely his business, but when she said "Come on" and seized the crook of his elbow and tugged, and added, "You're the only one I can trust," he let himself be drawn further into a situation he was apprehensive of but certainly did not yet recognize as a growing calamity. He had never been able to reject the plea of an importunate woman.
The cop sat in the police car, holding the microphone in one hand and Richie's license in the other.
John started to ask the latter a question, but Richie rolled his eyes significantly and turned away.
Posted January 22, 2010
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